Reform commissioner Constantinos Petrides said on Monday that parliament’s decision to reject four draft reform bills leaves the civil service vulnerable to political intervention and corruption and threatens public finances.
At a news conference, Petrides told reporters that the rejected public service reform, which also included the introduction of a formula linking the increase of the public payroll to the performance of the economy, will allow future governments to hire civil servants or grant pay rises and other benefits at will, without taking other factors into account.
“While gross domestic product rose 100 per cent between 2000 to 2012, the public payroll rose 146 per cent,” the euro area’s highest compared to economic output, he said.
Three days after parliament rejected the bills, which were part of a wider effort to reform and modernise Cyprus’ civil service, Petrides, who oversaw negotiations with stakeholders and political parties, said that the opposition’s decision “preserves, perpetuates and defends the current system of clientelism”.
In March, Cyprus completed its cash-for-reforms programme agreed with international creditors three years earlier after it lost access to financial markets. Under the terms of the bailout programme, Cyprus froze wages and hiring in the public sector in an attempt to reduce the number of public workers and the payroll.
Finance Minister Harris Georgiades has repeatedly warned that failure to link the public payroll to economic growth could lead to a new fiscal derailment.
“Everyone admits that the current system promotes systemic corruption and political patronage,” Petrides said in reference to the Public Service Committee, a body with five members appointed by the president which decides on appointments, promotions, transfers and disciplinary cases. “We exhausted the flexibility granted by the constitution to propose turning its role from executive to supervisory. The five appointed members remain the absolute masters of appointments in the public sector.”
Petrides added that a government proposal to amend the constitution and so change the commission’s role in deciding promotions had been ignored.
In addition, while “most parties publicly supported the introduction of written exams” which would make promotion procedures in the public service more transparent and objective, “the bill was voted down”. This again maintains the powers of the Public Service Commission to decide promotions based on an oral interview and seniority, he said.
At the same time, the current evaluation system of allowing civil servants to get top marks in their evaluation serves as a disincentive for “conscientious” workers, as again seniority and political interventions remain key for career advancement, he said.
Parliament’s decision to also reject a proposal of opening managerial positions in the civil service to applicants from the private sector keeps the system closed to competition, Petrides continued.
The undersecretary also criticised political parties that, instead of submitting proposals to amend the bills which the government presented to parliament in August 2015, opted to vote down the bills as a block, thus perpetuating the existing back-scratching system.
“While the majority of public workers, especially the younger ones, support the reforms, I am in a position to know that there was intensifying and strong opposition by a portion of officials,” Petrides said. These officials did not want to have their performance evaluated or felt that they would have to compete with others to secure a promotion they took for granted under the current regime, he said.
“The political establishment” also opposed the reform because it is accustomed to exploiting the current appointment and promotion regime in the public service in order “to gain votes or to serve its interests.”
Petrides said that he was prepared to engage in talks with political parties, which could help secure a majority in the parliament for a new reform effort.