Reshuffling the 2004 team – again

It was a long time coming, this past week’s reshuffling of Costas Simitis’s Cabinet, and when the dust settled the new and old figures left standing seemed destined to kick up a little dust of their own. Out went an unwieldy political structure that left it somewhat unclear, in terms of Olympic Games preparation, who was in charge of what, apart from the minister in charge, Culture Minister Venizelos, and his boss the prime minister; and in came – well, a political structure that leaves it unclear who is in charge of what, apart from the minister in charge and his boss. Now that’s progress, if only we could see it. Of course, such complicated subjects as Olympics governance deserve reflection, not instant judgments; and something clearly had to be done. This move was undoubtedly facilitated by some severe public and private pressure, especially from the International Olympics Committee (IOC), for the government to light a fire under its own Olympics preparations schedule. Lack of progress toward 2004 has been a valid microcosm for the sense of stasis that was widely attributed to the government during the six months preceding the recent party congress. What emerges here, at the simplest level, is that the Olympics are becoming much more highly prioritized – and politicized – than before, and a lot more people will be directly involved and responsible for what will be happening over the next three years. Some seven deputy ministers (in the ministries of Defense, Development, Education, Health, Culture, Public Order and Press) along with a major Cabinet-member (Venizelos) will be dealing directly with the Olympics; that’s eight of 48, or one in six, or 17 percent of the entire Cabinet, for a sports festival. Well, it’s a big sports festival. And we’ll soon see whether it will be a better-organized one, but so far the jury remains out. Not tinkering, nor overhauling For all the commentary that the reshuffle has generated, the changes are substantive but not exactly revolutionary, involving more than tinkering but less than a radical overhaul; and they represent a quiet but firm response to critics, in which actions spoke louder than words – in fact, it has Mr. Simitis’s phlegmatic, rationalist stamp all over it, at least in terms of intent. More broadly, it demonstrates yet again just how much the 2004 Olympics are bound up in the political process at the national level, involving the government directly and from the top, even though this same government otherwise remains committed to reducing the State’s role in the economy and in people’s lives. The Olympic Games may be quintessentially Greek, but in terms of planning for 2004, they are going against the political grain. Much actually remains as it was before, in terms of overall direction. The prime minister retains personal responsibility for what goes on, and still liaises directly with the head of the organizing committee (ATHOC), Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki. His culture minister is still the go-to man for the Games in the Cabinet. The interministerial committee responsible for overall Games direction remains unchanged, both in membership and in remit, and Simitis still chairs it. Calls for a separate Olympics Ministry have been effectively rebuffed, for better or worse. What has mainly changed is the addition of more and new second-tier people at deputy minister level who are responsible for cross-coordination and for dealing with all the endless detail. And among this group are more key people per ministry, such as Eleni Kourkoula at Education, Nassos Alevras at Culture, and Telemachos Hytiris at Press and Mass Media who is responsible for communications. The idea is partly to get more people involved in the process, and to get more deputy ministers involved so that their ministry bosses will be free to deal with other, presumably more important issues. But the problem begins with a political version of that old proverb about too many cooks in the kitchen spoiling the broth. It is far from clear whether a situation in which more politicians are vying for attention, for little successes and kudos, for future promotions to ministerial jobs, will be willing and unselfish cogs in the Olympics wheel, charged with cooperating in and coordinating a much bigger enterprise. Turf battles seem almost inevitable. Other questions loom as well. Will these deputies be able to make decisions for their ministries concerning the Olympics over the heads of their bosses who are not directly involved? What will be their responsibility (if any) to Culture Minister Venizelos, the main Cabinet member dealing with the Games? How can these deputy ministers be expected to act when they do not attend the meetings of the interministerial committee at which decisions for the Games are taken? Which of these figures will ATHOC deal with, and when? When, not if, conflicts of interest break out, will the prime minister be cracking the whip, or let them battle it out? Even if he does crack the whip, how will the others respond? After all, such turf battles may be an inevitable consequence of the new setup. They could simply say they were only doing their jobs. More work, not less In putting this arrangement in place, the prime minister probably believed he was saving both himself and his top ministers from having to deal with the Olympics on a wearying daily basis. But he may actually have increased his own role as chief policy coordinator, decision-maker and javelin-catcher for the Games. If there are coordination problems, the deputy ministers won’t be shouldering the brunt of the blame. The ball was already in the government’s court as it was, as security and venue construction – both directly and essentially State responsibilities – remain the overriding, crucial concerns for the foreseeable future. (We can’t really foresee the future, but that’s another story.) Will all these musical chairs in the Cabinet actually make any difference in terms of the essence of the problem, increasing both the speed and the quality of the preparations? For that is the only real consideration now, however fascinating the process of shifting personalities around in public jobs might be to some news junkies. There is no reason for knee-jerk cynicism about it; when people change jobs, they often enjoy a burst of energy and enthusiasm and originality they couldn’t imagine they had before. Change can be a great motivator and stimulant. Perhaps that will be the case here, and a new spirit of cooperation will somehow emanate from this new setup. And maybe there is some overriding notion about how it will all work in practice. Alternatively, if it just represents a defensive reaction to the IOC’s and ATHOC’s frequent, and justified, criticism that things are moving too slowly, a solution to one set of problems may itself prove to be the generator of still other problems. The only real way to know whether this reshuffling will get all the construction done faster is to see some of these new deputy ministers don hard hats and get out there to lay bricks themselves. Now, that would be quite a sight.

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