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Our View: Public service reform essential to ending corruption

Scandals in Paphos part of a much wider probelm

A PAPHOS municipal councillor speaking about the sewage board scandal on a radio show on Monday morning tried to offer an explanation of how state organisations handling projects worth tens of millions of euro were being ripped off by contractors. This was usually done by the contractor submitting additional payment claims for the project – often ridiculously high – which were sanctioned by the organisation’s engineers and/or technocrats before being approved by the board.

The implication was that the technocrats/engineers were also on the take, something that cannot come as a surprise to anyone. The stories about civil servants negotiating bad deals for the state or helping out businessmen tendering for public projects by leaking information have been circulating for years. It is no secret that the state regularly pays over the odds for purchases of equipment and machinery, for construction projects and other contracts with the private sector.

Politicians and their placemen are invariably blamed for these scams even though it is very rare for anyone to be prosecuted. Meanwhile the technocrats, who make the scams possible, by signing off exorbitant pay claims, leaking information or not protecting the interests of the taxpayer when negotiating deals are never mentioned, let alone prosecuted. It is claimed that they use the procedures and paperwork to cover their tracks, but this is difficult to believe.

If a municipal engineer signed off a pay claim by a contractor that was unjustified there are ways to catch them out – for instance an independent engineer could be brought in to carry out an independent evaluation of what had been agreed. If it is found that the amount was unjustified, the service could take disciplinary action with a view to sacking them. There is no need to take these people to court as it would be almost impossible to prove a case of bribery, but disciplinary action and termination of services would be adequate punishment and would frighten other corrupt public employees.

Of course, even disciplinary action is difficult because thanks to the powerful PASYDY the regulations governing the public service are designed to protect dishonest and incompetent staff. Perhaps the regulations should be toughened up as part of the reform of the public sector that is currently under way. It is the only way to clean up the public sector of corruption, because on the few occasions criminal cases were brought against public employees they were unsuccessful.

If the state genuinely wants to fight corruption – and it is a big ‘if’ – it should amend the regulations governing the public sector to facilitate effective disciplinary action against public employees, so they could stop behaving as if they were untouchable.

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