Background institutions are closed down in the new year – and this is a huge problem

The Hungarian government has been promising to close down / merge institutions belonging under the governance of ministries and this plan has finally been realized. Why did it happen and why is it such a problem? What were the responsibilities of these institutions so far and what will happen to their previous tasks now? Let us explain.

Government bodies incapable of making decisions, loss of independence in decision- making

For the past 10 years or so a system has been in place in Hungary which was built upon the separation of ministries and central offices. The main responsibility of ministries is the prep work for governmental decisions. If the government has chosen one of the professionally equally acceptable alternatives, it is the job of the ministry to work out the decision’s legal background (i.e., the relevant law or decree.) The job of the central offices is, on the other hand, the handling of routine tasks which do not require political decisions, albeit which very much require specialised expertise. For example, it is the responsibility of the Egészségügyi Készletgazdálkodási Intézet [National Institute for the Managing of Medical Stocks] to manage the National Health Reserve and to manage health care supplies. Now that central offices have been merged into ministries, the two functions – the political and the professional – are tangled up. This is going to lead to significant problems.

Why is it such a problem that an organization under the direction of the minister loses its independence?

Fundamentally, this is a three-fold problem. The first danger is that authoritative decisions may be manipulated. What harms most the lawfulness and independence of authoritative decisions? Of course, it is politics. If the decision-making process is specifically happening within the ministry, even the pretence of independence is lost. From this point on, there will be virtually nothing to prevent penalizing political enemies, giving out permits to friends of parties involved or supporting projects which serve political means.

The second danger is that professional control is lost. For example, the agency for the protection of heritage could so far prevent giving permits to such building plans which would destroy historic buildings. Now that it has been merged into a ministry, even the formal opportunity for independent decision-making and observing other than political considerations is lost.

The third danger is that with the merger of governing bodies, the responsibilities of those bodies get tangled up as well. Just consider for a second, how can a patient representative take a stand against a hospital, when they belong to the same ministry which has recently been constantly repeating the mantra of “everything’s fine in health care?”

Why is it benefitting the government and what are the foreseeable consequences?

Gigantic institutions are being created which simply cannot be controlled. No leader could possibly manage a body of thousands of employees, handle organizational and professional issues, and know at all times who is supposed to do what. The new system will therefore not be any more efficient, it will make fair decision-making entirely impossible and it will virtually immobilize the workings of public administration. The reorganization cannot be explained with reasons of administration or policy, total political takeover can be the only explanation. Public administration often already expects political orders as it is. In such a system, however, nobody will ever dare take a step unless the minister has signed off on it.

As to what will remain after such steamrolling, we do not dare guess. What is already clear, however, is that we, as a society, will have more to do than ever in 2017 to protect civil liberties.

Márton Asbóth

translated by: Brigi Hudácskó

lectured by: Kenneth Baldonieri

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