The rise and fall of Greece’s civil service

In the early 1950s, Greece was still in the throes of the terrible effects of the German occupation and subsequent civil war and only survived thanks to American aid. As US officials were putting pressure on the local politicians to draw up economic reconstruction plans, then Prime Minister Nikolaos Plastiras commissioned Professor Kyriakos Varvaressos to draw up a program for economic growth. When, in early 1952, the professor handed in his proposal for measures and policies aimed at reconstructing the country’s economy, he is said to have told the prime minister, «To achieve all this, you first have to have an administration.» Professor Varvaressos’s recommendation was heeded by the politicians of the time. In the post-war environment of political persecution and authoritarianism, leaders realized that the new state would not have a chance if it did not set up an effective civil service. A good beginning So that is what they did, on the basis of principles, structure and hierarchy, they set up a system staffed by people who had specific duties, and despite the prevailing climate, relative autonomy. During the rule of Constantine Karamanlis in the 1950s, department heads and directors were promoted by a meritocratic evaluation process. General directors were appointed by the Cabinet, on the basis of proposals from the relevant ministers, and retained their posts until they retired. These were people with a reputation and qualifications and were not necessarily of the same political persuasion as that of the government. Every civil servant dreamt of moving up in the hierarchy, which meant social recognition, better pay and a first-class bed in the hospital, if and when needed, an important draw in those poverty-stricken days. In fact, the impoverished, politically authoritarian Greek State of the 1950s and 1960s had an organized, efficient administrative mechanism that enjoyed a large degree of autonomy. Services such as the State Auditing Bureau, the Social Security Foundation (IKA), the Bank of Greece, the Public Works Ministry, the Welfare, Education and Agriculture ministries, were all staffed by worthy and capable people who put their mark on the country’s development. There is no lack of references to the fact that during Karamanlis’s rule, public administration was also staffed by people who were not in his ERE party. What is certain, is that officials were educated, knowledgeable and better paid than in the private sector, something that attracted qualified young people. The first blow came in 1964, when the newly elected government of George Papandreou, with Constantine Mitsotakis as Finance Minister, abolished permanent tenure for general directors, appointing them for a term of office in an attempt to do away with the «right-wing state.» This upset the entire hierarchy and there are many who remember those changes as the turning point for the civil service system. Subsequent governments finished the job by means of a series of recruitments and transfers. The colonels’ dictatorship of 1967-1974, characterized by the persecution of political dissidents and selective promotions lowered the standards even further. Corruption was also at its peak. With the restoration of democracy, Constantine Karamanlis tried to restore the system’s reputation by bringing back staff who had been fired, but he was largely unsuccessful. Society in transition Meanwhile, Greek society had changed and new customs and habits were beginning to prevail. The political environment had also changed and a thirst for political freedom was also evident within the civil service, whose structure relaxed accordingly. The political leadership did not have the power to introduce the necessary reforms. It was during that crucial transition period, when Greece was coming into contact with European institutions and changes in public administration were mandatory, that the strangest things of all happened. The government of Andreas Papandreou which came to power in October 1981 had other ideas. As the agent of the great, historic political change, the new government felt it appropriate to bring about a complete transformation in the way the State was organized. «The right-wing state» had to be done away with. The late Menios Koutsogiorgas, fired by the fanaticism of the newly enlightened, though with no experience, began dismantling the public administration system. Law 1232/82 abolished the posts of general director – 97 of them, along with 110 deputy general directors – overnight, resulting in complete confusion because of the lack of any coordination. It marked the beginning of true party interference within the state mechanism, which had always been open to some form of political influence, but never on the scale to which it was now subjected. There was no longer any concept of hierarchy, evaluations ceased, people lost interest, indifference and a lackadaisical attitude became the rule. Problems soon appeared; the unified pay scale and the abolition in 1984 of the link between salary and position in the hierarchy removed any remaining cohesion. Armies of advisers Ministers began to feel the difference, nothing could be done and so recourse was taken to advisers and special secretaries, armies of whom began to gather around political leaders to make up for deficiencies in the civil service. This process only widened the gulf between civil servants and their real work. There was no incentive for progress, advisers isolated civil servants from their sources of information. They no longer had experience in dealing with problems, were marginalized and restricted to paper-pushing. Continuity was lost. A senior state official recently said it was «beneath one’s dignity to concern oneself with behavior, interference and the decline in institutions caused by the party’s infiltration of the State, but it must be emphasized that the. .. activities of party organizations within the civil service were and still are the greatest crime ever committed against it. This is because the branch organizations of the ruling party brought with them the corresponding organizations of other parties, with the result that the civil service has been turned into an arena for political and personal conflicts which have nothing to do with civil service issues.» In 1992, the post of general director was restored, but the selection process, promotions, composition of departmental councils are still in the grip of the party, general secretaries and personnel directors who are usually party hacks and unionists. Their offices are «cafes» for party organizations within ministries, according to a civil service official. Paid members of councils and various committees are appointed by personnel managers and general secretaries. Within such an environment it is easy to see which people are promoted or given prominent posts and pay bonuses. Naturally there is no question of meritocracy and the standard of services deteriorates still further. No recruitment examinations are held, no trained personnel hired, so no new blood is introduced. For a number of years, an effort was made to fill vacant posts by giving permanent tenure to casual staff and transferring people from public utility companies, meaning less qualified people of a particular political bent, mentality and culture, lowering the standard even more. The mentality of the «least effort» prevailed. Increased corruption Today, the civil service is decimated, without the capable staff it needs to meet the demands of a modern public administration system. Unfortunately, the combination of lowered standards and partisan influence has increased corruption. A former general director told Kathimerini that if tomorrow we could have an objective and neutral administration with its own voice, the next day the amount of corruption would decrease by 60 percent. Of course, the situation is made worse by the fact that the same people have been in vital posts for too long. The same ministers have been in their posts for nearly 20 years, the same faces are recycled from one ministry to another, taking with them the same attitude, the same way of thinking and acting. This combination of party state, lowered standards and corruption has no place in this modern age. Already the State is incapable of keeping up with new techniques for absorbing European Union resources, or new methods of administering, executing and monitoring a wide variety of projects. New technologies, complex finances, new policy tools, types of contracts and the sheer size of resources managed by the State, mean that the current situation cannot continue. What the administration needs is a revolution to rid itself of party influence and the absence of meritocracy, it needs to rebuild structures, hierarchies and to once more attract high-quality staff capable of meeting the demands of a modern state and its citizens.

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