Reforming the civil service — for all

The off-the-agenda parliamentary debate yesterday consolidated the impression that Greece’s political parties still largely cling to the harmful preconception that the civil service constitutes the spoils of party warfare. The end product of this mentality is an overloaded state apparatus that has fallen far short of fulfilling its role. There is little doubt that Greece’s civil service administration is a mess. Typically, pre-election periods see no shortage of radical reform pledges. In a bid to accentuate his reformist intentions, conservative party leader and current Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis promised to «reinvent the state.» Sixteen months later, the facts have yet to vindicate his words. The truth is the problems of civil administration cannot be solved by rebuilding the system from scratch. But it could definitely take some radical reform. And it is on this level that the government, any government, must be judged by the voters. For certain, the conservative administration has inherited a very tough situation. Its performance has so far been remarkable but insufficient in light of the urgency of the current conundrum. If it wants to succeed, the administration must intensify its efforts and step up its pace. If the past is any guide, legal measures alone will not do. Strict legislation often fails in actual practice with regard to age criteria and staff promotions. An important measure was the appointment of top civil servants for specific periods of time (hence making them immune to political changeovers) as well as the introduction of a staff assessment process. In practice, however, the measures failed to produce the expected outcomes. The Socialist opposition is accusing the government of hijacking the civil service but it is clear that restoring some sort of equilibrium was necessary. In fact, it is a question of political culture. In Greece’s political system, governments do not have the maturity to resist the temptation of manipulating the state apparatus – with the appointment of political acolytes as well. Instead of trading barbs and accusations, political parties should try to modernize the civil service administration with remedies that are based on consensus and meritocracy. After all, this is what is in the national interest.

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