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As COVID-19 spread across the globe, many countries called a state of alarm or emergency. In the period between 16 March and 6 May, Serbia was also in a state of emergency. Following its introduction, the government published numerous recommendations and adopted several concrete measures aimed at preventing the virus from spreading and protecting citizens. At the same time, it was of high importance that the government and public administration as a whole – while working to manage and resolve the crisis – continued to perform their work and deliver services to citizens.
A reliable and accountable public administration, able to quickly reorganise its work and adjust to new circumstances is what citizens need. Senior civil servants, as public managers placed directly under politically elected officials, play a crucial role in this regard. Considering the top managerial role of senior civil servants, in times of crisis it is even more important that they are highly competent, autonomous in their work, and experienced in managing and co-ordinating people and processes in administration. However, Serbia was led through the crisis by an administration in which half of the senior civil servants’ positions were occupied by managers in acting status, poorly suited for the task at hand. This is because in many cases acting managers have little managerial and organisational skill. Moreover, as a result of the high uncertainty of their jobs, they are highly susceptible to political pressure, with minimal autonomy regarding political leadership.
The role of public managers in the new circumstances
Recognising physical distancing as one of the key tools for the fight against the coronavirus, the Serbian government introduced several measures to decrease interaction between people. One of them was the adoption of the Regulation on the Organisation of Work During the State of Emergency, which strongly advised companies to introduce teleworking as much as possible. Public administration bodies also introduced this way of organising work. With a large number of civil servants working from home and using different tools to communicate with colleagues and stakeholders (including citizens), new skills were required for managers and particularly senior civil servants who are in charge of managing the work of other civil servants and who also played a crucial role in the re-organisation of work amid recent extraordinary circumstances. This includes ensuring that civil servants continue to perform their tasks through remote work, and that public administration bodies continue to deliver services to citizens.
Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence from the early period of the state of emergency confirmed findings from previously conducted research that senior civil servants generally lack managerial skills, as they are, primarily, experts in relevant fields and not managers. Highly experienced managers had more success in quickly reorganising the work of their employees, while those lacking managerial experience, especially those in the acting positions, struggled to cope with this situation in terms of the daily management of human resources and the organisation of work. Experienced ones, for instance, introduced new routines in the work of their teams such as morning calls and daily briefings via online communication platforms, or even bought software for project and team management and better communication, while less experienced ones, mostly acting managers, took longer to adjust to the new circumstances. This is to say that in times of abrupt change in how work is done, managerial accountability, and especially autonomy, traditionally at low levels in Serbia, come to the fore. The high proliferation of acting managers among senior positions systematically devalues managerial autonomy and competence in the Serbian public administration, as those with acting status are not sufficiently accountable and often lack managerial skills. For this reason, the issue of (ab)using the option of appointing acting managers has to be brought forward once again in the light of the recent extraordinary situation.
Acting positions resistant to changes in the legal framework
The latest amendments to the Law on Civil Servants (CSL) in December 2018 were supposed to breathe new life into civil service policy. One of the most important aspects of this reform process was to regulate anew the positions and statuses of acting senior civil servants and to prevent the politicisation of senior posts in administration. As indicated not only in several CEP publications but also in SIGMA monitoring reports and European Commission country reports, the excessive use of acting senior personnel in the public administration has become widespread. Acting status is only temporary for a legally set period (of six months, with a possible three-month extension) until the completion of competition procedures to fill their positions, however, a number of these acting managers retained temporary statuses long after the expiration of the maximum period, corroding not only PAR but also rule of law. To prevent this phenomenon from occurring, these amendments have specified, among other changes, that only existing civil servants, formerly recruited through competition and on merit-based principles, can be appointed to acting senior posts.
Number of acting managers in SCS positions (December 2019)
The amended CSL has been applied since 1 January 2019 and allowed a “grace period” until 1 July 2019 for all acting senior civil servants appointed based on previous norms to remain in their positions. Close examination of personnel solutions adopted in 2019’s government sessions, however, shows that the application of the new CSL solutions in its first year was cumbersome and suggests persisting politicisation regarding the appointment of acting managers. For example, in the period from 25 April to end of June 2019, there were 141 of these appointments. Out of the that number, 136 were given an additional three months on their terms, meaning that senior civil servants appointed in 2018 or even later were reappointed for additional periods, contrary to the newly imagined CSL solutions.
Outside of simply looking at the numbers, there are clear examples of acting managers such as heads of institutions retaining their positions, despite the renewed CSL, for longer than the legally permitted maximum term of six months, with an additional three (some examples include heads of the Office for Kosovo and Metohija and the Public Investment Management Office). Moreover, a monthly breakdown shows that in June 2019 alone (the last month of the “grace period”), the government appointed 75 acting managers. This trend continued after June as well – with the highest number of appointments (78), taking place in July. This has led to a situation in which 207 acting managers occupied senior civil service positions at the end of 2019 (out of the total number of 379 senior civil service positions as envisaged by the rulebooks on systematisation). Given that the number of acting managers in March 2019 was 209, functionally no progress was made in this regard. In fact, this data provides evidence of the continued circumvention of the law in the appointment of acting senior civil servants despite the application of the amended CSL.
Old habits die hard even during the state of emergency
Although the start of 2020 showed slowing down of this negative trend, as the number of acting managers decreased from 207 in December 2019 to 189 in March of this year, during the state of emergency instituted due to the coronavirus outbreak the habit of appointing acting managers continued.
Number of acting managers in SCS positions (March 2020)
Data available on the website of the Government of Serbia shows that between 19 March and 16 April (i.e. during the state of emergency), the government appointed an additional 76 managers in the “acting” status. Out of these appointments, 73 were appointed to an additional three months on their terms, suggesting that this breach of the law continues.
A breakdown by institution informs that some bodies resorted more frequently than others to appointing acting managers in this period. The Ministry of Finance clearly takes first place with 18 appointments, while the Office for Kosovo and Metohija ranks second with 11 acting appointments. Other noteworthy mentions are the Ministry of Culture and Information with 5 appointments, the Statistical Office with 4, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forest and Water Management, the Ministry of Construction, Transport and Infrastructure, the Ministry of European Integration, and the Ministry of Economy with 3 acting appointments each. Altogether the coronavirus caused disruptions it did not seem to seriously reduce this ingrained, harmful practice within the civil service. On the other hand, the pandemic seems to have worked in the opposite manner, allowing the government to continue in its undisguised practice of politicising the civil service.
Acting manager appointements by institution in the period from 19 March to 16 April
The takeaway message remains the same as before
The amended CSL seems unable to free public services from the binds of politicisation, as senior civil service positions are not filled by competition procedures based on principles of merit. In actuality, many senior managers’ posts (around 50%) are still occupied by acting managers. Moreover, there is no change in the pace of appointing new ones, even after the end of the coronavirus crisis and the state of emergency. Most recent data shows that 17 acting managers were appointed at three government sessions between the 7th to the 21st of May. It is apparent that success in reforming civil service policy so far is irrespective of changes to the CSL and is, rather, dependent on a shift in the political culture and the behaviour of politicians and policymakers, a shift which would render the abuse of acting positions simply unacceptable, an attitude plainly lacking at the moment.
Numerous studies, analyses and reports, including those by the European Commission, SIGMA/OECD and CEP, have insisted on the seriousness of the problem of the persistent politicisation of the senior civil service, providing detailed recommendations on how to overcome this problem. The key recommendation for the government is to fully enforce the articles of the CLS related to acting managers in the immediate term. The acting managers who do not meet the requirements for their positions should be replaced by competent civil servants appointed based on competitive, competence-based procedures. Moreover, in the mid-term, the CSL itself should be amended in order to decrease the role and influence of politically elected officials in recruitment processes. In addition to the legal aspect of this problem, in the upcoming period focus should be given to changing the political culture among politicians and policymakers in order to create a better understanding of the benefits of a professional civil service. Political leadership can greatly benefit from public managers competent enough to manage the administration in regular times, and, even more importantly, in times of crisis. If the government once again fails to deliver on this issue, it will be a clear message of its intention to indefinitely perpetuate window-dressing reform.
 See: Vladimir Mihajlović, Dušan Protić, A Good Public Manager – Which Profile of Senior Civil Servant Does Serbia Need?, European Policy Centre, Belgrade, 2018.
 See: Klas Klaas, Lech Marcinkowski, Milena Lazarević, Managerial accountability in the Western Balkans, A comparative analysis of the barriers and opportunities faced by senior managers in delivering policy objectives, SIGMA Paper No. 58, 2018.
 Vladimir Mihajlović, Dušan Protić, A Good Public Manager – Which Profile of Senior Civil Servant Does Serbia Need?, European Policy Centre, Belgrade, 2018; Milos Đinđić, Dragana Bajić, National PAR Monitor Serbia 2017/2018, European Policy Centre, Belgrade, 2018; Vladimir Mihajlović, The Senior Civil Service System in Serbia – 12 Years of Simulated Depoliticisation, European Policy Centre, Belgrade, 2019; Vladimir Mihajlovic, Serbia Scores a Weak Two in Professionalisation of Public Administration, European Policy Centre, Belgrade, 2018.
 Milos Đinđić, Dragana Bajić, National PAR Monitor Serbia 2017/2018, European Policy Centre, Belgrade, 2018 p. 80-84. Vladimir Mihajlovic, The Senior Civil Service System in Serbia – 12 Years of Simulated Depoliticisation, European Policy Centre, Belgrade, 2019.
 The reference period observed starts after the deadline for the adoption of new rulebooks on internal organisation and job systematisation and ends with expiration of the grace period, in accordance with the amended CSL.
 Data provided by the Government Human Resource Management Service (HRM).
 Data provided by the HRMS.
 For detailed recommendations how to improve civil service system in Serbia see: Vladimir Mihajlović, Dušan Protić, “A Good Public Manager – Which Profile of Senior Civil Servant Does Serbia Need?”, European Policy Centre, Belgrade, 2018, p. 33-37; Milos Đinđić, Dragana Bajić, National PAR Monitor Serbia 2017/2018, European Policy Centre, Belgrade, 2018, p. 90.93; Vladimir Mihajlović, The Senior Civil Service System in Serbia – 12 Years of Simulated Depoliticisation, European Policy Centre, Belgrade, 2019; OECD (2019), “The Principles of Public Administration Monitoring Report Serbia 2019”, SIGMA, Paris: OECD Publishing, p. 19, European Commission (2019), “Commission working document Serbia 2019 report”, Brussels: European Commission, p. 9.