NEWS

To combat graft, less complicated, more transparent procedures needed, and simpler legislation

For years, every report from inspectorates and the Ombudsman has presented the same picture of widespread corruption in the public sector. Why has this problem not been dealt with? Is it a lack of political will power or is it because in Greece we let sleeping dogs lie? Corruption has always existed and, unfortunately, it always will. It is impossible to defeat it outright. Depending on the political, economic and social environment in which it develops, it takes on different forms, which vary in quantity and quality, from unethical and inappropriate behavior to criminal offenses. What all types of corruption have in common is the abuse of a public office or role for private benefit at the expense of the public interest. Governments possess the political will power to combat corruption and they take steps, though none of them has proved capable of rooting out corruption on its own. But they do get significant results. Every day, attempts are made to simplify procedures so as to relieve the symptoms, and that is encouraging. For example, the citizens’ information and service centers (KEP) are a successful institution because they relieve the public of the need to make pointless trips and they do not bring them into contact with the clerk who is handling their case, so there can be no hint of illegal exchanges. What would you advise the government to do to stamp out corruption? How can it move from will power to action? I would advise it to codify legislation, simplify procedures, and be careful to choose staff who are not only technically skilled but also ethical. All preventive measures must aim at upgrading the quality of services provided and the transparency of action by state bodies. Most cases arise from non-transparent, complex procedures. Governments should not forget that apart from the undoubted political cost, corruption also entails social cost, because it conflicts with equality before the law and meritocracy, and a financial cost, which is shouldered by law-abiding citizens. It should also teach the public that public administration is their servant. And that they only have rights and no obligations toward it, other than those stipulated by the law. What is the loophole though which corruption enters public and political life and how can it be closed? If I knew the answer, I’d have been nominated for a Nobel Prize. Corruption is an international phenomenon. Of course, it is fed and reproduced by bad administration and also by the the state machinery’s non-transparent procedures. At the international level, corruption exploits the difficulty of harmonizing state mechanisms for preventing and suppressing it, and it often takes on an international dimension when linked to organized crime. One of your responsibilities is to evaluate the work of all the monitoring mechanisms, including the internal affairs services of the police force and the port police. How would you grade monitoring mechanisms in terms of their effectiveness and speed at issuing reports? Which would grade as excellent? In general, all of them do their work well. But I would give a high grade to the inspectors in the Transport and Communications Ministry and in the Health and Welfare Ministry; and the public administration inspectors aren’t far behind. They are a little slow, but they have drawn up some amazing reports. For example, the one on places covered by hygiene regulations. I asked them to check establishments in Plaka and Psyrri and they found out some extraordinary things. There is an establishment that has been operating illegally since 2001. It has been closed 40 times by the Athens Municipality – we have to admit their services work very well – yet it is still open. They take the owner to the court, he pays a fine and goes free. It seems there are loopholes in the legislation that favor illegality. But inspectors have not escaped the virus of corruption. Some of their property declarations reveal them to have unjustifiably large bank accounts, live in luxurious villas and drive expensive cars. Have we put wolves to guard sheep? Let’s not condemn them all out of hand. Out of a total of around 1,500 inspectors, there are a few dozen declarations of significant amounts of property that have been separated from the rest. But no incriminating evidence has been found. True, we don’t have comparative statistics, as these are the first declarations of this type. Public works, suspect contracts, non-transparent procedures: the three faces of corruption. How does this ravenous system operate? The weakness of the public works system lies in its implementation. The studies are incomplete and illegalities during the execution of the contract harm the public sector, so the project is not completed by the specified deadline and at the agreed price. Public projects involve major interests that are not saintly by nature. The Ombudsman’s report by Giorgos Kaminis argued that establishing a series of specialized mechanisms for monitoring public administration, such as inspectors for health, the environment and prisons, does not help solve problems; instead the overlapping responsibilities add to confusion and are not productive. He said: «We are piling up monitoring mechanisms without producing work. I haven’t seen any work.» What is your response? The Ombudsman’s view is mistaken in this case. All the mechanisms produce work. They have to exist because they specialize in specific services. The existence of the general inspector is essential, because otherwise the inspectors would not be inspected. From their position of power, they could become petty tyrants or neglect their duties, leaving public administration wide open to abuse.