World’s best civil servant is Greek

Whichever party wins the May 6 elections, reforming the state will be one of its major challenges. Yet in a way that is as encouraging as it is surprising, it was a Greek who was elected ‘Best Official in the World’ by an American institution.

Published on 4 May 2012 at 15:22

Panagiotis Karkatsoulis is a man of many enthusiasms. He expresses himself through dialogues in which he uses different voices to act out his own role (deep) and the roles of others (higher-pitched). He gesticulates, scratches his head, scribbles diagrams on paper, and writes something else down at full speed. He never stops. Sometimes he wraps up with a: “Whew, that was me trying to explain an idea!”

To be considered a rarity is something that launches him into another of these outbursts. Though he gets angry, he laughs at the same time. “Me, an exception? I’m no exception!” Recalling the media coverage a few months ago when he received the award of the American Society for Public Administration (which recognises an individual who has made significant contributions to public administration outside the USA), he said: “They went to ask people on Syntagma Square if they could guess the nationality of the best official in the world. One there replied, ‘Swedish, Finnish, German…. Surely not Greek!’ Another,” he smiles, “simply said, ‘Anyone but a Greek.’”

23,000 different responsabilities

Panagiotis Karkatsoulis works at the Ministry of Administrative Reform, which brought him into frequent contact with officials of the troika [IMF, ECB and the European Commission]. He also teaches at the National School of Public Service. He received us in his office, which contains several reproductions, including one of the Gilbert & George duo. It’s a rose-hued picture that agrees with his shirt today. In his department, he says, the officials are highly competent and dedicated. “The people here were among the highest paid, with salaries of about 3,000 euros. Today, they’re getting a little over a thousand. These people could all leave for the private sector. But they’ve stayed on. And they work longer hours than before. Why? I don’t know. Probably something like patriotism…

Karkatsoulis’s indignation does not dwell too long on the bloated, and crazy, machinery of Greek public administration. A study he did with 200 of his colleagues at the request of the troika revealed that the central administration has about 23,000 different responsibilities, and that they change on average 1,140 times a year. But today he downplays all that. “These figures reveal something. Yes, 23,000 official competencies is a huge number. But if we look closely, we see that all these 23,000 competencies do not affect the staff in the same way; and some are there, but they’re not useful.”

The troika is wrong to want quick solutions, and it ignores the reality of the country it finds itself in, he argues. Its officials know nothing about the place they are posted to. “There was one who came up to ask: ‘Is this all related to something deeper, something in your DNA?’“, he recounts, voice rising. But he lowers his tone immediately to excuse them: “True, they’re under heavy pressure.”

What they are asking for from Greece is hard to deliver. “It’s as if they want us to run one hundred kilometre in ten seconds while looking like a nineteenth-century slave. It’s not possible,” Karkatsoulis declares, annoyed. “This is about an objective parameter. This is not a discussion about if I’m going to do it, if I’m corrupt for not doing it, or if I don’t feel like doing it. It simply can’t be done!”

Reforms that were never carried out

Another thing that irritates him is the impression that the problem [of Greece] is easy to sort out. “Oh, really? Then why is everybody hunting around for a solution, even [the economist] Paul Krugman?” What gets on his nerves even more is that “often they’ve deployed some pretty simple thinking, thinking that’s a bit primitive. For example, someone comes from France and says, ‘Reform this.’ Most of them are trying to transfer their own reality to Greece.”

There is a problem in Greece with reforms that have been announced a thousand times and never carried out. Who doesn’t back the reforms? “You tell me. The system? It’s clear that politicians don’t want the changes. If this were the case, why do they do everything they can to oppose it?” he asks. “Many things ought to change,” Karkatsoulis adds, “not only in Greece, but in Brussels and in the IMF too. And if nothing happens, the only prediction I can make is that the crisis will get worse.”

Which brings us to the elections. Who will Panagiotis Karkatsoulis vote for? “I don’t know; I’m open to suggestions,” he jokes. “If we judge on rational criteria, we have to vote for one of the two big parties [PASOK, on the left, and New Democracy, on the right]. Things are bad, but they’re going to get better. If, on the other hand, you think things will get worse, you have to move further to the left or further to the right.”

He says, however, that he will choose one of those two parties because he believes that “it’s easier to bring in changes through these parties. Small parties will take a lot more time to get anything done.” He compares the current situation with what happened after the fall of the dictatorship [in 1974], when the leftist parties proliferated: “I was involved in that, of course. It was a generational thing.”

Contrary to the political analysts, Karkatsoulis does not consider this election to be a key moment. “I don’t think it’s so dramatic; I don’t give them so much importance. Greece is in transition and it’s going to go on for a few years more.”

From Athens

Close-fought elections

"From the outskirts of Athens to the last village deep in the countryside", the two main parties, New Democracy (right) and PASOK (socialist) are neck and neck, predicts To Vima. For the newspaper, the May 6 elections will be fought out —

between those who are for the Memorandum [the document signed with the ‘Troika’] and those who are against it. The distinctions of the past, based on party ideologies, are now completely outdated. What separates the parties, in truth, is their position on the economic programme and the repayments of the country’s loans. "Right" and "Left" have no real meaning any more, and the political order is about to change. (….) The proliferation of small parties and the rise of extreme ones is proof of that. Unfortunately, either in what they say or what they suppress, the two big parties are lying: they say they have the solutions, and they do not.

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