By Peter Stevenson
LIVING anywhere in the world will at some stage require you to visit some form of government office to pay a bill or make an enquiry, and stories of overly-bureaucratic, incompetent or disappearing civil servants can be funny but also enraging.
Cyprus is no different and it is often taken for granted that you might need to camp out all day in a government building just to get the simplest of tasks completed, and that’s if you’re lucky.
That was all due to change when new working hours for the public service came into effect at the start of the year as part of measures agreed in the memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed between Cyprus and its international lenders, the troika.
The changes were introduced in stages, with the first alterations implemented on January 1 this year. Public servants were given a choice of going to work at 7.30am or 8.30am and finishing at 3pm or 4pm accordingly.
On September 1, starting time shifted half an hour forward, giving public servants the choice of going to work from 8am to 3.30pm or from 9am to 4.30pm.
Previously civil servants all worked from 7am until 2.30pm from Monday to Friday and until 5pm on Wednesday afternoons.
The government said at the time that the aim of the changes was to reduce overtime pay and provide a better service to the public but the MoU clearly stated that it was aimed to ‘further reduce overtime and related costs to the public sector wage bill by making working time more flexible’.
Unfortunately, working hours and public opening hours are two completely different things and those rejoicing that they would finally be able to take advantage of the new hours would have been in for a nasty shock on visiting government offices.
From being open to the public to a standard 2.30pm, the hours have not, as predicted, changed to a standard 3.30pm or 4.30pm. Instead each government office has been left to decide how long past 2.30pm they will stay open or not, even if staff stay on until 4.30pm in some cases, it doesn’t necessarily mean extra service for the public.
The later starting hours in the morning have also proved inconvenient for some who used to queue up with the lark.
The Road Transport Department (RTD) which previously opened to the public at 7.45am until 1.45pm from Monday to Friday and on Wednesdays in the afternoon from 3.15pm until 5pm is now open to the public from 8.15pm until 3pm.
“We have attempted to extend working hours in order to help the public and offer a better service,” deputy head of the RTD Petros Xenophontos told the Sunday Mail. “The change in hours has definitely been positive as we have been able to serve more people,” he added.
The migration department extended the pitiful public opening hours from 22 hours a week to 25 hours a week. Previously the department’s doors would open at 8am and close at noon from Monday to Friday and from 3pm till 5pm on Wednesdays and now they are open from 9am until 2pm.
The customs department operates in a slightly different manner with civil servants able to serve the public now from 8am until 4.30pm from Monday to Friday but the cashier is only open from 8am until 3pm. So despite being able to get information or paperwork completed, if a member of the public wished to pay customs for any reason they would only have an extra half an hour a day compared to the old working hours. Previously the cashier was open from 7.30am until 2pm.
The District Offices in Nicosia are popular and almost always busy with members of the public renewing their passports and IDs there but they have not extended their hours whatsoever, only shifting them slightly by half an hour. Previously the offices would open at 8am and close at 2pm while now they open at 8.30am and close at 2.30pm.
Senior public administration and personnel officer at the Finance Ministry, Sofia Vassiliou told the Mail that initially the plan to change working hours was to save money spent on overtime.
“Initially as part of the MoU our job was to reduce the amount of overtime being worked and charged by civil servants so the hours were extended into the afternoon,” she said.
Vassiliou added that the public administration and personnel department asked of each department when changing their hours, to extend them so they could provide a better service to the public.
“In a circular we sent to each department we asked that they extend their hours. The decision ultimately falls on each department and whether they want to extend public service hours but the majority of them have gone ahead with it,” she said.
The department is unable to know the demands of each department but they have begun research to see how productive each department is and how well the public are being served.
“Previously people were able to visit a government office in the morning, around 7.30am before they went to work to get something done and unfortunately now that isn’t possible,” she said.
It can be quite confusing as different governmental offices serve the public at different hours and Vassiliou said that attempts were being made to see if all public service hours could become more consistent across the board.
“We are looking into making hours more consistent but unfortunately it won’t be easy as different departments have different demands,” she concluded.
Civil servants union PASYDY had said that the public service hours due to come into effect from September 1 would not achieve the troika’s goals, or save the state money, but would instead disrupt the smooth running of the service.
The union added that following its own study “it was established and proven” that the goals set out by the MoU were covered by the current working hours – the ones implemented in January – regarding both saving money on overtime, and serving the public.
An agreement to help in the reform of the public service was signed in Nicosia in August by British High Commissioner, Matthew Kidd, and permanent secretary of the Finance Ministry, Christos Patsalides, in the presence of the Commissioner for the Reform of the Civil Service, Emmanuella Lambrianides. The move is fiercely opposed by PASYDY, which has been publicly warned however by President Nicos Anastasaides that reform is a one-way street that they had well heed his words on that.
However it might all eventually be moot. Having achieved the goal of reducing overtime, there was talk earlier this week of allowing public servants to revert to their former working hours. So much for service to the public.
‘Changing hours won’t change anything as long as staff are still useless’
THERE is no shortage of stories among members of the public who have shown up at government buildings ten minutes before they are about to shut and find the offices close to deserted.
One person went to the post office on Friday morning to pick up a package only to be told to return closer to 2.30pm – the closing time – to see whether or not the package had been processed. He told the Sunday Mail that he went back at 2.20pm to find the post office close to empty, the computer terminals all shut down and only a customs official at his desk.
Another Mail contact said he knew an official at the finance ministry who would clock in well before he was due at work and then go home until he was bothered to go to work.
The general consensus outside the Road Transport Department (RTD) was that the new hours had not changed much.
Efthymios Christodoulou, a 51-year-old construction working who had gone to transfer car deeds said that he hadn’t noticed any real changes.
“There were times I would come earlier in the morning when they opened earlier and I would sometimes take advantage of Wednesday afternoons when I had free time then,” he said.
Christodoulou added that the public service hours did not mean he would have to make a change to the way he deals with obtaining government services, it would just mean he would have to adapt to the new hours.
Car dealership owner Andri Evangelou who visited the RTD to register a number of new vehicles said that extending public service hours even by half an hour was a positive move.
“It makes peoples’ lives a bit easier and I believe they will adapt once they know which departments are open at what hours,” she said.
Michalis Patsias, 32, who is self-employed said that the change in hours does not affect him as he is able to leave the office whenever he likes.
“One of the perks of being self-employed is that I can come and go as I please so nothing really changed for me,” he said.
He added that the change in extending the hours was a positive move that could only be seen as helping people get their jobs done.
Giorgos Ladjias, a 19-year-old soldier who was registering his new car said that removing Wednesday afternoons would take some getting used to.
“People used to be able to take advantage of Wednesday afternoons but I’m sure they will get used to the new hours eventually,” he said.
Harris Stylianou, 44, told the Mail that changing the hours would not change much as most of the civil servants work at a snail’s pace anyway.
“Changing the hours won’t change anything, they need to get rid of the useless personnel, who are to blame for the public sector being inefficient,” he said.