I believe that in order to consolidate society it is crucially important for the public administration to admit its mistakes and to state its willingness to reduce the impact of these mistakes.
Say ‘sorry’, dear bureaucrat
I just read yet another news story that was supposedly designed to cheer up voters, namely, the Latvian prime minister is planning to cut 280 jobs in state institutions and the money saved will be huge, 28 million lats (39 million euros). Upon the first impression, the plan by Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis ir similar to an advert for a famous diet, which promises that one can lose five kilograms of weight in five days. What the advert fails to mention is that by losing weight at such a rate one is likely to encounter serious health problems. Dieticians suggest getting rid of the excess weight gradually. The same applies to the government plan.
In the course of just one month two austerity plans have been published. The first one, of 16 January, outlined a possible redistribution of the ministries among the ruling parties and included two scenarios for merging government institutions, a less radical one and a more radical one. The second plan, of 30 January, was nothing but a detailed version of the more radical scenario mentioned in the first.
The second plan states plainly and clearly, which institutions will have to have job cuts and which ones will have to merge. The sword lands on both the ministries and the government agencies that have been so heavily criticized before. In that respect, the plan is a welcome development, as it signifies the presence of political will to reorganize the administrative structure developed in previous years. Besides, the plan proposes merging government institutions with similar responsibilities. That is why there is hope that, if this plan is implemented, the number of institutions will decrease.
However, when one starts examining the plan more closely the initial joy quickly evaporates. According to the plan the total number of people employed by government institutions and state-owned enterprises is growing, not going down. So, on the one hand, the number of institutions shrinking, but on the other, the remaining ones are getting bigger. It seems a little suspicious, particularly considering the unflattering image these companies have among people with all their councils and boards with political appointees, and their dubious donations to projects run by people affiliated with politicians. Besides, the plan also refers to the state forestry company Latvijas valsts mezi, which will not have to have any job cuts (before and after the reorganization the number of people employed will remain the same, 1084). Another institution mentioned is the Food and Veterinary Service, which in fact will have an increase from 1091 to 1242.
When I am examining the projected huge savings figures I try to figure out whether there will be anything left of all these millions after the compensations to all employees made redundant are paid and after all old signboards are replaced with new ones? I also wander whether the expenses of paying unemployment benefits to all those fired employees are taken into account, given that the benefits come from another government pocket, so to speak. If I am right in assuming that this is not the case then the savings are not as huge as they may seem.
The plan fails to explain a crucial thing, namely, whether the new ‘merged’ administration will be cheaper and more efficient. By efficiency I mean the ability to ensure the most efficient use of taxpayers’ money without raising prices for services provided by a government agency. The most unwelcome outcome would be if, in the name of illusory savings, cash flow from the state budget would dry up and institutions would have to raise prices for their services thereby tricking money directly out of taxpayers’ pockets. So far, I have not been reassured that it is not going to happen. On the contrary, experience tells me that the next step will be a long list of changes in service tariffs.
The plan is stepping on the same rake again as it fails to mention how it is connected to the planned administrative reform in Latvia’s regions and with the planned redistribution of responsibilities among the different levels of administration. It is an illustration of the identity crisis currently present in the public administration of Latvia. The administration as a whole has no common vision of itself and no idea as to what a public servant is supposed to do. The inability of state officials to come to an agreement that the state level of administration and the municipal level of administration are two ingredients of the same dish has resulted in creating a flavorless cocktail. The responsibilities are being dumped from the state institutions onto the municipal ones and vice versa whilst the funding is being masterfully manipulated along with rhetoric about the shortage of funding, which supposedly prevents either side from fulfilling its duties.
The public administration is not willing to admit its own mistakes neither at institutional, nor personal level, which could be partly attributed to their fear of sanctions, and partly to the uncertainty about the public reaction. However, I believe that in order to consolidate society it is crucially important for the public administration to admit that it has made mistakes and to state that it is willing to take steps to reduce the impact of these mistakes.
And, last but not least, if in the midst of the chaos of redundancies and job cuts some true experts in their fields leave the public administration it would cause an irreparable damage. Never mind that people like to think that bureaucrats are a bunch of parasites who do not know anything about anything. In the long-run, such opinion damages the legitimacy of a state. On the other hand it is equally unacceptable if the proportion of people employed in the public administration is much higher in Latvia than it is in Estonia and Lithuania.
The public administration badly needs and audit of responsibilities, but even more important is the issue of criteria that would be used in such audit. If these criteria will be based in the Latvian legislative system there is a high chance of the results being well described but hard to implement. I would suggest borrowing the criteria from Estonia, because this country has managed to create a compact administrative system, which is efficient and small in terms of numbers of people employed.
In order to avoid the rise in service prices offered by state agencies I would suggest including a provision in the relevant legislation that the price for services offered by a new agency cannot exceed a price that existed before the merger and that the price has to remain constant for the period of at least three years. The duty of the government is to protect people from an increase in administrative costs. It would also be a step towards regaining people’s trust.
Even Estonians have arrived to the conclusion that in order to consolidate society the administration has to admit its mistakes and encourage everybody to come forward with ideas on to tackle the crisis. That is why it would seem logical if the ministries acknowledged their inability to deal with the growing economic problems and call on experts, scientists and businessmen to help them to find solutions.