When politics invaded the civil service

Every so often experts talk about the systemic nature of the crisis in the Greek civil service, offering different opinions as to why the state mechanism is in such a shambles and cannot contribute in any positive way to the country?s economy and growth. One thing that they all agree on, however, is that the public administration?s decline began in the early 1980s, when Greece?s political parties began seeing it as a mechanism through which to garner votes and favors, and in the process sidelining capable technocrats from high offices who had been appointed through the customary practices of hierarchy and meritocracy.

The real blow that broke the Greek civil service?s backbone was a law passed in 1982 known as the Koutsogiorgas law, named after Menios Koutsogiorgas, a close aide to then-Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou. As many older Greeks will remember, the day after Koutsogiorgas?s appointment as minister to the presidency of the government, PASOK party associates gathered in droves outside his office in a bid to secure a position in the civil service. The reason for this was because Law 1232 abolished general directors from the public administration and allowed the appointment of advisers and associates to the offices of ministers, deputy ministers and general secretaries, effectively politicizing the civil service and putting it at the mercy of party politics and personal ambition. Management was stripped of neutrality and continuity, and the people whose job it was to serve the state lost that status.

The appointment of armies of advisers to the offices of ministers and special secretaries — known as the ?migratory birds? of the public administration because they came and went depending on which minister or government was in power, according to one high-ranking official of the Ministry of Administrative Reform who wished to remain unnamed — undermined the hierarchy in the state structure and rendered the state incapable of forming or implementing policy.

According to a former official who also asked to remain unnamed, ?the abolition of the rank of 175 general directors who had been appointed by the Cabinet, the appointment of special secretaries and the arrival of a plethora of non-tenured employees and other pharisees politicized the administration and brought it to a standstill.?

Political interventions in the workings of the state and the appointment of employees resulted on the one hand in many substandard appointments and on the other in the paralysis of the state mechanism.

Through the 1980s and the following decades, the number of new positions in the Greek public sector numbered more than 150,000. And the irony of it is that Greece?s creditors are now demanding that this exact number be cut from the state?s payroll by 2015.

Law 1232 distorted the Greek public administration to such an extent that today it resembles a Kafkaesque nightmare, especially as it came in combination with another travesty, which was the abolition of staff evaluations by specially appointed committees that included judges. All promotions were frozen from 1982 to 1986, the composition of department committees was changed, and from 1986 onward, evaluations were replaced by Law 1586/86, which introduced a point system.

The selection of department chiefs became dependent on political criteria and every time there was a change in government, one of the first draft laws the new administration would submit to Parliament was for the old directors and department heads to be removed so they could make way for party cadres and their friends and family. Many valuable administrators without party affiliations have fallen through the cracks due to this practice.

Driving another nail into the coffin, Koutsogiorgas came up with a new law in 1984 that was ostensibly intended to fill the gaps created by the abolition of general directors, establishing instead the institution of the special secretary, a position that was and is a political appointment. What this achieved was the creation of a strong political hierarchy consisting of the minister at the top, followed in the higher echelons by the alternate minister, the deputy minister, the general secretary and the special secretary, and then by the directors and department chiefs. Each political official would construct a mechanism to serve his or her own purposes, which usually ignored the rules of hierarchy and often elbowed experienced and capable people out of decision-making positions.

The position of general director was reinstated in the early 1990s by the New Democracy government of Constantine Mitsotakis and was later abolished again. Many different plans and schemes have been tried since then, but so far no one has succeeded in building a hierarchy based on meritocracy, as it should be.

Absence of assessment led to corruption

When Andreas Papandreou became Greece?s prime minister in 1981, he appointed a close political ally and one of the founding members of the socialist PASOK party, Menios Koutsogiorgas, who was elected MP for the region of Achaia and had served as Georgios Papandreou?s lawyer in the 1950s, to the key position of minister of the presidency of the government.

Koutsogiorgas held this post for four years, until 1984, and his main mission was supposed to be tidying up the public administration. From day one of his appointment he constructed a ?supervision? mechanism for state employees, throwing out managers and directors, placing most of them in mostly ceremonial positions, and reassigning employees who worked in key posts (such as in the finance or parliamentary control committees) and who were not politically affiliated to the governing party.

From the top down, Koutsogiorgas appointed PASOK?s ?boys? to key and menial positions. Employees who were out of favor with the party, many of whom were proven excellent technocrats, were moved to positions where their roles were more decorative than active. They did nothing. They did not conduct any studies or exercise any kind of control or have any supervisory capacity. At the time the argument was that the government would be prevented from making progress in crucial areas of the state if the ?right-wingers? were allowed to remain in key posts. Their demotion, therefore, was the best way to get them out of the way.

Greece?s public administration was thrown into a vicious cycle whose political character became even more acute when employee groups started to be represented by party-affiliated unions. Everyone knew who everyone else voted for. ?Political interventions? reached a peak in the mid-1980s, to the degree that they even got in the way of ministers? work, with the latter unable to do anything without first getting the blessing of the party.

On the other hand, the complete absence of a supervisory mechanism and professional standards created a breeding ground for corruption. Up until 1982, there were few instances of palm greasing because general directors could and would exercise oversight. From 1982 onward, however, the rules flew out the window and the civil service was whipped into a spiral of corruption.

Among the first things that Koutsogiorgas did when he was appointed was abolish all of the higher echelons of the civil service, introducing in their stead a new, and highly destructive, philosophy with Law 1232, which reduced the hierarchy by putting the obligations of general directors into the hands of ministers, who then passed them on to their general secretaries, advisers and associates, who comprised close associates of the ministries. What this in effect led to was a large body of transferable employees who worked in the offices of ministers and deputy ministers and were allowed to play a significant role in the creation and implementation of policy.

Law 1586/86 came next and scrapped the evaluation system, replacing it with a point system, as well as the promotion system, which was based only on seniority and not on performance.

In 1990, with Law 1982/90, New Democracy reinstated the institution of general directors with a three-year mandate, without, however, touching the evaluation system. In 1994, PASOK, changing its stance from 1981, retained ND?s law regarding general directors, who, however, would no longer be promoted to the post but would be simply assigned there. Basically, general director was no longer a rank, but a mere position.

The point system remains to this day with four rankings (A, B, C and D) and free upward mobility for employees without performance evaluations. A special committee is responsible for choosing general directors and comprises the president of the Court of Audit, a member of the Council of State, a Supreme Court judge, the head of the state?s legal council, a university professor of administrative law, a professor of administrative sciences and the head of the public servants? union, ADEDY.

Job comes second to party

Vassilis Andronopoulos, who served as director of the Ministry of the Presidency in the early 1980s and was one of the many victims of the new philosophy that prevailed in the civil service, told Kathimerini that ?it became apparent from the start that Menios Koutsogiorgas?s actions were not designed to retain the most capable officials and to remove the laggards, but to get rid of all those who were not party cadres.?

Andronopoulos was pushed to the sidelines from the get-go and spent about a year ostensibly conducting studies for the civil service. In April 1983 he was reinstated by Koutsogiorgas in order to return some order to the internal operations of the public administration?s directorates, which had been reduced to a shambles.

Within one year, according to Andronopoulos, ?175 high-ranking employees were removed under Law 1232 and their responsibilities were shared between 500 ?advisers? belonging to PASOK.?

The politician remembers that even Koutsogiorgas fell victim to party interventions. ?He had a meeting with two department chiefs and asked them what was going on and why there was so little discipline and cohesion in his ministry. He asked them for examples of the problems that they faced. The answer he received from one of them was: ?I have a clerk who clocks in at noon or even one o?clock and until he comes into work I have no one to man the desk. When I asked him why he was so often late for work, he told me not to bother him because he was busy in the mornings running errands for the party. I summoned him to an inquiry, but a party cadre intervened and forced me to retract the summons, even though that is forbidden by the employee code.??

Andronopoulos recalls that the other department chief who was present at the meeting told Koutsogiorgas that he had 12 people on his staff who had been hired on short-term contracts and were later given permanent status. After that happened, they simply stopped turning up for their regular jobs, saying that they would be working for the party instead. ?When he told them that was not possible and they would have to start punching in on time, another leading party official stepped in and told the department chief to leave them alone, because they were ?his people,?? said Andronopoulos.

Costas Argyrou, an entry-level employee at the time, remembers the days when party politics took over the administration of the civil service very clearly, and especially that within a few months in 1982 some 12,000 were reassigned to higher posts. Two years later, PASOK had either transferred or reassigned 30 percent of the civil service?s entire staff.

?When I was first assigned to a ministry it was forbidden for junior staff to use the elevator. We wouldn?t even think of turning up to work without a suit and tie. Before the changes, we were scared of reporting to the department chief unless the issue was very serious. We had respect for the job,? said Argyrou.

?After 1982, the administration was taken over. The best advisers of the political leadership were senior civil servants who were experts in the particular problems of their departments and knew a lot about the problems in the overall administration as well as what needed to be done. Unfortunately, though, they were brushed aside because ministers had to appoint party supporters and friends, and grant them salaries and benefits sometimes double those of their predecessors. The great pillaging of the civil service began in 1987 when Greece started receiving aid and subsidies from Europe.?

A bold idea that never materialized

Academic Antonis Makrydimitris came up with a bold idea for public sector reform that was not, however, adopted by the New Democracy government under Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis from 2004-09.

His idea was for the positions of general secretaries and deputies at certain ministries (Public Administration, Foreign Affairs, Finance and Defense) to be given to high-ranking civil servants who would serve as general directors.

His proposal was designed along the same lines as the British administrative model and could have contributed toward a more cohesive public administration with greater continuity, and also giving the civil service a great deal of freedom from party politics.

Regaining credibility

?Only with steady terms in office, along the same lines as the presidencies of independent authorities and with a system of hierarchy firmly in place, can the administration regain its credibility,? Makrydimitris told Kathimerini.

?It is necessary to have a permanent deputy minister for each office — Article 81 of the Constitution foresees this — especially now, as the political administration is entering a state of flux. The public administration needs to be safeguarded from the vagaries of each government. In order to acquire civil servants with different mind-sets, we need permanent technocrats holding the reins, who will be selected by Parliament?s Institution and Transparency Committee for a stint of at least five or six years. This would compose a ?government of technocrats under a government of politicians? that would make the state more efficient,? he added.