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The Neverending story of senior civil service depoliticisation in Serbia

Political influence on public administration is as old as administration itself. Given that civil servants are the ones who implement government policies, having control over them means controlling the institutions that execute political power and implement policies. This control also opens opportunities for rewarding loyalists and achieving political interests.
When reduced to a minimum, such political manoeuvre is less likely to have a lasting impact on an administration’s functioning, but when it becomes overwhelming, a state apparatus can be completely captured by transient political actors, in the service of interests other than public.

For a modern democracy, seeking to join the EU, professional and depoliticised civil service is necessary, not only for the sake of fulfilling membership conditions, but to enable society to achieve its socio-economic development potentials, and citizens to exercise their rights. In Serbia, however, international organisations and domestic civil society have reported on the issue of civil service politicisation since the start of democratic transition two decades ago. Still, the depoliticisation process, exceptionally prominent when it comes to the top echelon of the state administration senior civil service (SCS), has gone unaccomplished to the present day.

There are at least three inter-connected aspects of the SCS politicisation. First, acting senior civil servants, appointed temporarily until the right candidate is selected in the competition procedure, have become a regular instead of a temporary solution for filling in managerial positions, eliminating the principle of merit for recruitment.

Second, the very process of appointment of acting managers has become heavily compromised by frequent extensions of acting periods, beyond legal limits, constituting a perpetuated rule of law violation. Finally, even when competition procedures for SCS positions are implemented, there are additional and completely obscure political vetting procedures, due to which candidates proposed in the legal process often do not get appointed by the Government.

Since public administration reform belongs to the fundamental negotiation cluster that the EU microscopically observes, SCS politicisation has become an obstacle on Serbia’s EU path over the years. However, a more severe consequence is that, by politically controlling the administration, the Government makes decisions and policies at the expense of rule of
law. Altogether, these bring forward principal concern that if politics does not let the civil service be, Serbia will simply entrench in weak institutions in an unforeseeable future, unable to unlock country’s development potential and improve citizens’ quality of life.

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