How effectively does the Czech Rep.’s government develop strategic policy solutions and foster dialogue in the process?
The Management Index assesses a country’s capacity for reform. Three categories examine the ability to plan and implement policies. Accountability assesses the extent to which non-executive actors are included in the political process.
There is little strategic planning in government decision-making. No government office in charge of strategic planning exists. The medium-term framework for policy-making is set by the government’s manifesto, which is presented to the Chamber of Deputies by asking for a confidence vote. In the period under review, there were two such presentations of government manifestos. The first was made by the Topolánek government in January 2007, the second by the Fischer government in May 2009. Both were substantial documents that followed negotiation between coalition partners. A rare case of strategic planning is represented by the Independent Panel on the Assessment of the Czech Republic’s Long-Term Energy Requirements. This body was founded in 2007 by the government office, and is responsible for developing policy proposals that span more than one electoral term.
In the Czech Republic, the influence of academic experts on government decision-making is modest. The prime minister’s office and most ministries consult experts and have advisory boards. Some ministries also support, and cooperate with, research institutes. Cases in point include the Institute for International Relations, founded and partially funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Research Institute for Labor and Social Affairs, set up by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. In line with the low standing of academic life in general, however, academics do not enjoy much prestige as advisors if they do not have strong party links. A partial exception was the National Economic Council of the Government, which functioned from January to September 2009 and was intended to advise the government, and hopefully even the European Union, on responses to the economic crisis. Eventually, however, its three reports did not noticeably influence policy-making at the national, let alone the EU, level.
The Office of the Government of the Czech Republic is relatively small and has little sectoral policy expertise. It prepares cabinet meetings, but lacks the capacity to evaluate draft bills. Moreover, the advisers appointed by the prime ministers tend to be experts in political infighting rather than policy specialists.
In the Czech Republic, there is a well-established system for interministerial coordination. Draft bills or important policy proposals must be distributed for comments to the prime minister’s office, all ministries, the Czech National Bank and all other affected public institutions. This ensures that substantial discussion takes place, with comments available for all participants to see. The minister presenting material is obliged to make some response to all comments received. The prime minister’s office has no formal authority beyond that of any other participant in the discussion. The importance of the ministry level is confirmed by the fact that the focus of lobbying activities has shifted from the political arena to individual ministries.
The legislative plan of the government divides tasks among the ministries and other central bodies of the state administration and sets deadlines for the submission of bills to the cabinet. The line ministry has to involve, and take comments from, a range of institutions, including the government office. This consultation process primarily focuses on technical issues. However, the government office has substantial informal power over major issues such as relations with the European Union or the state budget.
In the Czech Republic, a large number of ministerial committees exist, some on a permanent, some on a temporary basis. The most important permanent committees are the Council for National Security, the Council for Legislation and the Committee for the European Union. The last of these, with 17 ministers and two others as members, focuses on issues related to EU membership. In the period examined, this committee prepared the ground for the Czech presidency of the EU Council in the first half of 2009. The committees discuss and approve policy documents, thereby filtering out issues and saving time in cabinet meetings. However, they are not formally and systematically involved in the preparation of cabinet meetings.
Senior ministry officials are generally a crucial link in collecting and discussing comments on proposed legislation. They thereby play a coordinating role between various parts of government, with advisory committees and with outside interests that may be consulted in the preparation of legislation. However, their formal role is poorly defined, and they do not meet on a regular basis to prepare the agenda of cabinet meetings.
Bills are generally prepared by specialized ministerial legislative units in cooperation with departmental units responsible for the content of the proposed legislation. As part of the interministerial coordination process, some coordination among line-ministry civil servants takes place. However, there are no clear rules on coordination, and within ministries strong hierarchies and a departmentalist culture prevail.
Informal coordination mechanisms have featured prominently in the Czech political culture. Under the Topolánek government, coalition party leaders met as required to resolve major policy disputes. The effectiveness of this practice in resolving disagreements is clear from the infrequency of open disputes in government. The Fischer government rested on an agreement made with all of the main political parties and was thus also highly dependent on informal coordination among the parties.
In 2005, regulatory impact assessment (RIA) was introduced as an integral part of public administration reform. Application has rested with a department of the Ministry of the Interior, making use of advice and guidelines from the European Union. By 2008, all draft laws were to be subjected to RIA. Some exceptions were allowed, largely for legislation already in process. There are two forms of RIA, a short and a comprehensive one. The latter is applied when broad policy consequences are envisaged or when a strategic government policy is being examined. In some cases, the assignment has been controversial.
According to the official RIA guidelines, the first step of analysis is to identify whether regulation is necessary at all. In practice, however, RIA studies do not have a separate section on the need for regulation. Instead, the need or absence of need for regulation is established as a general result of the studies.
The official RIA guidelines call for a consideration of alternatives, and the analysis of alternative options has gradually become a common practice. In practice, however, this analysis is often treated as a pure formality. Most RIA studies still focus on assessing a course already proposed by a ministry.
The main formal means of consultation is a tripartite council including government, trade unions and employers’ organizations. This is an arena for consultation on economic and social policy measures, and the council members are also automatically consulted during the process of preparing legislation. No such consultation is formally required when legislation is initiated independently by members of parliament, but such cases are generally unimportant and in practice the main interest associations keep a watch on all parliamentary business and can ensure that their views are pressed by friendly legislators. This method has also been adopted by a number of NGOs, so that relevant legislation is often presented to them automatically by proposing ministries so as not to waste time with debate in parliament. The impact of any of these forms of consultation depends on the willingness of government to listen to alternative views. During the period of the Fischer government there was an exceptional willingness to listen and much of its economic policy was formulated with the help of input from trade unions and employers’ organizations. At least in that period, consultation led both to different policies and to greater acceptability for those policies.
Both the Topolánek and Fischer governments were composed of multiple parties. On a number of occasions, the coalition partners expressed different priorities and preferences regarding fiscal policy, environmental affairs and economic crisis measures. Establishing a coherent communication system was given a high priority during preparations for the Czech EU presidency. In April 2009, the government created the Government Information Center as a response to increasing demands for interactive communication within the state administration and with the public.
Governments’ ability to achieve objectives has varied with those objectives. After parliamentary elections in 2006 resulted in a parliament evenly divided between left and right, the only alternatives were a grand coalition or a potentially unstable government. Topolánek rejected the first possibility, but his initial successes in introducing a flat tax, fees for health care and cuts in social spending came at the cost of exacerbating divisions within the coalition. The government failed in the most fundamental objective of surviving a full electoral period. The Fischer government was intended to last out six months to new elections, without an ambitious program of its own. Following the postponement of elections set for October 2009, it had to struggle on for several more months. In view of its limited ambitions, it could be judged as reasonably successful. However, it lived through what in effect was a permanent pre-election period, in which parliamentary parties pressed their own policy priorities. The main practical goal was preparation of a state budget, and it was impossible to create consensus on its form. The constraints imposed on the Fischer government peaked in spring 2010, when the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) blocked discussion of all bills through the use of procedural obstructions.
In the Czech Republic, governments have tried to ensure ministerial compliance largely through the use of well-defined government programs and coalition agreements. Differences between individual ministers and the government then generally take the form of disagreements between parties and are played out by threats of resignation, potentially bringing down the whole government. During the period of the Topolánek government, there were reasons to remove ministers from both the Christian Democrat party and the Green Party (relating to issues of corruption or incompetence), but to do so would have threatened the existence of the whole government. These were therefore matters of difficult, and public, negotiation and conflict between coalition partners. Ministerial compliance in the Fischer government was reached through an agreement made with all of the main political parties. The problem was thus not so much ministerial compliance as it was securing a parliamentary majority at a time when parties were concerned with imminent elections.
In the Czech Republic, the government office formally monitors the activities of the line ministries. During the Topolánek government, however, the effectiveness of monitoring was complicated by the nature of the coalition government and the eroding informal authority of the prime minister in the coalition and his party. Prime Minister Fischer did not enjoy a strong position vis-à-vis the ministers either.
There is not much delegation of responsibility away from the government in the Czech Republic. The agencies that exist take diverse organizational forms and are monitored in different ways. Most of them enjoy little autonomy, and are monitored relatively thoroughly. In many cases, both the government and the parliament are directly involved in the supervision.
The regional tier within the Czech system of governance has taken on greater importance following a process of consolidation of various administrative functions. However, the regions’ financial dependence on the central government is high, since regional funding comes largely in the form of central government grants, which are subject to annual legislation. It remains a matter of dispute whether regional governments have the financial resources to effectively manage the tasks assigned to them. Under the Topolánek government, negotiations over regional budgets were complicated by opposing political majorities.
Local and regional governments’ discretion over exactly how resources should be spent faces no significant limitations. Effective discretion is limited by the tightness of budgets, but money can be transferred between uses. A clear example of this was the decision of most regional authorities, under predominantly Social Democrat control, to cover the health charges (CZK 30, or about €1.20, for consultation with a doctor) introduced by the Topolánek government. They were able to do this out of health budgets because the sum was reasonably small, and in practice not all patients claimed the money back. However, the policy could not be continued indefinitely without taking resources from outside the health budget, and councils announced they would abandon it even if the new parliament did not withdraw the fees after the May 2010 elections.
A department in the Ministry of the Interior is responsible for overseeing subnational self-governments. Its concern is compliance with existing law and not assessment of efficiency, but laws extend across such issues as regular financial accounting, fair conduct of elections, avoidance of conflict of interest, compliance with rules on disposal of waste materials and freedom of information. Its annual reports show regular monitoring of all levels of self-government, as well as substantial efforts to inform councils of existing legal constraints. The number of breaches of the law, following consultation and advice from the ministry, has declined rapidly as new local authorities have become accustomed to existing law. Thus, in 2008, just 55 out of 10,516 municipality resolutions and proposals were found to be in conflict with the law.
Ever since the mid-1990s, the government’s activities have adapted to, and are strongly influenced by, the EU’s legislative framework. However, the main structures of government and methods of functioning have remained largely unchanged. A more strategic vision, with more cooperation between ministries, was judged necessary for EU relations during the period of the country’s EU presidency. This was addressed by creating the department for European affairs, headed by a minister and located within the government office, which was continued after the presidency moved to its next holder. The creation of the post of minister for human rights and minorities also followed outside criticism that these issues were not being taken seriously across the government as a whole.
The Czech Republic takes part in initiatives led by international organizations, especially the EU and NATO, but its role is that of a passive follower rather than initiator. It is harmed in this regard by its political leaders’ lack of experience on the world stage, and by the strength of a domestic euroskeptic current which has ruled out playing an active leadership role within the European Union. These weaknesses were exposed during the country’s EU presidency in the first half of 2009 (Braun 2009). The stated aim was to make a major impression asserting a conception of the EU as a zone of liberalized economic relations with minimal political coordination. The slogan was to be “Europe without barriers.” Much EU work in that period was a continuation of initiatives already in process, but the Czech government’s position was difficult in three respects. First, the country had not ratified the Lisbon Treaty, but had to work to ensure that terms offered to Ireland gave the maximum chance of a positive vote in a referendum in that country. Second, the Czech government was not convinced of the seriousness of the economic crisis in early 2009, and did not favor a coordinated European response, a position that conflicted with that of major EU members. Third, during military conflict in the Middle East, the Czech foreign minister was unprepared to seek a role in mediating or attempting to resolve the conflict. The Topolánek government was replaced by the Fischer government during that period. That eased relations with other European leaders but did not lead to any new initiatives.
Braun, M. 2009. Czech EU Presidency – a Missed Opportunity.
There is no systematic monitoring of the institutional arrangements of governing. Governments must issue annual reports and a final report at the end of their term in office. However, these reports tend to focus on policies rather than institutions and are normally self-congratulatory. In addition, there are sporadic audits within particular ministries.
In the period under review, institutional structures have undergone little change. The unclear political majorities limited the strategic capacity of the government, so that no major attempts at institutional reform were undertaken.
Information on government policies is easily available to all citizens. After months of what was effectively a prolonged election campaign through late 2009 and early 2010, citizens are likely to be familiar with the basic policies and views of political parties. However, they are less well informed of details, and have limited ability to reach informed evaluations. This reflects weaknesses in the media and the limited range of trusted expert opinions.
Ministers, as well as the leading personnel of major state institutions (e.g., the Supreme Audit Office, Ombudsman, etc.) are obliged to attend committee meetings when asked. According to the rules, ministers are also required to present draft bills to the affected committees. If the ministers send officials below the rank of deputy ministers, committees may, and often do, refuse to discuss a legislative proposal.
The parliamentary Rules of Procedure do not prescribe a particular distribution of subject areas among committees. Instead, distribution is based on custom, tradition and ad hoc decisions by the Chamber of Deputies and its Organizational Committee. The subject areas of committees and ministries normally do not coincide. After the 2006 elections, the number of committees was increased, thereby making the division of labor among committees more similar to that among the ministries than in the previous term. The fact that task areas have not fully coincided has not infringed upon parliamentary oversight of the government. A mirror committee system may not be needed, as some departments have little in the way of a legislative agenda.
The Supreme Audit Office (SAO) is an independent institution that audits the management of state property and provides oversight on national budgetary spending. The president and vice-president of the Supreme Audit Office are appointed by the president of the republic on the basis of a recommendation by the Chamber of Deputies. An advisory board is appointed by parliament following recommendations from the SAO president; however, this was a source of conflict for several years, with parliament rejecting many of the president’s proposals. The reputation of the SAO was damaged by an escalation of the conflict between its president and parliament in autumn 2009. The president was accused of financial irregularities over expenses, but refused to cooperate with an investigation by the relevant parliamentary committee. He claimed it lacked the necessary legal authority, and it did appear that the legal position was unclear.
There is an independent ombuds office (Defender of Public Rights) which is accountable to parliament. It takes up complaints of administrative malpractice, comments on laws and reports to the Constitutional Court when appropriate. During 2009, it was approached with 7,321 complaints from the public, of which 53% were found to fall within its sphere of competence. In 461 cases, the ombuds office questioned the actions of the administration. Save for making its opinion public, however, the office has no powers. It has been given additional responsibilities under the new anti-discrimination law, which are to be fulfilled without an increase in resources, raising questions as to whether the government has been serious about the anti-discrimination agenda.
The main TV and radio stations provide daily news programs and some deeper discussion and analysis programs on a weekly basis. However, much of the commentary is superficial, and debates are usually structured to represent the views of the main political parties. There are very few presenters capable of asking searching questions of politicians. The quality of information on government decisions has improved with the digitalization process. Czech TV set up CT24, a channel dedicated to news, which also broadcasts on the Internet and offers continual analysis of domestic and international events. The Czech Republic’s commercial media sector tends to eschew in-depth analysis of current affairs and instead follows an infotainment or scandal-driven news agenda.
The main Czech political parties present coherent and recognizable policies that fit into a traditional left-right spectrum. On the right, the Civic Democratic Party, as well as a number of other emerging parties with substantial public backing, argue strongly for an urgent rebalancing of the budget without higher taxes or an increase in the progressiveness of the tax system. They see no need for an anti-crisis agenda beyond one of maintaining low taxes on business and high earners, or of cutting taxes further when possible. The emphasis therefore has to be on cutting social spending and charging for social services such as health care. On the left, the Social Democrats argue for continued state spending on social benefits and for an active anti-crisis program with state spending on infrastructural development. This is to be financed by a more progressive tax system, and they are more prepared to tolerate a budget deficit. The Communist Party has a similar bias toward supporting welfare spending and tolerating higher tax levels. However, its policy mix, including a reluctant attitude toward the European Union, appears more geared to attracting discontented voters than to providing a coherent framework for government. The outcome of the 2010 parliamentary elections points to increasing doubts in the country about the plausibility and sustainability of the Social Democratic program as well.
The main employers’ union and the main trade union center both have considerable resources and expertise with which to develop coherent policies. Trade unions have considerable competence with regard to labor relations and economic policy more generally, and have the ability to lobby ministries and parliament and to influence government directly through the tripartite consultation structures. Employers also have access to considerable resources, but have a slightly different agenda, favoring a less regulated labor market and lower business taxes. The two found common ground during the economic global crisis, when the economic interest associations became important partners for the government as it sought solutions which would ensure economic prosperity and societal cohesion.
Interest associations have mushroomed in the Czech Republic since 1990. Currently, there are more than 85,000 civil society organizations. However, the ability of interest associations to propose reasonable policies is limited. Most of them lack the resources for high-quality policy analysis. Moreover, interest associations have only gradually been included in the policy-making process. The increasing presence of representatives of some civil society associations on advisory committees within ministries has improved their access to information and their opportunity to take part in debates. The Roman Catholic Church, the most active religious organization, has a limited political agenda and has largely focused on issues of direct concern.
Governments in charge
SGI 2011 review period (May 2008 to April 2010) is outlined. Shown are: Prime minister or president, type of government, and ruling parties. Asterisks indicate national parliamentary or presidential elections.
Country scores and texts were produced by the country coordinator, based on comprehensive assessments by two country experts.
Dr. Frank Bönker University of Cooperative Education, Leipzig
Prof. Zdenka Mansfeldova Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague