A note on austerity: 2 hours into her workday

Pay cuts, tax hikes and layoffs. This was the picture drawn on the kind of austerity that is punishing the European periphery for its past excesses. Much ink was spilled in various debates, both on how (and how much) hinders growth and worsens fiscal outcomes, and on how painful it is, socially.

I had to take a very specific blood test today. I didn’t need to, I was made to, but that’s another story. I went to the hospital in charge of administering this test. About 20 people were waiting around the clerks’ desk at the entrance, but there was nobody there to be seen. I finally had to ask the cleaning lady for directions, and was pointed to the right door.

"How does a civl servant wink? He opens one eye..."

«How does a civl servant wink? He opens one eye…»

Inside, two desks. One empty, except for a single piece of paper with doodles on it; a woman sitting behind the desk drinking coffee with crackers. We say this a lot in Cyprus, I know, and it’s a cliché.  But she was literally drinking coffee and eating crackers.

On the other desk, a woman behind a pc that I think someone threw away in the 1990’s, of shortly after Microsoft came up with Windows.

After telling me there’s a long wait, she finally gave me –not the test- but an appointment for the test. I have to go to another hospital at 7.00 in the morning so I can pay by 8.00 and return to her office with a receipt. I still don’t know what will happen next, but experience tells me I’m lucky if I get to pay in under an hour.

But to top it all off, the appointment was arranged on a post-it note. Then she called Costas, who came in a few minutes later to sort out a problem she had with her computer.

Turns out, she didn’t know how to turn on the screen. Do note, will you, that this was two hours into her workday, which begs twi questions: 1) How come she doesn’t know ho to turn on the pc screen? and, 2) What exactly was she doing for the first two hours?

Whatever the answers, they point rather harshly towards what kind of mileage the country gets out of these salaries that taxpayers pay.

Last year, 98% of civil servants were evaluated as “excellent”. I’ll bet she was one of them, and I’ll bet that knowing how to turn on the computer screen, and doing so in less than 2 hours, is not a prerequisite for excellence. This otherwise lovely woman will get her agreed pay rise as she logs in enough time, she will be promoted as her excellence provides for, and she will work, perhaps in that very office, until she retires. She looked in her late 20’s, so she has another maybe 40 years to go.

This is the sort of picture that you get almost across the board with the civil service –and this is the sort of picture that makes one wonder if pay cuts are a bad thing: We, as a society, don’t get anything back from these salaries –some 2 billion euro in a 17 billion economy- that our taxes pay for.

Perhaps the debate over austerity should turn more closely at what we cut and at how we can get civil servants to do a little more than to be in charge of a single type of appointment, for a single type of blood test.

Thus I rant.

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