How effectively does Slovakia’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.
The institutional capacity for strategic planning in Slovakia is weak. Capacities for planning in the ministries are limited, and there is no central policy planning unit in the Government Office. The Fico government showed little interest in strategic planning and did not develop any long-term strategies. Policy-making strongly relied on informal and intransparent agreements in the coalition council, which consists of the three leaders of the government parties only.
Under the Fico government, the influence of academic experts decreased substantially. Prime Minister Fico regarded most scholars and think tanks as allies of the previous government and thus was not interested in their advice. The government discontinued the cooperation and exchange with the Research Center of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association (SFPA) and the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO), Slovakia’s two most important independent think tanks. Other public research institutes did not fall out of favor. The government supported “prognostic” research on a development strategy for Slovakia, which was conducted by the Slovak Academy of Sciences and by the Economic University in Bratislava. It organized a public discussion of the findings of this research and adopted them as a government document. However, the actual tangible impact of this document and other advice on government policy-making was limited.
Slovakia has a strong tradition of departmentalism and collegial cabinets (Blondel et al. 2007). The Government Office focuses on the legal and technical coherence of draft bills, but lacks the capacity and sectoral expertise to evaluate their policy content. Prime Minister Fico made little use of the policy expertise available at the Government Office.
Blondel, Jean, Ferdinand Müller-Rommel, Darina Malová et al., 2007: Governing New Democracies. Basingstoke/ London: Palgrave.
The Government Office has the formal power to return draft laws on policy grounds. In practice, however, the gatekeeping role of the Government Office is of limited importance since most legislative projects are discussed beforehand in the coalition council and undergo a complex process of interministerial coordination. Prime Minister Fico pursued an informal and personalistic style of governing and did not make much use of the Government Office’s formal competencies.
The Government Office is not systematically involved in line ministries’ preparation of policy proposals. Once the government manifesto and the coalition council have defined certain projects, the full responsibility for drafting bills rests with the line ministries. The Government Office is only occasionally briefed about the state of affairs and seldom intervenes. Under the Fico government, this particularly applied to the line ministries led by Smer-SD’s coalition partners.
Cabinet committees have traditionally played an important role in the preparation of cabinet meetings in Slovakia. Under the Fico government, their importance declined. Instead, the coalition council, the prime minister and the minister of finance took on more important roles in the process of interministerial coordination.
Senior ministry officials are heavily involved in the interministerial coordination process. They take care of the coordination at the drafting stage. In addition, there is a special reconciliation procedure involving senior civil servants in the event of conflicts among ministers.
Line ministries are required to coordinate with other ministries at early stages of the legislative process. Coordination by civil servants is complicated by a strong departmentalist culture. Under the Fico government, the “outsourcing” of law-making to think tanks that had been characteristic of the Dzurinda government, lost relevance. At the same time, the politicization of ministries limited the scope for bureaucratic coordination “from the bottom.”
In the Fico government, informal coordination procedures played a significant role in policy coordination. The leaders of the three parties in government met frequently and took major decisions in the coalition council. Press conferences after these meetings were rare. When they took place, very limited information about the decisions taken was given. The dominant role of the three party leaders in their parties also meant that a lot of policy coordination took place in party meetings.
The provisions on RIA are still in flux. RIA application suffers from a number of weaknesses (Chren 2009). First, RIA are not obligatory and can be circumvented relatively easily. Second, the supervision of RIA is divided among different agencies, and the supervising agencies can only check the formal correctness of the assessments, but not their substantial quality Third, as RIA is strongly integrated in the normal process of interministerial coordination, it is often reduced to an instrument for improving coordination within government.
Chren, Martin 2009: Better Regulation in the Slovak Republic: Consultation Practices within the Process of Public Policies - Challenges and Opportunities. Paris: OECD (http://www.sigmaweb.org/dataoecd/32/26/41838209.pdf).
The Fico government’s willingness to consult with economic and social actors was low and rather selective. Fico regarded most interest associations and NGOs as nuisances, if not enemies. The main exception was the Slovak Confederation of Trade Unions (KOZ) with its strong links to Smer-SD. The government accepted some demands by the unions and strengthened the competencies of the tripartite Economic and Social Council (Hospodárska at Sociálna Rada, HSK). Trade unions complained, however, that the Fico government did not take tripartism seriously.
The Fico government did little to streamline its communication policy. Contradictory statements by ministries were frequent, since ministers followed party strategies rather than government guidelines and Prime Minister Fico did not impose much discipline on his coalition partners.
The 2006 Government Manifesto of the Fico was relatively vague, especially in the field of economic and social policy. As a result, there was a certain discrepancy between the bombastic goals and declarations (“restoration of the social state”) and the limited measures adopted. However, the government succeeded in meeting well-specified goals, most notably the introduction of the euro in January 2009. The legislative output of the Fico government was similar to that of its predecessor. In order to achieve its objectives, the government often relied on the controversial “fast track procedure,” thereby limiting the participation of parliament.
Under the Fico government, ministers were more bound to their parties and party leaders than to the government as such. Only occasionally did Prime Minister Fico make use of his right to dismiss ministers. In August 2009, he recalled Minister of the Environment Viliam Turský. Violating the coalition agreement, he even took away the SNS’ portfolio without any compensation.
During the Fico government, the activities of line ministries were not heavily monitored. The Government Office respected the assignment of ministries in the Coalition Treaty and largely refrained from monitoring the activities of line ministries led by Prime Minister Fico’s coalition partners. Monitoring was stronger in the case of ministers from Smer.
Under the Fico government, the politicization of executive agencies increased. The government reduced the autonomy of the independent regulatory agencies responsible for setting the politically sensitive prices of gas, electricity, telecommunication, post services or public transport and filled leading positions in executive agencies with political followers. In a number of cases, political and personal ties prevented the sanctioning of misconduct.
In the wake of the economic crisis, local governments in Slovakia have suffered from substantial fiscal problems. In 2009 and 2010, the central government provided local governments with additional money. However, allocations were too small to compensate for the decline in tax revenues. As a result, some smaller municipalities were not able to preserve the standard of public services. The government’s tax policy aggravated the fiscal problems of the subnational governments. Two amendments to income tax law substantially reduced local revenues from the income tax.
The Fico government did not continue the policy of decentralization pursued under its predecessor, but sought to strengthen the position of central government. During the period under review, subnational governments and central government often clashed. One case in point is the 2008 amendment of the Highway Act which made it easier for central government to overcome local resistance against highway projects.
There are only poorly defined standards of public services, especially with regard to the independent functions of subnational governments. Moreover, the monitoring of standards is often fragmented. In the case of health care, for instance, the Health Care Supervision Authority, the Public Health Authority, the National Health Information Centre and State Institute for Drug Control are all involved in supervision. Despite its inclination towards centralization, the Fico government did not tackle the issue.
Under the Fico government, government structures remained largely unchanged. Despite some announcement to the contrary in the government’s program, the government did not adopt any institutional reforms to strengthen Slovakia’s influence in the EU or to make full use of the available EU funds. Coordination in EU affairs remained ad hoc.
Under the Fico government, Slovakia’s role in the EU and in other international organizations decreased. Prime Minister Fico largely focused on domestic issues. For example, he did not attend a single NATO summit. Slovakia also passed on the presidency of the OECD in 2010. Foreign Minister Lajcak justified this extraordinary decision by citing reasons related to the upcoming elections.
There is no regular self-monitoring of institutional arrangements. Compared to the Dzurinda government, the number of audits by private sector organizations declined, and the analysis provided in the annual reports of state organizations became increasingly formal and self-congratulatory.
Under the Fico government, no attempts at improving the strategic capacity of government through institutional reforms were undertaken. Instead, Prime Minister Fico capitalized on his personal popularity and his position as party leader and used informal means such as patronage or deals with the leaders of his coalition partners to strengthen his position.
Citizens’ knowledge of government policy is limited. While substantial information is available, the media literacy of the population and the public interest in policies are low. The recurring corruption scandals have led to frustration and disenchantment. According to a poll in 2008, less than half of Slovak citizens trust the cabinet and even less than half of the population trusts the parliament. A near two-thirds of the population is concerned about the undignified behavior of politicians (Bútora et al. 2009, pp. 20-21, 33-34).
Bútora, Martin/Mesežnikov, Grigorij/Kollár, Miroslav (eds.), 2009: Slovakia 2008. Trend in Quality of Democracy, Bratislava: IVO.
Parliamentary committees have the right to ask for almost all government documents. However, the Fico government frequently delivered draft bills and other documents with considerable delay, thereby infringing on the work of the committees.
The right of parliamentary committees to summon ministers is enshrined in Art. 85 of the Slovak constitution. Under the Fico government, however, the MPs of the governing parties tried to limit invitations, and the ministers were often short-spoken.
Parliamentary committees may invite experts. Under the Fico government, the number of invited experts declined. The governing coalition was less interested in expert advice and perceived most experts as allies of the opposition.
In the term from 2006-2010, there were more committees than ministries, but all ministerial task areas were covered by committees and there was just one committee – the Committee for Human Rights, Minorities and the Status of Women – with several ministerial counterparts. The division of subject areas among committees did not hamper the parliamentary control of ministries.
The Supreme Audit Office of the Slovak Republic is an independent authority accountable exclusively to parliament. The chairman and the two vice-chairmen are elected by parliament for seven years each, and the office reports regularly and whenever requested to the parliament. The Supreme Audit Office has far-reaching competencies. However, its position is limited by a lack of resources. In the period under review, some of its initiatives, most notably an audit of the privatization of the Slovak gas industry, were prompted by the government, thus casting some doubt on its independence. Moreover, its monitoring activities slowed down during the review period.
In addition to the Petitions and Complaints Office of the parliament, there is an independent ombudsman, the Public Defender of Rights, who is accountable exclusively to parliament. The Public Defender is elected by parliament for a term of five years and reports regularly to parliament. Pavel Kandráč, ombudsman since 2002, has enjoyed a good reputation and has been quite effective in settling issues. The mandate of the ombudsman has been more limited than that seen in some other European countries.
The quality of media reporting has declined. The public TV and radio programs have lost market shares. Moreover, the commercialization of nationwide broadcasters has had a negative impact on public interest news, current-affairs coverage and public stations overall. One important problem is the quality of journalists. The number of highly trained and educated journalists is decreasing, meaning that many journalists lack policy knowledge and the requisite critical distance.
The programmatic capacity of the Slovak parties is limited. The small parties – SNS, L’S-HZDS, KDH and SMK – represent particular groups of voters, so that their electoral programs are largely tailored to the interests of these groups. Smer-SD’s electoral program for the 2010 elections had a strongly declaratory character. It stressed the positive record of the Fico government and emphasized the importance of social policy, but was short on details. The program of the SKDU, the biggest opposition party, originally focused on improving administration. Fiscal responsibility became a major issue only after the Czech elections and the culmination of the Greek crisis. Until then, the SKDU had largely refrained from criticizing the popular economic and social policies of the Fico government.
The policy competence of trade unions and business associations differs. Trade unions’ ability to produce solid analytical output has been limited. Unions have suffered from weak leadership and have largely relied on their contacts to the governing Smer-SD party. Business associations are in a better position to provide full-blown policy proposals, in part because they have more resources, and some of them even run or support think tanks or rely on independent experts. However, some business associations pursue narrow-minded interests. The best example of this might be the construction companies (i.e., the “concrete lobby”), which were extremely successful in lobbying for a costly expansion of highways.
Slovakia has a vibrant third sector which was quite active in monitoring the Fico government and in organizing campaigns and protests against many controversial laws and activities, especially in the fields of civil rights, non-discrimination and environmental protection. Many interest associations demonstrate considerable policy knowledge, and there are several think tanks that involve various experts from the previous government in their work. Policy proposals developed by interest associations have featured prominently in the media.
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
PD Dr. Marianne Kneuer University of Eichstätt
Prof. Darina Malova Comenius University, Bratislava