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Our civilisation will be facing unprecedented challenges in the upcoming decades. We will observe a drastic climate change followed by a mass forced migration that it will trigger. We will witness a changing role of technology including the rising cyberwar threats, increasing power of technology companies and automation of various sectors of the economy. These are the issues that we should think of as our biggest challenges. These changes will pose serious threats to every single state in the international system.
The extent to which each of them will be able to respond correctly and protect the well-being of their citizens will depend on the quality of government they will achieve. Badly designed laws may even exasperate the problems and as the clock is ticking, we are no longer able to afford any mistakes if we want mankind to survive. That is why it is now more important than ever to develop and maintain professional civil service. It will take care of the implementation of the complex solutions that the XXI century’s biggest problems will require. It will be the role of the youth to pressure the government to professionalise but, we also have to get involved directly. We – the students – need to start thinking about the ways to challenge the status quo among the Polish state institutions. The time horizon of the incumbent politicians is too narrow for that.
Why is the Polish state inefficient?
The quality of the civil service in Poland after the democratic transformation has never been high and in recent years it has gotten even worse. According to professor Grzegorz Makowski from the University of Warsaw, there are three main problems that curb the effectiveness of the professional core of government in Poland. The Polish civil service is only responsible for a quarter of the administration as it shares its power with various state institutions such as the Social Insurance Institution (ZUS) or the National Health Fund (NFZ). As a result, a large part of the governance is done inefficiently.
What is more, the legal environment in which the civil service operates in, is unstable and therefore, undermines the long-term planning that should be the core of the civil service’s work. The most recent example of such instability is the 2015 amendment to the ‘Civil Service Act’ that replaced the merit-based selection of directors of the civil service with a process of political appointments. Also, the civil service, despite the number of talented people it employs, suffers from serious management problems. The cooperation between different departments is very limited. The wages are in general low and the bonus schemes often depend more on personal decisions rather than goal-oriented assessments. Task- and goal-based management systems are lacking. Even with a great talent pool, the institutions cannot be effective if their structure does not incentivise their employees to do the best they can.
What does an inefficient state mean for the future?
An inefficient state now means an inefficient state in ten- or fifteen-year’s time if no serious change is implemented. An inefficient state in ten or fifteen years means an immense risk for the Polish population. Take the AI-driven technological changes as an example. Imagine that within a few years or decades the human kind develops AI-driven solutions that enable entirely new ways of managing the society. To many, this is a likely scenario. Now, these solutions will require sophisticated public policies to make sure that the society benefits from them rather than succumbs into a dystopian entity with Mark Zuckerberg managing the privacy and Silicon Valley billionaires creating tax solutions.
Setting aside the question of whether such policies are possible at all, if they are, they have to be implemented right. And, once we are about to begin implementing them, we need a professional and efficient state administration in place to undertake this task. If our state is inefficient and its governing institutions cannot coordinate their efforts, no politician will be able to adapt our country to the challenges of the rapidly changing modern world.
What can be done?
Our fight for a better civil service in Poland will have to be fought on two grounds. There is a problem of social norms and the problem of institutions themselves. When it comes to the former, a 2011 study referenced by professor Markowski has found that 60% of the Polish adults have never heard the term ‘civil service’ itself. These findings reflect the fact that the issue of the quality of state institutions in Poland is very much non-existent in the public discourse. Certain institutions such as Klub Jagiellonski or Nowa Konfederacja keep their focus on these issues but despite their intellectual contribution, they struggle to channel their arguments to a broader audience.
An interesting and to some extent scandalous case of Bartosz Sienkiewicz’s book ‘Państwo Teoretyczne’ has shown that generating higher public interest in state governance is possible. However, an entirely different scale of the change is necessary to produce any tangible impact. Without the wide public support for improvements in the quality of state administration, it is unlikely that any political force will embark upon the path of major reform. Therefore, educating the public about the crucial role of the civil service in their lives should be a priority for anyone who wants to improve the quality of governance in Poland.
The second aspect of the fight for a better governance is defined by the institutional structure of the civil service and by the people it employs. The politicians as well as the general public have to acknowledge the institutional limitations of the Polish civil service and argue for a major reform that will make it efficient and therefore ready for the challenges of the next decades. The civil service should be rewarding its most ambitious, hard-working and talented members to make sure that the best individuals can make the biggest impact on how our country functions.
The civil service should open up to the youth and start competing with the biggest corporations for the most talented employees. It may not be able to compete in terms of wages, but its comparative advantage lies in the social impact of work it can offer. Probably many of us would prefer to leave work on Friday, having helped to improve the lives of thousands of people rather than having assessed the risk of a new financial instrument. That is at least what the author of this article hopes is the case. It may as well be the case that filling in an excel file at a ministry and in an office of a consultancy firm is just as boring. But at least, the impact of these columns and rows is different. However, for the youth to even consider such alternative, the civil service has to make the first move and open up to the creative and to the future-oriented individuals.
The challenge for our student diaspora
Having established the importance of the civil service and bearing in mind its shortcomings, it is now necessary to ask the question: what does our community have to do with this problem? The answer is: we should get involved. Lots of Polish students studying in the United Kingdom are considering coming back to Poland. We get lured by good salaries and prestigious brands that the Polish companies are now offering us at various events. But having lived in two countries and having experienced the social and political dynamics of two different states, we are now in a unique position to become a part of something much more important than a 70-hours-a-week corporate race.
We can go back home and use our experience to actually change the lives of people for better. We risk being elitist and we should keep it in our minds. It is not about creating alumni societies and planning political careers. It is about choosing the career path that will enable making the best social use of our experience abroad. The author of this article believes that such, could be exercised through our service at the Polish public institutions, especially the civil service.
But isn’t all of this contradictory? We have just argued that the Polish civil service requires major changes to be able to offer the young people a real opportunity for development. The answer is: we don’t have enough time to wait for that. The stakes in the XXI century are too high and they keep rising. Different groups have different obligations. The incumbent politicians should start taking seriously the issue of improving the quality of the civil service drastically. The activists on all sides of the political isle should acknowledge that the ideological differences can only be fully relevant for public policy if the apparatus to implement it is well-suited for doing so. And us, the students, we should be the ones to challenge the status quo from the inside.
Go, work for your government. Introduce an innovative idea. Get silenced once. Get silenced twice. Succeed. Then become a superior that will not silence his team members. Good reforms in thinking about the civil service and in the way, it works have to be accompanied by the right people ready to offer their talent to their state. The author believes that it should be us. Let us start looking at the civil service in Poland as our nr 1 future employer.
By Michał Tarnowski, University of Oxford Graduate
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