It pays to work at the office of the government.

The latest flap in the Czech Republic concerns the salaries of public officials. In recent days, it has come to light that some ministry officials have received enormous payouts, usually consisting of a lowish base salary plus lots of bonuses. Some of the outrage has been appropriate, as some media have reported that a controversial official, whom we all thought has resigned under public pressure because of his extreme right opinions, had actually officially stayed on in the Education Ministry so he could receive a 250,000 crown ($12,545) golden handshake.

But what really seems to have irked people, especially the media, is the monthly compensation of Prime Minister Petr Necas’s head of cabinet. Last year, Jana Nagyova evidently received hundreds of thousands of crowns in bonuses and took home 273,000 crowns gross ($13,700) in March alone – much more than her boss, the prime minister. It’s certainly legitimate to question those amounts and whether the state, which has been making cuts left and right to stave off the economic crisis, should be compensating officials that generously – especially because, it turns out, Nagyova is far from the only one that has benefited from those types of bonuses.

Yet there also seems to be more than a touch of envy in all of this outrage, the kind of post-communist jealousy that crops up every once in a while in these parts. I’ve seen this since the early 1990s when people assumed that every wealthy person had come to their riches illegally (often they were right, but not always). That attitude has tailed off to some extent as successful, self-made people have appeared on the scene, people that haven’t enriched themselves through shady business deals and political connections.

But it’s still lurking below the surface and the media apparently realize that they can tap into that envy and get a response. Take, for example, the headline in today’s Mlada fronta DNES, the country’s most-read, serious daily: “Too much money for the prime minister’s secretary,” which was followed by

Head of Prime Minister Petr Necas’s cabinet Jana Nagyova last year received hundred-thousand-crown bonuses, just in March it was 190,000. The money suited her well. According to the real estate registry, she’s paying off three apartments in Prague.

The newspaper also then listed the locations of the three flats. Now if that isn’t intended to make people begrudge her success, I don’t know what is.

There are also two other larger issues at stake here, one positive and one negative. On the positive side, the case should help make more information of this type public. According to the news site aktualne.cz, Nagyova’s compensation figures appeared first on a new online publication called Insider, but not as a result of requests to the office of the government. That institution is one of several that have refused to publicize the salaries of its officials – despite valid freedom of information requests and a landmark ruling last year by the Supreme Administrative Court that such information should be public. All of the fuss around Nagyova has thankfully called attention to those who still ignore FOI requests.

On the downside, as Jan Machacek pointed out in a commentary on Respekt today, the controversy makes clear the enormous need for a civil service law that would create rules of the game for rewarding officials. Then it wouldn’t seem so arbitrary and open to abuse (Nagyova was awarded those bonuses for supposedly extraordinary performance of her duties, though at least some of that, i.e. preparing documents for a NATO summit or about reforms, would seem to me to be in her job description).

The Law on the Civil Service was actually approved in 2002, in the lead up to the country’s entry into the EU, but has never taken effect; its starting date has been repeatedly delayed owing to political disputes, leaving the Czech Republic as the only EU country without such a law. Yet again after the spring elections of 2010, various officials were replaced because of their political affiliations rather than merit. Apparently the interior ministry is now working on a completely new civil service law in connection with its anti-corruption strategy.

So hopefully, after the buzz over this specific salary dies down, pressure will mount for a civil service law. It’s not a sexy topic, and you can almost see potential readers rolling their eyes at its mere mention, but this bonus bonanza has been just one more example why a functioning, modern state needs such legislation.

Image of Strakova akademie, site of the office of the government, is from the office’s website.

Jeremy Druker

Jeremy Druker is the executive director and editor in chief of Transitions Online. Twitter: @JeremyDruker Email: jeremy.druker@tol.org

More Posts