Parties take breather to mull final civil service reform package

Illustrative photo: European Commission

Czech MPs have taken two weeks to finalize a civil service act, following a breakthrough compromise on the legislation reached by the coalition and opposition parties earlier this week. However, the latest deal has already drawn fire from some quarters for not going far enough to de-politicize the state bureaucracy

Illustrative photo: European Commission
The idea is to make civil service reforms a consensus-based multi-party affair, with the opposition TOP 09 and Civic Democrats brought in to negotiate a future bill alongside the governing coalition of the Social Democrats, ANO and Christian Democrats. The Czech Republic remains the only EU country to have not undertaken reforms of its civil service. In formally appointing the new government back in January, Czech president Miloš Zeman symbolically said his backing of the coalition was contingent on such reforms - on the cards for more than a decade - finally taking place.

But in recent days, the coalition has given in to demands from TOP 09 and the Civic Democrats to reign in a proposed independent civil service directorate, instead placing the body within the purview of the interior ministry. This prompted Social Democrat Minister and Senator Jiří Dientsbier to pull out of the current talks, with unions also slamming what they see as a watering down of the proposed reforms. I asked commentator Erik Best for his take on the current compromise.

“As I see it there are two issues: one is the way the bill is set up, meaning the way the state administration is to be run on paper. And from that standpoint I do think there is a bit of a weakness in the new compromise version.

Jiří Dienstbier,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“From another standpoint, however, the real question is about the independence of a Czech public body. That is really what we are talking about here, to what degree will the civil service be independent of politicians and political parties. And I think in this case, the politicians are now happier that there will be a bit less independence for the state administration.

“But in practice, in the Czech Republic, even the entities that are on paper independent are in reality still very much under the influence of politicians. So, that said, there really is a question whether the new version is that different from the old one in terms of actual reforms.”

Ultimately, civil service reform is not merely meant to bring about de-politicization, but also a direct reduction in corruption. Ministries run like fiefdoms with public money awarded in shady ways to friends, relatives and those who grease the wheels, should theoretically become a thing of the past. According to European Public Affairs, an online journal, public procurement corruption costs the Czech Republic as much as 4 billion euros annually. But will the reforms be cosmetic or genuine? Erik Best again:

Erik Best,  photo: Petra Čechová
“I think there is going to be a better perception of the civil service and of it being a bit more separate from the parties and the political system. But I suspect that over a fairly short period of time it will become clear to at least to the people paying the most attention that not a great deal has changed.

“When you look at some of the other institutions, for example the data protection office or the anti-trust office, or even the constitutional court, on paper these entities are very independent. But in reality, they seem to be making their decisions in ways that serve the political structure. So the independence looks good in a sense, but I think there are still many questions as to whether they are actually doing so.”