The power of Spain’s top Civil Servants

The anecdotes and experiences that anyone gains after having worked for almost ten years in an organisation are many and varied. After having spent that length of time working for the Spanish Tax Office, the last three years in the Madrid HQ, I am no exception. What is peculiar is that many of my anecdotes are related to the power of the state.

I clearly remember a conversation I had with a state secretary at the time. He was rather worried because he believed that the minister was thinking of firing him, even though he had been the driving force behind a series of laws that, despite their technical profile, had had a favourable impact on public opinion.

It's been a long time since I thought about that conversation. However, I remembered it two weeks ago when I finished writing the article that was published in ARA on the 18th of May. In it I referred to the difficulties of reforming the Spanish public administration system and the fact that these difficulties had to be taken into account in the process of building a different future for Catalonia. What that politician told me was a perfect summary of that article and it is also the main reason why reforming or changing the administration is so difficult.

His concern stemmed from the fact that a certain group of civil servants had gone on strike and had managed to attract media attention, aiming their criticism at the minister responsible, who was his immediate boss, and not at him personally. To me his concern seemed a bit exaggerated given the fact that he had skilfully capitalised on the success of these legal reforms. However, he then made the following remark: "Listen, you don't understand politics, it's very different to what happens in other areas. In business when a company has many assets and only a few liabilities, it is clearly in a better position than one that has only a few assets and no liabilities at all. The greater your assets, the better. Yet what matters in politics is having zero liabilities. Political liabilities make you vulnerable and my department is currently a liability to the minister".

His remark is debatable but it clearly outlines the difficulties of making changes to those areas of administration that most affect the quality of democracy (justice, control over public accounts, tax management, etc.). Whatever innovation, whatever change, can cause discomfort and conflict. It can also be a liability for the political image of the person who is behind that innovation, which obviously puts their political career in jeopardy. It is a factor that clearly works against change and can only be overcome by truly exceptional political leaders.

Earlier on I said that this is one of the reasons why reforming public administration is difficult. There are others. In Spain's case, there is one that is much more specific and typical of the country's idiosyncrasy.

I'm referring to Spain's civil service mandarins. It is true that the existence of state attorneys, tax inspectors, etc. is a technical asset for Spain's administration. However, it is also true, in my opinion, that their predominant presence in the ministries constitutes a very important factor against structural change. We must also remember that these senior civil servants not only occupy the usual executive, decision-making posts in the various ministerial departments, but are also an overwhelming majority within the Spanish cabinet itself.

Everyone knows, but sometimes a reminder is needed, that the Spanish president is a land registrar, the vice-president is a state attorney, the Minister of Foreign Affairs is a tax inspector, the Finance Minister was chosen from the world of commerce and State economists, the Treasury Minister is a tenured university professor, etc.

Spain's Civil Service holds a lot of power and its origins and training are completely homogeneous down to the lower echelons of administrative power.

This means that there is a high level of resistance to structural change coded into its DNA. Change goes against its own functional and ideological nature.

It is for this reason that when someone tells me or I read that talks will soon be held about the "third way"1 ("there is some movement" is becoming a classic phrase), I must confess that I am profoundly sceptical. On an intellectual level, because of what I have just explained, and because of the usual ideological profile of the various Spanish governments.