Monday, November 19, 2007

Turning A Blind Eye

Madrid has finally made into the big hitters amongst Spanish local authorities by having a corruption scandal of its own. Several employees of the city council are behind bars for offences connected to the concession of licences for bars, clubs or concert venues. Quite a few others have been released on bail while the investigation continues. The system seems to have been quite simple, you paid the employee concerned, or one of the private sector friends of the employee, and all your licensing and paperwork problems disappeared. A process which could easily take several years suddenly became shorter. All sorts of stories have now emerged in the press from people who have had to pay bribes to get licences, or face the threat of closure - some of them reported what was happening to the administration years ago. There are clear indications that the city administration knew about the problem, and that they did nothing about it until the police investigation began. This suspicion has been indirectly confirmed by statements from the ayuntamiento that they cooperated fully once they knew about the investigation; it seems reasonable to assume that the situation would have continued for years had the police not acted now.

What is really striking about this scandal is that it demonstrates the almost complete absence of accountability in local government in Spain. People have very few rights in dealing with the administration, and if an official chooses to make life difficult for someone then it is very easy to do. Public access to information on the inner workings of the municipality which they elect and pay for is very restricted. It is this more than anything else which makes it so easy for corruption to flourish. Also, if it takes years for a licence to be conceded to someone this is not just because of inefficiency, it is because those running the "service" want it to be that way. The first reaction of Madrid mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón has been to suggest the privatization of the service involved, an action that will have the effect of making it even harder to enforce even a minimum of accountability in the concession of licences. It is an ironic solution to a problem of municipal corruption; those responsible for the massive corruption scandal in Marbella used the same technique of creating these semi-public agencies as a key part of their methodology for looting public funds.

This way of dealing with problematic issues is very reminiscent of what we can now call Sarkozy style politics, or the politics of distraction. The first law of Sarkozy politics is that you never ever accept any responsibility for anything that happens on your watch. So when a problem arises, you have to act in a way which suggests that the problem is somehow nothing to do with the administration over which you have presided for several years. With this base established, you then move on to the second law which is to propose an energetic looking "solution" which in reality does nothing to deal with the original problem, but which makes you look active in responding to it and which also permits you to implement plans that you haven't been able to impose by other means. Another example of this is occurring with the huge and ugly new advertising hoardings which are rapidly disfiguring many streets in the capital. Gallardón has responded to protests by more or less saying that he doesn't like them either, whilst of course permitting their continuing construction. Nothing to do with me, I'm only the Mayor.


madrid teacher said...

Graham, what in your opinion could be done about what is probably endemic corruption in local government? In areas outside London there are generally local council elections every one or two years, this brings in some accountability for politicians not wanting anything to happen on their watch (downside is that less than 40% vote). It a bit of a two edged sword for me because on the one hand its good that people have strong rights in their jobs, but on the otherhand a lack of accountability (or reporting structure) in the public sector can result in corruption.

Graeme said...

There is no single measure which will change the situation, but these are a few that would help:

Transparency - public and press access to documentation, including all contracts and internal reports. Councillors have to make publicly available declarations on their assets and interests on entering office, during their time in power, and on leaving. All job applicants and contractors must declare kinship or friendship links with councillors or authority employees.

Independent auditing - an auditing system that works and that has real power, including a power like that in the UK to make the politicians financially liable for abuses that result from their decisions. An auditing organisation that really works should pay for itself.

Penalise adminstrative silence - if an organisation takes an unreasonably long time to deal with something, then the decision automatically favours the person prejudiced by that delay.

Appeals procedures- the right to appeal any decision to an independent adjudicator.

None of this need affect the rights of employees, but nobody in a public authority should be allowed to operate in a secretive way.

Chances of any of this happening - minimal. The abuses that occur are allowed to continue because at the very least the two major political parties are happier with the current situation. Nobody would be able to carry out Marbella scale corruption if that were not the case.

madrid teacher said...

Thanks for the information, I tried to do a bit of scouting about to find out but with a combination of my Spanish and administration I couldn´t find out anything.