My own (albeit short-lived) experience in the public sector teaches me that it does not take a very clever person to be a civil servant. An essential skill to acquire before joining civil service, however, is what I would call 'a way with words' - an ability to say things in a certain way that allows to avoid awkward questions. It is a useful skill for politicians, too.
Recently, I have discovered the place in the Latvian public administration system where this skill has been taken to a new, entirely different level. That place is called the Secretariat of the Special Assignment Minister for Social Integration.
Take their very creative way of reporting the proposal expressed at the minister’s meeting with NGOs yesterday. Of the representatives of about 10 NGOs that attended the meeting, one or two ‘spontaneously’ expressed their desire to see the Secretariat turn into a full-fledged ministry. Indeed, if one thinks of it – after the Secretariat’s staff has grown from about 15 to above 60 in the last 4 years, what could be the next step to burden the taxpayers a little bit further? Neither the visibility nor the impact of policies implemented and developed by the Secretariat has increased substantially during these years. That is, however, beside the point. What matters, is the fact that today Latvian news agencies let us all know that during the minister’s meeting with the NGOs, ”NGOs have expressed a wish to see the Secretariat gain the status of a ministry”. Needless to say, the names of the NGOs represented at the meeting were neatly given in the next paragraph, thus turning us all into passive supporters of the proposal.
It is, perhaps, a fairly ordinary case of spin. Unfortunately, it is by no means the only example of manipulation in the Secretariat’s communication with the public. Civil society representatives included in work groups designing controversial policy programmes get ‘incidentally’ ommitted from mailing lists of the groups, and public discussions of policy documents are limited to the bare minimum. Many human rights activists and researchers know the sad story of the amendments to the National Programme for the Promotion of Tolerance, which disappeared somewhere half-way between the Cabinet and the Council for Spiritual Affairs (which had no right to pass binding resolutions on the document in the first place).
I am not certain if we will have a Ministry of Integration one day, and even less certain if we need one. It does look, however, that we already have a Ministry of Manipulation.