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Europe

No progress in Greece's public sector reform

Greece's lenders have urged the country to reduce its excessive state apparatus. But few people trust that will be possible. Political clientelism and patronage have a long tradition in Greece's administrative bodies.

Back in the fall of 2012, the Greek coalition government under Conservative leader Antonis Samaras promised to lay off 15,000 people in the public sector by the end of 2014. In addition, at least 12,000 civil servants would be transferred to other divisions where there was greater need for them. The troika of EU, IMF and ECB says such reform measures are the necessary precondition in order to pay out the next tranche worth 8.1 billion euros (10.4 billion dollars) of rescue money to Greece.

Pressure from the troika

But implementation of the administrative reforms has come to a halt. Over the past few days, Greek media have reported on an ultimatum the troika has given to Athens: the layoffs and forced transfers in the public sector are supposedly to be implemented by Monday (08.07.2013). Both the Samaras government and the EU Commission deny the existence of such an ultimatum. And still, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek minister in charge of the administrative reforms, whose position was founded only for this purpose, has said that on Monday he would probably put forward a draft law in parliament which complies with all of the troika's demands.

"The desired administrative reforms are necessary, but they're very difficult to implement politically," said Napoleon Maravejas, a professor for political and administrative sciences at Athens University. He pointed out that a precondition for the reform would be to conduct a critical and objective assessment of civil servants' performance. But, Maravejas warns, that would be difficult - especially in Greece, where civil servants have little trust in public institutions and where a system of clientelism is still omnipresent.

Politics lacks a 'clear course'

Beggar with a sign that reads Am hungry in Athens.

"Am hungry" - poverty is on the rise in Greece because of austerity measures.

Maravejas, who has a degree in political sciences from France, knows what he's talking about. He was the agricultural minister in the Greek transition government under the country's top judge Panajotis Pikramenos in 2012. That position enabled him to get a good idea of daily life in Athens' ministries. He says he knows that there's little political will for a proper administrative reform in the public sector.

According to Maravejas, that's the reason why on a political level there's no long-term planning any more. Instead, there are limited suggestions and speculation - like the recommendation to merge the regulatory authorities with the police, or the rumors that every dismissal would be followed by a new person being hired. That's not exactly a comprehensive approach or a clear course, Maravejas believes.

Lack of control

The actual number of Greek civil servants was established for the first time only in 2010 - by the Socialist government at the time. Now it's clear that three years ago, 768,000 people were working for the Greek state. But the figures didn't include the staff of community services and larger state companies, such as energy giant DEI or public broadcaster ERT. To this day, there has not been a proper count of all employees who receive money from public funds. And there is still no organizational chart of the registered ministries and authorities that would clearly display the various divisions and responsibilities.

Watch video 06:32

Greece - a never-ending crisis?

That's not a basis for implementing a proper administrative reform, warns Greek journalist and labor market expert Roula Salourou: "Once a government agency has established how many people work for it, it would make sense to draw up an organizational chart so that everybody knows who does what in the agency," said Salourou. But still she has not seen any such chart. For a simple reason. As the Athens-based journalist pointed out: In Greece, public agencies have traditionally been used as a way to equip party members with jobs. And that mentality is still widespread, she said - despite the crisis and pressure from the troika.

Put simply: There may just be a few party members in leading positions who don't really want everybody to know just who does what in their agency, because it would become clear that there are a lot who don't do anything at all.

Lack of civil servants

At the same time, those with a cushy job would desperately be needed for other tasks. Greek public sector unions have for years complained about a persistent lack of staff in several core areas of administration, such as the health sector or in emergency precaution services. The unions' concerns are totally justified, said Roula Salourou, citing the pension funds as an example.

If you file an application for pension in Greece today, it takes at least two years for your application to be checked by the public pension insurance agency, the journalist said. Faster processing is not possible due to a lack of personnel. Salourou added: "It's an absurd situation: For a period of two years you don't receive any money because your pension application has not been approved. But you're not allowed to work either because you're considered potentially eligible to pension payment."

Wait until after summer?

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras (L) speaks with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle (R) at his office in Athens. (Photo: EPA/ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS)

German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle has assured Greek premier Antonis Samaras of Germany's support.

Salourou said it was a good example of how important and urgent targeted transfers of excessive staff in the public sector would be. And yet, those measures remain controversial and politically undesired. Athens media recently reported that the troika may even allow the majority of dismissals and forced transfers in the public sector to be postponed until this coming fall - giving in to pressure from the Greek government. Observers speculate that the move could be justified with the upcoming holiday season in which Greece is expecting a record number of tourists. Social tensions would be counterproductive.

But, whether or not the new administration minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis will speed up the process of implementing the reforms after the summer holidays is not clear. It doesn't seem very likely. He is a member of a powerful political dynasty who for decades have had their say in Greece and who are partly responsible for the current condition the country is in. Mitsotakis studied in Harvard and is a sociologist by trade. He is also the son of former Conservative permier Kostas Mitsotakis as well as the brother of former foreign affairs minister Dora Bakoyannis. After a speedy career in the financial sector, the youngest son of the family is now tasked with implementing the administrative reform of Greece.

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