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September 22, 2020



Commentary: Czech Human Rights Minister fights with social inclusion head while the "Nazis" laugh

23.4.2015 1:24
Jiří Dienstbier (left) and Martin Šimáček (right). (Collage
Jiří Dienstbier (left) and Martin Šimáček (right). (Collage

Czech Human Rights Minister Jiří Dienstbier has removed Martin Šimáček from his position as head of the Agency for Social Inclusion and both men have engaged in mutual 

recriminations in a public clash. The only people who are hugely enjoying this are probably the antigypsyists and the "Nazis", so what are we to make of what seems at first glance to be an absurd situation?    


I first spoke with Šimáček as a journalist several years ago, when the Prime Minister was Petr Nečas and the President was Václav Klaus. Šimáček had images of the Dalai Lama and Václav Havel on his office wall.        

Some might have liked that, others not, but few people would be indifferent to it. The message was clear:  This government bureaucrat has damn high self-esteem and is ostentatiously showing off his free-thinking independence.

Šimáček's supporters say that if there were more such bureaucrats, the state administration would be incomparably better. He is said to be the kind of figure we need more of here.

Moreover, he is intelligent and well-versed in his field. His critics, however, respond that all he has is good PR because he knows how to work with journalists.

All that can be added to that criticism is that Šimáček really does have good PR and does know how to work with journalists. The vast majority of politicians here do not have those skills.  

This does no harm and does not automatically exclude the notion that Šimáček might have other good qualities as well. Dienstbier, of course, entered the broader public's consciousness in a similar way:  He was the leader of the Prague candidate list for the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) and said he would not go into a coalition government with the Civic Democrats (ODS).  

Dienstbier kept that promise. When his colleagues joined the coalition government, he resigned.

Next he was the Social Democrat's competitor to Miloš Zeman during the presidential elections. Very often it seemed he was an independent candidate whom many Social Democrats did not acknowledge, among other reasons, because they actually considered Zeman their candidate.

It is said of both men that they are "mavericks". They follow their own notions and are unwilling to submit to collective decisions when they believe they are wrong.

Such people just cannot be tamed. It is also the case that it is sometimes difficult to work with them, that they don't respect rules, that they are arrogant.  

It is interesting that everything Dienstbier said about Šimáček at his recent press conference is almost exactly what others in the ČSSD say about him. What's more, he is very well aware of that.

The first possible explanation for this clash between Dienstbier and Šimáček, therefore, seems simple:  The interaction of two such figures will produce some hard knocks. It probably takes a great amount of patience and tolerance to be Šimáček's boss, and are those the characteristics we expect from a similarly dominant, uncompromising maverick?

Does the minister want tame department heads?

Even though this possible framework for this clash of two strong personalities may seem neutral or even flattering to both of them, it is the minister who has committed the error. Let's set aside, for now, the other possible causes of this dispute and the removal of the director.  

Dienstbier is the boss here. Šimáček has not threatened him or sought his removal.

The minister said something to me that I will paraphrase here:  I don't want to tame someone using bureaucratic rules. However, I do want someone as director who will communicate in a normal way.

In Dienstbier's view, Šimáček just does what he wants and ignores the customary procedures of the Office of the Government, including those that are logical. I can imagine that was the case.

Šimáček, however, says the minister almost never spoke with him. He says it was almost impossible to get a meeting with him.

He says they have never even had time to properly review essential topics. He says he mainly communicated with the Deputy Ministers.

Certainly the minister is responsible for much more than the Agency and the Romani Integration Strategy. He has been overwhelmed and is overwhelmed by other things:  The law on civil service, the law on social housing, the amendment to the Schools Act, the amendment on the ombud's powers, and disputes inside his own party.

Is that, however, a reason to get rid of an exceptional bureaucrat? Understandably it is not, and if the gentlemen did not speak to each other much and the minister did not get much involved with this topic, that's his error, however many other demands there are on his time.

Is he dealing with his over-commitment by replacing those beneath him with bland, obedient "yes-men" who won't bother him? I am certain that's not what Dienstbier wants, but he may, however momentarily, have just taken a step in that direction.  

Management of "mavericks"

Recently I have been captivated by the notion in management theories (most of which otherwise seem rather comic to me) that the "mavericks" are the greatest wealth of any firm or institution. Creative, intelligent, but frequently also completely uncommunicative, not respecting the rules, repudiating "business culture", sometimes "social idiots", such people are often behind what firms strive for - the innovations, the new products, the revolutionary ideas.  

It is almost impossible to manage such people. They have to be given room.

The basic task here, therefore, is to find such people, to recognize them when one sees them. I am not claiming that Šimáček is either a genius like Steve Jobs or a "social idiot", but I do wonder whether there is any clear reason why such a "business culture" might not be introduced into the state administration.

Is the bureaucrat good, intelligent, has he mastered his subject matter, does he introduce new things? Then the best way to manage him is to leave him alone.  

Dienstbier should know that. He very often requires the same treatment from his colleagues in his party and in politics more generally.

It sounds logical to me when Šimáček says that he stands by the steps he took as director, including lobbying in Parliament - even against Government proposals. A good bureaucrat is obliged to provide the public with feedback.  

That sounds more logical to me than Dienstbier's claim that Šimáček broke the logical rules of communication. What kind of logic, exactly, is at issue here?  

Is it the logic appropriate to the "business culture" of bureaucrats, politicians' logic? Or the logic that is useful to the public?

Are the best bureaucrats invisible "yes-men" or "mavericks"? There is no simple answer:  Both types of official are important and necessary.

We don't talk to Nazis - or do we?

Here is a specific example of what I mean. One of the reasons for the dispute between Dienstbier and Šimáček is their relationship toward Ústí Regional Councilor Martin Klika.

This is a person who wished the best of luck to the "Nazis" in the DSSS party in last year's local elections. Now he is a member of the Steering Committee of the campaign against hate violence being conducted by the Agency.

Klika was nominated for this position by the Ústí Regional Authority. Šimáček has publicly said that he does not communicate with "Nazis" or work with them and he did his best to convince Klika not to take up this position.    

Šimáček is now fighting with Dienstbier over whether the minister agreed with Klika's nomination or not. That, however, is not the most essential thing.

I asked Dienstbier whether he considers Klika an appropriate partner for the campaign and whether Šimáček's remarks about "Nazis" might not have played a role in generating pressure against him. Dienstbier responded that he shares Šimáček's opinions of "Nazis" and that he publicly expressed his disagreement with the coalition government of the ČSSD and the DSSS in the Czech town of Duchcov, for example.    

However, he also said that neither his opinion nor Šimáček's matters in this case, because the Ústí Regional Authority simply has the right to nominate its candidate. This means a member of the Steering Committee of a national campaign against hate violence is now a person who supports the "Nazis".

The minister is rebuking Šimáček for not being able to stomach this, for not being a good bureaucrat, for not honoring official rules. In this case, it seems that Dienstbier is the good bureaucrat.      

He is, however, a bad politician. A consistent politician, a politician with a vision, would not be able to accept or endure the involvement of Klika in the campaign.  

What do the Roma think?

The minister, of course, has presented several specific acts of misconduct by Šimáček as reasons for his dismissal, and the former director has acknowledged those mistakes. It is a question of whether those are sufficient - and primarily, the real - reasons for the head of the Agency to be removed.

Dienstbier says that any single one of those reasons would be justification enough for dismissal. Šimáček claims those reasons are a pretext and that what is actually happening is something else.

The basic question, naturally, remains:  Is the Agency doing a good job? It has long been the target of a great deal of criticism, including from those whom it is primarily supposed to aid.  

Its critics say the Agency is simply another People in Need project, a tightly-knit unit with a clear opinion of what constitutes "social work" that does not respect alternative opinions or positions. They say it is Šimáček's pet project.

They say the Agency employs almost no Romani people and does not know how to engage Romani people in the field. They say it does not have Romani people's trust.

They say millions of crowns are flowing through the Agency but most of its projects are not producing any clear impact. They say the Agency might function brilliantly within its own structure, but that the numbers of ghettos and impoverished people - mainly Romani people - are continuing to rise.  

I am not competent to evaluate the work of the Agency comprehensively. There is no doubt, however, that this criticism is serious, and there is no point in dismissing it as fabricated or tendentious.  

That does not, however, automatically mean the Agency is doing a bad job. It is an institution that has only been here a few years, one that Šimáček essentially built from scratch.

The Agency does not have the power to change the conditions in this country in any accelerated, fundamental way. The failings of the overall state of society, of the politicians, are not its fault.  

Mainly, these criticisms are what we should all be discussing. We should not be discussing the "taming of bureaucrats" who don't respect the rules.

We should not be discussing the division of an office according to the letter of the new law on the civil service, according to which the Agency and other government departments are now to be reorganized. What we should be discussing is whether these civil servants, these institutions, these politicians, this society, are capable of doing something effective and useful for discriminated, impoverished people.   

Why is this going so slowly - why, indeed, is it almost not going at all? How can we change that?

How can we get those whom this aid immediately concerns into the game to a far greater extent than before? How can we overcome their distrust?

How can we make more efficient use of the billions of crowns flowing through the municipalities, the nonprofits, and the state administration? I continue to have the feeling that it was a big mistake to get rid of Šimáček as an important figure in this important discussion.

The minister seems to have not spent enough time discussing these matters with him. Moreover, the criticism of Dienstbier for removing Šimáček can now also be exploited by those who simply want to get rid of Dienstbier.  

No matter the degree to which each of these gentlemen may have brought this on himself, we might be losing both of these "mavericks" from politics and the state administration in short order. Then the Nazis really will have the last laugh.

Michal Komárek, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
Views: 428x

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