On August 20, 2018, Greece exited the narrow framework of the memorandums. At the same time, it entered into a transitional phase of relative political freedom of movement. By making the most of the degree of freedom it has acquired, the country must prove to its creditors, and the financial markets (which it recently tapped successfully), that it can be self-governed in such a way that its sovereignty cannot be questioned again. There are two fronts on which these stakes are already being judged: the fiscal course and the transformation of public administration.
As far as the first front is concerned, all stakeholders fully understand that it is a critical test. The redistribution of resources in favor of those most affected during the nine-year period of harsh austerity (2010-18), which constitutes the actual “exit from the memorandums of understanding,” is absolutely necessary. However, it is equally important to hold a public debate on how this redistribution will be implemented in the context of safeguarding the budgetary achievements of the period 2016-18.
It has become quite clear that, in order not to face the specter of bankruptcy ever again, there should be no repetition of fiscal policy errors similar to those that led us to the regrettable state of affairs in 2010.
On the second front, nevertheless, that of public administration, in the widest possible sense of the term, the situation is more complicated. The current government has certainly taken a number of initiatives in the right direction. However, due to the accumulation of chronic weaknesses, they have not succeeded in changing the perception of public opinion, which is that public services and public enterprises remain more or less as they were before 2015, save for a few exceptions.
The main reason for this is that the government, out of necessity, was forced to expend too much energy on the complex and extremely painful negotiations with the country’s creditors throughout the period from January 2015 until the expiry of the third program last summer. The continuous – and multilevel – negotiations made it impossible to channel most of its energy – and political capital – toward carrying out the absolutely necessary reforms and cuts in the public administration.
Pressure from creditors
The current opposition during the period 2010-14 chose to promote measures that led to the demolition of the public sector, in order to ensure the budgetary outcomes required by the creditors. The social majority, however, resisted the minimization of everything public (and thus the “common property of citizens”) and the dismissal of a large number of civil servants, under the guise of their evaluation.
Even today, the main opposition does not have a clear vision for change in the public sector and insists on the theories of taking government functions from the public sector and ceding them to the private sector, despite the failures recorded by this practice in many countries.
Today, the vast majority who supported the protests against the leveling of the public sector are now demanding practical political responses to how it can be done differently. How can the state’s relationship with the citizen, which remains one of bureaucratic power in the overwhelming majority of cases, change radically?
How can public administration be transformed from the introverted system that it is today into an extrovert institution by serving the needs of the citizen as its existential element? How can the state be more effective than the private sector toward the citizens (as it should be)?
The answer to this increasingly pressing political question, which now takes on historical dimensions, should be provided at the level of applied policy, and not just at the level of denunciation of “demolishing” neoliberalism.
The answer should be reflected in the implementation of a sufficient number of reforms and legislative initiatives in the public administration and public bodies toward enhancing effectiveness, promoting credibility and, above all, toward a change of culture regarding the role of the public sector.
Without the implementation of these reforms, the technological and administrative infrastructure of the Greek state will be degraded to such an extent that the country not only fails to attract investments but also risks further disinvestment, which entails the danger of the return of a memorandum-type surveillance.
Moreover, if reforms are not implemented in a way that gives citizens a clear signal that the transformation of the public sector is aimed at best serving their needs, then the risk of populist neofascist ideological domination on this issue is looming.
Obviously, in order to achieve a radical transformation in this direction, the conflict with the entrenched establishment, the upper hierarchy of public administration and public institutions in general cannot be avoided. It is necessary to “demolish” administrative structures that favor arbitrariness and corruption, to abolish services that do not function for the benefit of citizens and to create new ones from scratch.
Apart from the – absolutely necessary – demolition, there is a need for a concrete positive strategy for the functioning of the state. In order to achieve in a short time (as is urgently required) what has not been done for decades, above all, a strong political will and commitment to specific qualitative and measurable goals are required.
Certainly, at this point, many readers will think about the political cost. However, in this area, the reality is the opposite of what is usually presented. Inaction rather than bold political initiatives will bear political cost in this case. The administrative elites that have served the clientelist and introverted state in a profitable way for themselves and the old system of power too have now been delegitimized in the conscience of the majority of civil servants. Especially for younger employees, this delegitimization degradation is universal.
In the wider area of public administration and organizations under public control, there is a significant portion of employees who have understood where we stand and the risks that threaten everything public and they are ready to support the radical transformation of services and organizations where they work.In order to create the appropriate environment so that this important portion of civil servants is persuaded to implement the radical transformation, political will and courage are required. If the above elements exist, then the momentum in the public sector will be very strong and the results will be visible very soon. The historical responsibility is enormous. Hic Rhodus, hic salta.
Manos Manousakis is chairman and chief executive officer of the Independent Power Transmission Operator (ADMIE).