Sunday, August 18

Get the economy moving? Arrest the gangsters? No, lets fire the director of the National Theatre!

 

The BBC TV series "Yes Minister" seems to have been very popular in this country too. Now is a good time to ask how many Czech viewers understood the underlying truth about the British civil service which is the source of the rich comedy of the TV series.

The truth is that the Minister is not the all powerful boss. In Britain, civil servants are not appointed by Parliament, but by "the Crown". The phrase "the Crown" refers to the fact that we are a Kingdom, and not a Republic, however it is not necessary to be a Kingdom for civil servants to be protected from direct interference by politicians. In France the selection process of top civil servants begins with enrolment to an elite university. In both the UK and France a top civil servant can expect a high level of job security. There is a good reason why this should be so. Politicians come and go but the machinery of the State must continue to function. In "Yes Minister", you see Civil Servants with 20 years of experience in a particular ministry trying to find diplomatic ways to explain to the Minister of (for example) Transport, who has been in the job six months, that his idea was tried five years ago and was a total failure.

In the last few weeks we have seen that the situation in the Czech Republic is completely different. A new government was installed; it was not voted by the electorate, and as we saw last week, it did not even survive in Parliament. Yet in the few short weeks in which it held power, politicians in this government removed close to 100 top civil servants and managers of state owned companies.

Most Czechs do not seem to find this particularly surprising. They have grown up in a system where politicians remove civil servants quite regularly. Nobody gets to find out the grounds for these dismissals, and the victims do not appear to have any way of appealing their dismissal.

But most of you reading this would be outraged if you thought this could happen to you: a new government comes to power, and the next day you are fired, without any explanation, and with no grounds for appeal. It is surprising that this can happen and be lawful. However I am assured by a senior manager in a State company that it is lawful. Currently if you work in a senior role for a state owned company you are appointed by the supervisory board, who can also sack you whenever they wish to. And of course the supervisory board is full of politicians, or people connected to politicians.

The Czech Republic is the only one of 28 EU countries which does not have an adequate law governing the operation of the civil service. The European Union has become so exasperated with this country that it has told it that if such a law is not in place by the end of the year, access to EU funds will be cut off. The new law is currently awaiting approval in the Senate (although I I have no idea how adequate it is to address the problems). The cynical person might suppose that this is one reason why the Rusnok government indulged in a "Kristalnacht" of firings. In a few months time, such firings, will, one hopes, not be so easy to carry out.

It is also worth considering why politicians fire civil servants and heads of state companies so regularly. The citizen might expect the new government to be concerned with a plan to get the country out of recession, and get people back to work, and create a long term vision for the country's competitiveness and social harmony. The citizen might not have expected that it would be a government priority to change the director of the National Theatre. What is so important about such a position that it requires action to be taken before the government has received confirmation?

The system has been in place since the fall of Communism, so inevitably people assume that it is normal. But you can apply a personal test, to see how wrong the system is: Would you accept a position in a State-owned company under this system? I can guess your answer, so it means that the State cannot compete with the private sector for the best people. That is why established EU countries have systems which safeguard the civil service against overt political interference and intimidation.

But this Rusnok government has taken the problem to extreme limits. Hospodarske noviny is counting: 102 senior, experienced people have lost their jobs in this way, thanks to the actions of politicians who have no mandate from the people, and now seem unlikely to win a mandate in parliament. What happens then? Shouldn't these 102 people get their jobs back?

Now you may have a feeling that some of these people deserve to be removed. I don't know many people who are ready to defend Petr Zaluda's record at Cesky drahy for example, especially on his reported salary. But that is the problem. It is only a feeling you have. Nobody knows the grounds, the evidence for concluding that Zaluda deserves to be kicked out of his job at a moment's notice. Such treatment in a private company would be reserved for those who have committed serious wrong-doing. Even then, this wrong-doing would be documented and made clear to the employee. In a State company, this documentation should be made available to all of us, because we are all shareholders. Similarly, where was the tender for his replacement? Did you have a chance to apply? No because the new appointee took over on the same day. None of us know the basis on which this person was selected, beyond the fact that he has done the job before, in the late 90's. I am not aware that this time was considered to be the golden age of Czech Railways...

This matters. In a healthy European democracy, talented young people choose a career in the service of the State. No such talented people here would do so, after witnessing what has gone on in the last four weeks. Senior state officials and managers who work for State companies deserve what you expect for yourselves: A clear fair process for hiring; a clear statement of what performance is expected in the job; a fair evaluation process, and clear fair laws and rules regarding dismissal. Members of supervisory boards should be selected on the basis of professional merit. Politicians should be totally removed from all these processes. Until this is the situation, I am afraid the Czech Republic cannot claim to be a modern European democracy.

 

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