Public consultation on reorganisation of civil service opposed by unions

In early June 2000, all Belgian citizens aged 16 years and older received a brochure and a short questionnaire on the planned reorganisation of the federal civil service, which includes a reform of personnel management practices. The trade unions claimed that the exercise was a waste of money, and that more reliable information could have been collected through a small survey and consultation of the main collective actors involved.

The Belgian government is undertaking a major reorganisation of the federal civil service, and in early June 2000 it launched a public consultation exercise, which has drawn criticism from civil service trade unions.

Background

As Belgium evolves from a unitary to a federal state, the Belgian civil service has been undergoing a permanent reform process during the past decades. An increasing number of competencies have been devolved to regional governments. This has often given the new regional civil service the opportunity to organise on an up-to-date basis, while the federal ministries were first "hollowed out" and then internally restructured, according to the traditional compromises between the French- and Dutch-speaking communities.

These reforms have not made the life of Belgian citizens easier. Before citizens know which part of the civil service to turn to, they must be aware of the political compromises and resulting institutions on each particular topic. The various aspects of employment, for example, involve all levels of the civil service: unemployment insurance, being a part of social security, is a federal responsibility; vocational training, like all education matters, is the province of the communities; job placement, as it is linked to geographically located jobs, remains a regional issue; while occasional employment for long-term unemployed people is offered by local employment agencies, which are controlled by the municipalities.

Obviously, this is quite a complicated and even embarrassing situation, as citizens come to the civil service to have their problems analysed and to be helped with them. Critics state that one should not expect each citizen to be a (semi) professional, who knows exactly whom to address and how to proceed. Furthermore, the lack of horizontal control or coordination between governments and ministries often compels the public to go through similar procedures, forms, questions and "red tape" several times. This is especially annoying for people when the procedures pertain to social security and tax payment, two issues that are still predominantly a federal government responsibility.

A major failure of federal civil service was that leading to the dioxin crisis in May 1999, just a few weeks away from federal elections (BE9906179N). Food control results that showed high concentrations of dioxin in chickens were reported after several weeks of delay to the Minister of Agriculture and the Minister of Public Health, while concrete measures and information to the public were also postponed. When finally the information became public, food-processing risks and government control over them immediately became a major election issue.

The new government was formed by a coalition of liberals, socialists and environmentalists, and the first statement in their July 1999 coalition agreement referred to renewing the (federal) civil service with a view to achieving more transparency and efficiency. This was explicitly put forward as a way of restoring the individual citizen's confidence in the civil service. In addition, the procedure suggested for this reform included an external audit and proposals. Finally, the public would be informed and consulted– arguably a rather vague formulation, considering that the legal foundation for a genuine referendum at federal level is still lacking at this stage.

The Copernicus plan

From the start of the new coalition, reforms were implemented in the civil service, leaving little doubt that the planned consultation of the public would be used to confirm measures that had already been developed. An example of reform is the abolition of the old federal Ministry of Agriculture, obviously motivated by the dioxin crisis. At present, the promotion of agriculture, also abroad, has become a regional competence. On the other hand, the actual monitoring of food products is now performed by the CONSUM (contaminant surveillance system), which involves both the Minister of Agriculture and the Public Health Minister. The system is in charge of ensuring an integrated control of the food-processing chain from the farm to the consumer.

In addition, the Ministry of Employment has already been reformed. It is now governed by a board of directors that includes (semi) governmental organisations involved in employment services. This board will draw up a yearly management plan, which constitutes a commitment by the Ministry toward its environment.

The overall, fully developed reform plan has been presented by the Minister for the Civil Service, Luc Van Den Bossche, as the Copernicus plan- in that the citizens will no longer revolve around the civil service, but the civil service will revolve around the citizens. This implies reforms of organisation and of personnel management, involving:

  • vertical organisation. The number of hierarchical levels will be reduced. Departments will be decentralised and given more autonomy through management plans. Each department will commit itself to certain goals and will be financed by a budgetary "envelope". Evaluation will be retrospective, by means of yearly reports and audits;
  • horizontal organisation. Departments will be coordinated and standardised - for example by using the same information technology. Integrated services will be established for complex processes, for example in the abovementioned food-processing control procedures;
  • human resources management. The reform will bring to an end "linear" careers within the civil service. Candidates from outside the civil service will be able to apply for jobs. Civil servants will be committed to a specific mandate and timing. Overall, the personnel needs of the civil service will be planned on a long-term basis and tally with the employees' skills and performance; and
  • depoliticisation. Promotions at the higher levels of the civil service — widely known to be handled as a political issue at present — will be restricted to a well-determined period. The office linked to each minister will be strongly reduced (in recent decades these have expanded to become ministers' "courts", competing with the civil service).

Public consultation

In early June 2000, a brochure and a short questionnaire on the planned reorganisation of the federal civil service was sent to all Belgian citizens aged 16 years and older. The questionnaire contained 11 standardised questions, starting with a question on general approval or disapproval of the proposed plan. It also raised some questions on management principles: should top management jobs be attributed for a definite period or not, should promotion in civil service be based on tenure, qualifications or skills? Finally, it sought citizens' preferences on the communication medium with the civil service and on the priorities that should be considered in the quality and speed of the service.

The trade unions were bewildered by the consultation approach. On 8 June 2000, the day the consultation started, the Christian Civil Service Federation (Christelijke Centrale der Openbare Diensten/Centrale Chétienne des Services Publiques, CCOD/CCSP), affiliated to the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, CSC/ACV) - issued a statement condemning the consultation as a waste of money, claiming that it had validity neither as a referendum nor as a survey. More reliable information could have been collected through a small survey and consultation of the main collective actors involved. Furthermore, CCOD/CCSP stated that the questions did not offer an actual choice of policy: almost everybody would — publicly — be in favour of a depoliticised civil service where promotion is made on the basis of performance. The actual question should be in which way this has to be realised.

The socialist General Public Service Federation (Algemene Centrale van de Openbare Diensten/Centrale Générale des Services Publiques, ACOD/CGSP), affiliated to the Belgian General Federation of Labour (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, FGTB/ABVV), has similar criticisms to those of its Christian counterpart. It however did not make a public attack and only gave comments to its members. Moreover, none of the trade unions called for a boycott of the consultation.

Commentary

Several of the reorganisation issues can be looked at critically. The fact that, in line with the human resources management approach, the citizen would henceforth be treated as "the client" of the civil service seems to be a kind of Orwellian "newspeak": there is only one civil service; the citizens do not choose for it, nor can they run away from it. The duty of the civil service is to serve the common interests, not to please the individual citizen. "Do I have to treat moonlighters as clients? Or do I have to fight the black-market economy and make sure that all citizens pay their social security contributions?" says Michel Jadot, Secretary General of the Ministry for Labour and Employment (quoted in the De Standaard newspaper on 13 June 2000).

In general, the use of human resources techniques, as now envisaged in the civil service, constitutes a strong challenge to the trade unions: solidarity is hard to organise once employees (1) are no longer engaged in a specific job or working environment and (2) can personally be addressed and made responsible. Solidarity is challenged by versatility and accountability (see J Vilrokx, in "Globalization and labour relations", P Leisink (Ed), Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 1999).

With regard to the consultation exercise, it is a game in which, at each step, the rules can be redefined. The answers will be interpreted in whichever way pleases. Even a high response rate would arguably fail to yield the slightest idea of socio-economic representativeness. Neither the anonymousness of respondents, nor the "one-person one-vote" principle are guaranteed. It can be seen as a fantasy. (Jan De Schampheleire, TESA, VUB)

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