“The CIVIL SERVICE is not slower in how it operates than the private sector”
How does the civil service operate during the pandemic? For a year now, there has been discussion of company workers transitioning to working from home. What is the situation in the civil service? Jakub Kulhánek, Deputy Minister of the Interior, agreed to be interviewed. In the past he has been a deputy minister at the Defence and Foreign Affairs ministries. He has also worked as an analyst and advisor to the President of the Chamber of Deputies. He has published a number of writings in specialist publications and in the media.
Jakub Kulhánek studied international relations at Prague’s Charles University and acquired a master’s degree at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington.
The civil service is often criticised for being slow off the mark on digitalisation. In contrast to many companies which moved to working from home, for a long time government authorities were unable to operate online. I understand, of course, that much of the agenda, by its nature, cannot be moved“to the kitchen table”. How do you see the situation?
I would not agree with your claim. Since the first wave a year ago, the civil service has endeavoured to make maximum use of working from home. According to the Deputy Minister for the Civil Service, in some authorities up to 80% of staff have worked from home. In terms of working from home, the state has set the example for companies and some other authorities, although I do partly understand your reference to digitalisation because while in recent years a huge amount of work has been done, unfortunately this has often been in legislative or technical fields which are not quite so visible. It’s a great challenge for the future, and it is true that digitalisation is a costly affair and the state is going to have to put significant amounts of investment into this area, and also into cybersecurity.
Could you describe in more detail for Czech and Slovak Leaders readers how the Ministry of the Interior operates during the pandemic?
I’ve already mentioned that anyone who can work from home does so. Everyone else has to get tested, of course, and we observe a strict shift rotation system, which is in place so that employees only encounter each other when absolutely necessary. The vast majority of meetings take place online, from meetings of the government to expert working groups. It has of course been very difficult for everyone, but I firmly believe that the entire department has quickly got used to the new style of work. It has opened our eyes to some extent, and shown us the opportunities and effectiveness of remote working. Many meetings can be held online and so people can meet up much more flexibly. Sharing and working on documents is also easier. But there are also a number of matters which cannot work properly without investments in the system and in equipment, including the purchase of devices for officials. In this regard, one cannot forget cybersecurity, which is an extremely important topic, especially for the Ministry of the Interior and our agenda. The transition to a digitalised civil service also costs money.
So how is the famed digitalisation of the civil service going?
We’ve moved significantly forward. The Interior Ministry has completed work on the Citizen Portal, and all that needs to be done is to add individual agenda, something that is up to other departments. In a nutshell, we have set up a structure in which, for example, driving licences can be acquired electronically, and it is up to the Transport Ministry to add this function and begin using it. The legislation which governs citizens’rights to electronic communication has passed parliament. The eCollection of Laws and eLegislation, which modernise lawmaking and make it accessible to all, are ready.
What aspects has Covid-19 moved forwards, and where do efforts need to be directed once the pandemic is over?
One thing the pandemic has proven is that digitalisation is useful. Without electronic sick notes and ePrescriptions, for example, the epidemic would have been much more complicated. Computerisation has accelerated by a year within the health service, and it is similar for all ministries. At first glance, the state appears slower than the private sector, but in my mind this is an illusion. It’s true that it sometimes takes time for the state to move, but once it’s set in place by the state this gives digitalisation new momentum for related services.
Can we learn lessons from neighbouring countries or Israel?
The Czech Republic maintains very close relations with Israel in many areas, and it offers much inspiration. But we shouldn’t forget that it is in an entirely different situation, and some measures which are naturally accepted by the Israeli public would not always be met with the same understanding in the Czech Republic. I myself advocate making maximum use of experience from abroad when something works; we don’t need to come up with our own Czech approach at any cost.
Could you give an example?
The use of self-tests in schools is largely taken from Austria, where the system is used and has allowed schools to open, earning universal praise. The Central Crisis Staff, which is involved in preparations for opening schools, was very quickly able to set up a model for pupils returning to school using the Austrian experience. Or I could also give the example of the use of graphics and information in the UK’s “Stay Home, Save Lives” campaign. Within a few days, the campaign was up and running. Also, in terms of the media communication of Covid, I remain in close contact with Britain.
Your specialisations are foreign relations and security policy. How do you perceive the Czech Republic’s deteriorating reputation?
I don’t think the Czech Republic has lost credit. The Czech Republic remains at eighth place in the Global Peace Index ranking of safest countries. Overall crime statistics are falling here, with the exception of cybercrimes, but this is a worldwide trend. In this regard there is a real need to highlight the work of the police and the entire Interior Ministry, because we have much to be proud of. If you mean the perception of our country in terms of managing the Covid-19 pandemic, that is a little more complex. Last year, we were amongst the best. The situation is, of course, different now, but you always need to see things in context. The situation is quite similar in nearby European countries. For a while, Portugal held the top spot in the symbolic ranking of most afflicted European country, but today it is in a much better position. The situation is now deteriorating badly in Poland and Hungary, where the governments have been forced to introduce extremely restrictive measures. In no way do I want to say that we haven’t made mistakes; it was a very new situation for everyone and the constant tug-of-war between advocates of easing and tightening measures did not help. Unfortunately, it has been demonstrated that the only way to suppress the virus is to radically restrict contact between people until such time as we manage to vaccinate the majority of the population.
Many of our readers have chosen the Czech Republic as their second home, but now they don’t feel safe…
I am sorry about that of course, although the question is to what extent this is a perception of objective reality, and to what extent it is, one might say, media hysteria. But as I’ve already said, we’ve got to differentiate. If we’re talking generally about levels of safety in the Czech Republic then the reality is much more favourable than it might appear. The Czech Republic is, and I believe will remain, one of the safest countries in the world. This will impact people’s satisfaction with life here, and also the potential to attract more foreign investors. In the security field, as one of the safest countries we are a respected partner, and we also have much to be proud of.
Turning to Czech citizens, I remember last year’s press conference and Minister Hamáček’s famous red sweater, which gave courage, energy and hope at a symbolic level. Now, the Interior Ministry is more than ever before associated with situations in which police officers crack down on Czech citizens for not wearing facemasks.
The rule is that the public and the police must observe the law. The police have acted entirely in line with the law, and if you look at the full videos you will see examples of the police officers arguing for entire 15 minutes with people who are refusing to put on a facemask and show ID. You can’t do that. The police are not instructed to subdue anyone they find without a facemask. But in order to come to an agreement, the other side also needs to be respectful. To put on a facemask and show their ID. These cases usually don’t involve a fine. If I’m on a walk with my daughter and a police officer stops me and alerts me to the fact I’m not wearing a facemask, then I’ll put one on, thank them for pointing it out and apologise. I’m not going to get all hysterical in front of my child, refuse to show my ID and tell them not to get closer to me than two metres. That would give a poor example to my child and make me look foolish. I understand that people have had enough after a year, but the solution isn’t to go crazy on city squares, maskless, provoking the police and in the worse case also spreading Covid. I’ve lived in the USA, and I cannot imagine anyone there doing to the police what some of our citizens do to our police. And I certainly cannot imagine American police putting up with it for so long.
One of my favourite questions of this era is what you are looking forward to once you no longer need to deal with Covid-19.
This might sound a little naïve, but I’m looking forward to the generally bad mood in society subsiding a little. There are restrictions everywhere in the world, people are tired and the irritable mood in society is understandably getting worse. Despite all the negative news, however, most people still respect the rules because they know they can protect our overloaded healthcare system, and in particular our loved ones who are in an endangered group. So I’m looking forward to being able to breathe more, and having that ubiquitous stress fall away from us. And I’m also looking forward to hopefully being able to take a little time out from all our different social networks, so we can understand and listen to each other more. I’m worried that the pandemic has entrenched us further in our own opinions, increasing divisions in society and hardening us in our intolerance to the opinions of others, as we’ve taken refuge in the virtual space because of the virus. But I want to be an optimist…
Today, the space for broad awareness-raising is increasingly narrow. What would you personally like to make people aware of as Deputy Interior Minister?
You’re right: paradoxically during this era of the internet and social networks there is quite some confusion over information itself. Unfortunately, information overload plays into the hands of those spreading disinformation and various alternative “truths”, and people enclosed in their own social bubbles often never get access to true information. The ever-expanding digital world isn’t just a great place to find information, somewhere where we can make purchases and entertain ourselves with a few clicks. It’s also quite a dangerous space which can cost us our money and our mental health, and this also relates to the growing cybercriminality I mentioned at the beginning. If I could give some advice or make an appeal, it would be not to believe everything you see on the internet, and carefully verify your sources.
And now if you could give a final message to Czech and Slovak Leaders Magazine readers?
I hope I haven’t been too pessimistic. The virus is going to bother us for a while longer, but together we can get over it. This crisis has shown that despite all the hardships, there is a lot of solidarity in society and there are so many heroes amongst our healthcare workers, police officers and firefighters. And I trust that once we manage to beat this virus, the positive energy will help us move our society forwards.