Saturday, March 12, 2011

The culture of Spain and the state sector in Spain

Too right! This article from Nick at Culture Spain hits the nail on the proverbial head.

The culture of Spain and the state sector in Spain



One of the curiosities of Spain, for any North European or American, is the state sector in Spain and the way that it ‘works’. It is quite unlike that found in the States or many North European countries and is a part of the very culture of Spain that is truly foreign to many ex-patriots. Indeed, the way the state sytem is set up in Spain intimately affects the way that Spain functions – and this is not necessarily to the good!

By the state sector in Spain, of course, I mean all those myriad parts controlled by the state (local or national) from education to the medical services, the military, the police, the fire service, the welfare sector, town hall public servants, and so on.

So, what is so different?

Well, to obtain a permanent state position in Spain, you have to pass ‘civil service’ examinations. These are called oposiciones and are tailored individually to all the multifarious job positions available within the state. The exams are notoriously hard to pass and success depends not just upon academic ability but upon the number of vacancies for the particular function for which the oposicion is taken at the time.

In other words, you may ‘pass’ the oposicion appropriate to your particular function (say as a nurse) with outstanding marks and still not get a job – and then have to retake the examination, year after year, until a vacancy and your exceptional pass marks coincide.

However, the good news for the person who passes his oposicion (and the bad news for everyone else!) is that the person concerned will be offered a permanent position – for life! This is is where the big difference between Spain and many other countries comes into play and is what forms a part of the working culture of Spain.

Once you have passed your oposicion, the job that you are offered and accept (perhaps as a maths teacher in a Madrid school) becomes yours. You cannot sell this particular job nor can you transfer it to anyone else – but it is yours and yours alone and is guaranteed until you retire. Indeed, I have heard it said, more than once, that if you have a permanent job with the Spanish state then it is like having secure work forever more – with no boss.

Why no boss?

Because, to all intents and purposes, the job is yours and therefore (within bounds) no superior can ever really apply pressure upon you. So long as you pretty much fulfill the basic remit of your job function then you cannot be forced to do anything that you do not want to do – for the rest of your working life.

Needless to say, once you have a job for life with the Spanish state and (effectively) no boss then you can easily spend the rest of your working life doing the absolute minimum necessary. This is a structural problem and one that runs throughout the very fabric of the Spanish state sector. Indeed, not surprisingly, it is a part of the culture of Spain that promotes resistance to change, appallingly stodgy bureaucracy and a lack of dynamism in the state sector that hampers efficiency in every way.

It hardly needs me to point out that people working in the Spanish state sector tend to lack any knowledge about the reality of working life within the private sector. This is compounded by an acute lack of mobility of state workers within the state sector itself. By the latter, I mean that if you have passed your devastatingly hard oposcion as a fireman, for example, then you will cling to that job (and that one alone) like a limpet.

Meanwhile, if you want to change from being (say) a fireman to another job within the state then you will have to take a new oposicion for that specific function. As you can imagine, this is not something that anyone would do lightly. This means that mobility of people working in different parts of the state system does not happen – thus further hampering the dispersal of new ideas and working methods.

I would stress that the Spanish state system is not all bad. Some matters are attended to efficiently and quickly and some state employees are truly excellent. However, the system does not encourage excellence. Indeed, I suspect many energetic and enthusiastic state employees are quickly ground down into uncaring (and bored) workers – demoralised by a system incapable of change, challenge and dynamism.

How does this impact upon the culture of Spain? Well, it means that ‘getting things done’ when you encounter the Spanish state system can be difficult, particularly if something is contentious, new or demanding to the state employee involved. It is then that the immovability of the system can come into its own and become deeply frustrating.

Finally, of course, Spain is in an economic crisis – that is nothing if not severe. To bust out of the crisis it needs to be dynamic and super-efficient. It needs exceptional energy from the Spanish state system (along with everyone else) and to power its way to a new future. This is something that will be difficult to achieve when the intrinsic culture of Spain, with regard to the existing state system, encourages the reverse of all these vital qualities…

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