Jul 2 2012

We demand inertia!

 
by Professor Kevin Featherstone
 

The fate of Greece seems caught between the crudity of the Troika and the inertia of the domestic politicians proclaiming to save it. With suitors like these, the Goddess Athena should retain her virginity.

Consider the new Government’s ‘Joint Statement’, a text carefully negotiated by the three coalition parties, ostensibly to last four years. There we find a simple, stark four word statement of government policy: “Όχι απολύσεις στο δημόσιο”. It is not elaborated any further nor is there any qualification. That’s it: a bold, seemingly reassuring proclamation as if the Captain of the Titanic told everyone his vessel would be safe.

The new commitment totally contradicts the obligations Greece has signed-up to under both memoranda. In the 2010 Memorandum, Greece committed itself to examining ‘efficiency gains’ and to collaborating with the European Commission ‘to launch an independent review of public administration and the central government level’. Greece was to work with French officials to make progress with administrative reform. An OECD Report, reviewing the central administration was published last November. It was an excellent survey of the endemic problems of the public bureaucracy. Just last January, Dimitris Reppas, as Minister of Administrative Reform, published a White Paper on ‘governance’. This set out a path to a better co-ordinated, smaller and more efficient ‘executive state’. For the here and now, the EU Task Force has been working with Greek ministries to enhance capabilities and efficiency. Indeed, before the end of 2012, each of the ministries is scheduled to undergo an assessment ‘with a view to improving the efficiency, strengthening prioritisation and clarifying decision-making processes’. And just this last week Reppas’ successor – Antonis Manitakis – went to Brussels to stress that the rapid reorganisation of its civil service and public administration was his ministry’s top priority. These are fine words from a respected professor.

Who could possibly object to improving the efficiency of the public administration?  Surely not the citizens who wait endlessly in queues; not the public servants themselves frustrated at the processes that engulf them; not the politicians who can’t get things done?  Well, not quite so.

To accept the dysfunctionalities and to offer promises in Brussels, but then to say not one public sector post is to be lost is, of course, a total contradiction. It is to demand inertia: we want to carry on, business as usual. If the previous governments got Greece into its current economic mess, where was the culpability – the 30 or so senior ministers alone or the system they were in charge of?

The uncompetitiveness of the Greek economy and the failings of past governments owes a great deal to the use of the public administration – and the wider public sector – as a substitute for the inadequacies of welfare provision in Greece and the shared culture of clientelism. The hidden unemployment of the public sector has been a drain on resources and an obstacle to understanding how Greece fits in to today’s international environment.

But let me be clear on another point: the stupidity of the Government’s joint statement has been matched by crudity of the Troika insisting on an across-the-board cut of 15,000 public sector jobs to go each year for the next ten years. A resolute target of 150,000 is just as misguided as a target of zero. Neither allows for an informed, considered review of what skills are needed and where. The 150,000 is conjured up from a myopic fiscal plan, the zero from populism and the craven appeasement of the powerful unions. Both targets are ultimately self-defeating: they do NOTHING to encourage choice and priorities: that is, what kind of model does Greece need?

Some suggest that the government’s target of no job losses is just an aspiration, a political tactic. If so, the thinking is autistic. It may win a short-term gain with the public sector unions, but it sends the worst possible signal to Greece’s EU partners. Just when there is the political scope to achieve more flexibility and easier terms on the bail-out loans, here is a message that Greece doesn’t want to change or doesn’t have the leadership strong enough to deliver it. It uses up the political credit to secure victories on more sensible objectives.

Greece needs, above all, the scope for a serious debate on what it wants after the crisis. This means being selective – thinking of the key priorities, the efficient allocation of resources, the design of the model. Returning to historic taboos does nothing to help in this regard. With a blanket protection of those on the ‘inside’, it also offers those outside the labour market no hope. And it burdens the sector on which growth will mostly depend: business. The only consolation is that Greece’s EU partners are unlikely to accept such a condition, but sense may come after humiliation.

 
 *NOTE: This piece has also been published in the Greek Newspaper Kathimerini (1 July 2012)

 

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2 Responses to We demand inertia!

  1. Hopeful Greek says:

    Kevin Featherstone gives the incorrect impression in this piece that former Minister of Administrative Reform, Dimitris Reppas, actually had any intention of reforming the administration. He didn’t, he just came out with that legislation to shut the troika up and try and “trick” the silly koutofrankoi into believing he was doing something so as to get the euro billions (and then pump several of those billions into maintaining useless positions in the public sector).

    Also, considering Kevin Featherstone is meant to be an expert on politics, he seems quite ignorant of what the troika’s actual intentions are with the 150,000 figure. If 13,000 positions go in the public sector this year or even 10,000 the troika will not necessarily be bothered by that: the purpose with this figure is to get ACTION! They’re probably hoping that if they scare the deep Greek state into having to cut 150,000 positions they might at least achieve the cutting of 75,000 positions. The first positions that can go are those that have no actual purpose but were just invented to serve the clientalist system and to “cut unemployment”.

    For those who aren’t as expert in the Greek language as Professor Featherstone is, “Όχι απολύσεις στο δημόσιο” means “No dismissals in the public sector”. Moreover, as far as I am aware the three parties supporting the government have not actually issued their final joint programme yet (although I imagine protection of the giant state octopus will continue). And, the full sentence, as far as New Democracy are concerned, is “Όχι απολύσεις στο δημόσιο, ναι στην εργασιακή εφεδρεία,” i.e. “No dismissals in the public sector, yes to labour reserve,” a silly plan whereby former public employees get paid 60% or perhaps more of their salary for anywhere from 1-3 years, with the hope that at some point in that time another position in the public sector will open up/be invented, and they will then be placed there (Greek public sector employees, from tax office workers to school teachers are always “placed” in a position, they don’t apply for a job and then go for an interview, but wait on a list until their “turn” comes up).

    Perhaps it would have been more useful if Kevin Featherstone gave us his own estimate of how many public sector positions should be cut.

  2. Hopeful Greek says:

    P.S. The other factor, of course, is privatisations. If a certain number of privatisations go ahead over the next few years then this will significantly reduce the number of people employed in the public sector without necessarily having to fire anybody.

    Also, the problem of the Greek public sector is not limited to the large number of public employees: one of the core problems is its intervention/interference into almost every facet of life in Greece, the over-bearing, over-regulated, highly bureaucratic state that has to stamp its mark upon everything. If we could cut back on its constant presence and the extension of its tentacles everywhere then that would create an atmsophere in which the private sector could breath, in which we could all breath. Greek society could finally start to develop and mature, which it has so far being prevented from doing by the ubiquitous state.

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