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Our View: Radical overhaul needed of number employed in civil service

The finance ministry has told the legislature that the government would gradually stop hiring seasonal workers and staff on contracts for a finite period, which along the way becomes open-ended. The ministry would also restrict to a minimum the outsourcing of services to the private sector, permanent secretary Giorgos Panteli said in response to questions from deputies.

The problem of having many public employees on open-ended contracts was the result on the freeze on appointments to ‘permanent posts’ in the public sector that was introduced in 2012. To cover these needs, the government hired temporary staff on contracts but after they had completed a period of time in the service it was obliged to give them contracts without an expiry date.

This is the way of giving public sector jobs through the backdoor – summary procedures are followed without an examination or proper evaluation of candidates – which suit both the government and the parties. Panteli said every effort would be made to gradually reduce the hiring of non-permanent staff, while those who are hired will not have their contract extended as has been the practice; in combination vacant permanent posts would be filled.

The government has probably understood that it has flooded the public service with staff on open-ended contracts that it cannot get rid of, while at the same time having to fill vacant permanent posts. The idea proposed by the ministry is an attempt to patch things up and not the long-term solution the over-staffed public sector has been crying out for.

It is well-known that some ministries have more workers than they need while others are understaffed. In a rational world, civil servants would be moved from an overstaffed ministry to an understaffed one. In Cyprus, however, civil servants’ union Pasydy does not allow the transfer of workers from one ministry to another. For years it argued that the employer did not have the right to move staff to another ministry and while it has slightly softened this stance in recent years transfers are minimal.

If the government wants to place the public sector on a sound basis and control costs it needs to undertake a radical reorganisation. It should assess the needs of every ministry based on current conditions (the agriculture ministry, for example, has the same numbers of workers it employed when Cyprus was an agricultural economy, in the 60s), taking into account the rapid expansion of digitalisation that would make hundreds of jobs superfluous. It is unheard of, in the era of digitalisation that the Cyprus civil service is expanding instead of contracting. Once the needs of each ministry are calculated civil servants should be transferred to the departments at which they are needed.

Perhaps there are legal as well as union obstacles to this desperately-needed rationalisation, but the government should be exploring ways of overcoming them instead of opting for half-baked solutions.

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