Politics 11/05/2021

500 senior Generalitat officials depend on the investiture agreement

Can an administration function if it has to completely redefine its entire management every time there is an election?

5 min
A government meeting

BarcelonaWhen JxCat and ERC reach an agreement to unblock the investiture -if they reach do- the Generalitat's own musical chairs will begin. There are almost 500 people who depend directly on the parties, from general secretaries, secretaries, secretaries, advisers, general directors, members of the cabinets, delegates and a good handful of managers of public companies. Even general subdirectors -who must be civil servants- may change because they are also freely designated positions. This means an expense of almost €40m per year depending on the formation of a new government. The changes would be especially profound if ERC ends up governing alone, but it is a question that is repeated every time there are elections. Can an administration function if it has to completely redefine its entire management every time there are elections?

The Generalitat's positions of trust

"It's not good for a person to occupy a general management position for 20 years, but for it to change randomly every two or four years fractures the administration. There is no kind of stability or knowledge management," says Carles Ramió, professor of political science at UPF and former director of the School of Public Administration of Catalonia. He is one of the thirty or so academics - some of them high-ranking members of the Generalitat - who have signed the manifesto promoted by the Ostrom Institute on the professionalisation of public management.

What they are basically asking for is a change in the selection process for these managerial positions: to move from a model of "political discretion" to one of "accreditation of competencies". "We need to be certain that the people who occupy public management positions are objectively the best prepared and are subject to accountability as would happen in the private sector," explains Aleix Ramià, head of communications at Ostrom. And to do so, they call for the completion of the process initiated in 2012 by the commission of experts for the reform of public administration, which resulted in 2015 in a draft law on the regulation of the professional public management system that continues to be kept in a drawer. That draft envisaged that the managers of public entities (161) and directors general (84) would continue to be chosen by politicians, but after the candidates had passed "selective processes based on the principles of transparency, publicity, free concurrence, suitability, merit, capacity" and had accredited the "required professional competencies".

"This selection could not be done in a free and discretionary way," adds Ramió, who reflects on the case of Portugal: "There is an independent agency that makes a selection for each case and designates a shortlist of finalists from which the politician may choose".

Risk or opportunity?

In 2016, Chile, Spain and Turkey, with 95%, topped the ranking of countries with the highest turnover of senior officials when a government changes (OECD). Portugal was also in this group until it changed its system. "The reality is that the reform was not spontaneous but an imposition by the European Union in exchange for the financial crisis bailout," recalled a few days ago state lawyer Elisa de la Nuez in a webinar organised by Ostrom. She defends professionalisation because it would bring "talent" to the public sector.

The main trade unions of the Generalitat do not think so. "It is a model that risks being undemocratic. I'm worried that the country will end up being run by technocrats," warns Marc Sallas of Intersindical-CSC. According to him, the main challenge today in the administration is the stabilisation of the tens of thousands of interim workers. The secretary general of IAC-CATAC, Assumpta Barbens, who also rejects the professionalisation of management positions, shares this priority. "We are radically against it. If there are not very well objectified criteria, the position will end up being occupied by a politician," she warns. Barbens regrets that behind this proposal is the opinion that "there are no good professionals in public administration" and stresses that the changes to improve the model have to start at the bottom (a new civil service law) and not at the top.

Guillem López Casasnovas, professor of economics at UPF, was part of the group of experts who advised the Government in 2012. Now he remains sceptical about the viability of the project, although he has signed Ostrom's manifesto. "We want an open management that welcomes the most suitable people, but this suitability has to be accredited by someone," he stresses, and warns that there would be a danger of giving more influence to politicians in the selection processes and creating a new "caste" of professional public directors without having first tested whether the model can really work in Catalonia. At the webinar he recalled the failed project of Ernest Maragall as Minister of Education to professionalise school management.

Parties' double standards

For Francisco Longo, former director of the Centre for Public Governance at Esade, the multiple examples that exist in the world make a pilot test in Catalonia unnecessary. He rejects the bureaucratisation of the ordinary civil service system, "which is not designed for management", and advocates that professional public management "should not be a counterweight, but a complement to politics". In the webinar he also remarked that it would reduce "the risk of clientelism". In addition to the unions, the parties - for different reasons - are the ones that have resisted the change the most: "Top posts are an important resource for their apparatuses".

Loyalty to the politician is one of the links established when it is a position of trust. And there is even an economic link, since in the vast majority of cases the parties require their senior officials to give part of their salary to the organisation. Nevertheless, most of them include in their programmes the professionalisation of public managers (PSC, ERC, JxCat, Cs and PP).

The Basic Statute of the Public Employee generically regulates the managerial sphere in the administration. The local sphere, however, is a world apart, as Juan Ignacio Soto, secretary of local administration from 1981 until he retired, explains. In city councils, the figure of the mayor transcends the political sphere and also has operational powers that are difficult to relinquish. "When there are elections, whoever arrives changes everything because he sees it as a part of the spoils. It's not good that it happens, but more things are needed and not only professionalisation: a quality selection that guarantees the principle of equal opportunities, made in terms of competitiveness and that limits the politicisation of positions", he points out. It is also key for him to strengthen public administration schools and solve the problem of interim workers.

Chile and Portugal have professionalised their public management and in that 2016 OECD ranking today only Turkey and Spain (and Catalonia) continue to completely switch their top positions every time there is a change of government. In Organizing Leviathan (Cambridge), one of the leading books on the subject, the authors Víctor Lapuente and Carl Dahlstrom conclude, after comparing a hundred countries, that professional public management entails a smaller risk of corruption, more efficiency in spending and management and more incentives in remuneration. Assessing the pros and cons is the job of politicians, who, in this case, would be a directly affected party.