NEWS

Where’s there’s a queue there’s a bribe — graft due to maladministration

What is the chronic malfunctioning of public administration due to? Four huge issues are responsible for the chronically ailing Greek state services. The first is staffing policy, which was based on criteria that had nothing to do with merit, and everything to do with patronage. This led to state services being manned by people without the necessary skills to be able to respond to modern demands. The second issue is the wholly unequal distribution of personnel. While some ministries are overmanned, other regional services are understaffed. Thirdly, legislation is often obscure and fragmented, resulting in overlapping and opaque laws. And unclear laws create the conditions for arbitrary interpretations of legal provisions, with all their potential for corruption. Finally, a faulty logic governs sanctions; if somebody insists on imposing penalties, he faces the accusation of being anti-democratic that harks back to other epochs. Invoking democracy so that the laws in force are not applied has created a peculiarly lax state of affairs, even inertia, in supervisory mechanisms, which is particularly visible in local administration. And all of this gives us bad governance and long queues. Corruption is by general agreement the tumor in the body politic. Who or what is to blame? The Citizen’s Advocate does not have direct knowledge of corruption, because nobody is going to come in to denounce an illegal transaction with a state employee. But we have plenty of indirect evidence which allows us to to form a clear picture of the extent of graft. Wherever it takes a long time to process applications, wherever there is a long line of people waiting to be served, then the conditions are formed which allow citizens to seek to speed up their suit by entering into an illegal transaction with the state employee in question. To put it in a nutshell, where’s there’s a queue, there’s a potential for a bribe. Where is corruption concentrated? Local administration and prefectures at a ratio of two to one; planning departments, tax offices and social security funds over issuing pensions. What do you think of the debate in Parliament on corruption? Unfortunately, I didn’t hear the prime minister’s and party leaders’ speeches. In any case, the issue cannot be dealt with by debates. Qualitative changes cannot be made from one day to the next. It is positive and a matter for satisfaction that public maladministration and corruption have climbed to a relatively high place on society’s agenda. In my opinion, society has matured and has become aware of corruption, it thinks about it and more generally, seeks a solution. Are people aware of their rights and how to exercise them? The majority of citizens do not possess sufficient, in-depth knowledge of their rights. But Greeks are becoming all the more familiar with their rights and are trying to wield them. We constantly have to raise the threshold. The opaqueness and obscurity of regulations has an adverse effect on citizens. People cannot understand legislation very easily when it’s exceptionally complicated, has not been codified, is obscure and thus inaccessible. Do Greek citizens go to court at the drop of a hat? Yes, to a considerable degree. The problems in the functioning of state administration have created mutual distrust between State and citizen. The citizen doesn’t trust the State, nor the State the citizen. Legislation, instead of being based on the starting principle that the citizen is innocent until evidence is provided to the contrary, often starts from the position that the citizen is guilty and it is up to him to show that he has not contravened the law. This is unacceptable and creates relations of mutual suspicion and conflict. Indicatively, 40 percent of all cases that come to us at the Citizen’s Advocate are baseless, which means administrative personnel have acted within the law. Yet the citizen comes to us convinced that the state service has broken the law. What problems do you believe you will face as European Ombudsman? The European Ombudsman is responsible for investigating violations of European law by European institutions and not by member states. About 77 percent of the complaints are made against the Commission. So that is the biggest target. The overwhelming majority [of complaints] have to do with the sense that answers to requests have been delayed. I also expect to find a need to better inform European citizens of their rights, which they are not familiar with. And that’s even truer of the new countries due to enter the EU. Moreover, I will fight for the adoption by the Union of two charters: the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the code of good administrative behavior. What are the problems common to European countries? In all countries, even in England and the Scandinavian countries, where state services are regarded as excellent, there are protests about state practices which aim at discrimination in, for example, health, religion or according to racial origin. Police conduct is always a concern. In the Netherlands and in England, for example, a large proportion of complaints to ombudsmen are about police behavior and the treatment of people in custody.