A glimpse into the inner workings of a Hungarian ministry

It doesn't happen too often that one reads an interesting story in a newspaper (Origo) about the total chaos that reigns in an important  government office and one can say: "Oh, yes, I know all about this." But this is what happened to me yesterday.

I have a friend who has a friend who has been telling my friend incredible stories about what's going on in an important agency she is working for. According to her, the office's 230 employees have absolutely nothing to do because the government decided to "reorganize" it, and the new undersecretary in charge of this office didn't have enough time to figure out what to do with either the office or the employees. For almost two months now–the reorganization took place on January 1, 2011–the highly qualified economists receive their salaries but because of lack of work spend their time surfing the net, chit-chatting, and worrying about their futures. According to the people who were willing to talk, they wouldn't be missed even if they didn't show up, but they are too conscientious to skip work entirely.

That would be bad enough in any office, but this particular agency is a very important one. Or at least it was very important until the Orbán government decided to "reorganize" it. It is the former Hungarian Investment and Trade Development Agency (ITD Hungary) that was founded in 1993 by the Hungarian Ministry of Economy and Transport (today György Matolcsy's Ministry of National Economy) to help implement the government's investment and trade promotion policies. It functioned as an independent corporation and was not part of the state apparatus.

This is a large organization with eighteen regional offices, and through the embassies' commercial attachés it is present in forty-three different countries. Its job is to entice foreign investors to Hungary. Until December 31, 2010, ITD Hungary Zrt. operated as the Hungarian government's investment and trade development agency. But then they decided to "nationalize" it. On paper the agency's functions have been taken over by a new department, Nemzeti Külgazdasági Hivatal (NKH; National Foreign Economy Office). The reality is something else.

The agency's former "owner" through the Magyar Fejlesztési Bank (Hungarian Development Bank) became the new National Development Ministry of Tamás Fellegi. But with the reorganization of ITD, the new National Foreign Economy Office ended up in György Matolcsy's ministry. ITD is gone and the new NKH has nothing to do. That is the upshot of it. It also means, of course, that Hungary's efforts at promoting foreign trade have come to a halt. ITD at the time of the changeover was busy with fifty different projects which cannot move forward. I can well imagine what the foreign partners think of all this.

If I understand it right, the problem is that the National Development Ministry didn't do anything about moving ITD's assets and employees over to Matolcsy's ministry. The only thing that has happened up to date is that 150 employees received a letter in which they were informed that NKH is ready to take them over. On what basis these 150 people were chosen no one knows. It is also not at all clear what will happen to the rest of the employees. But even those who received an offer are not exactly eager. As government employees their pay will be considerably lower than before when they were not in the civil service. In any case, everybody is looking for a job. Even the higher-ups are doing the same, even the ones the Fidesz government appointed to head the new "phantom" agency.

During the long days when they are not surfing or looking for jobs the employees are trying to figure out what exactly is going on. According to rumors Zsolt Becsey, undersecretary in charge of foreign trade in Matolcsy's ministry, is too busy to bother with such trivial matters as the fate of the agency. He also has something to do with the EU presidency and hence has no time to take care of the "ex lex" status of ITD/NKH.

The situation is no better in the regional offices. When Origo's journalist tried to inquire from the spokesmen of these regional agencies, he was told that "they are strictly forbidden to give out any information" to the media. One of them laconically said: "The only thing I can say is that the situation is the same as in Budapest." These regional centers didn't receive any information about their fate. But apparently there is a document signed by György Matolcsy at the end of January stating that instead of eighteen regional offices there will be only six: in Győr, Szeged, Debrecen, Miskolc, Pécs, and Székesfehérvár.

Origo talked to the president of the agency, but she knew nothing. The reporter visited Fellegi's ministry and learned that it is Matolcsy's ministry who is in charge and therefore all questions should be addressed to that ministry. At the time the article was written no answer had come from Matolcsy's ministry to Origo's questions concerning ITD/NKH.

This is a very serious situation. Hungary needs foreign investment, and the office that is supposed to deal with foreign trade is not even set up yet. Foreign investors already had a cold shower or two with the Orbán government's decision to levy extra taxes on them. You may recall that the CEO of Deutsche Telekom was especially upset. He was in fact so upset that Deutsche Telekom's new financial service center that will employ 500 people will be established in Bratislava and not in Hungary.

Between the total chaos in the foreign trade department and the extra taxes on foreign companies there is likely to be a negative effect on foreign investment in Hungary. It will be interesting to watch the statistics.

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lookingglas
Guest

Just as in the U.S. government after a change in the Oval Office. It takes 6 monthes there.
FIDESZ is a copy of the Republicans. For better or worse, we shall see here and there.
Belgium has no government at all. Still, everything is all right.
One wonders…

Paul
Guest

Belgium HAD no government at all, and for some time, but the civil service continued to function, so things caried on pretty much as before.
What Éva is talking about here is a part of the civil service, and if that starts to have problems, you are in trouble.
If your government is in a state it doesn’t really matter (no new laws get passed, but that’s about it). But when you government AND your civil service is failing, then you are in deep, deep poo.
As for Fidesz, the Tea Party would be a better comparison. Or possibly UKIP!

Pete H.
Guest

“Just as in the U.S. government after a change in the Oval Office.”
In the US typically there is a transition plan in place. In addition, US government agencies are professional institutions. The employees are not purged in between administrations. There are some changes to upper level administration, but the agencies are setup to keep working. There may be a small slow down in work, but I have never heard a report of an agency like the Congressional Budget Office or the Environmental Protection Agency idling their workforce for weeks or months. Just doesn’t happen in any funded agency.

John T
Guest

Paul – I think that you are overacting a bit here. The flag is the symbol of the country, and I don’t have a problem with a number of flags being displayed. It is it the values of the country that determine how we view them being displayed.
If you go to the Mall in London, there will often be a line of Union flags from Trafalgar Square to Buck House. But I don’t see them as threatening, as the UK is by and large an established, tolerant democracy. But a row of flags behind BNP leader Nick Griffin, and the policies he promotes, is far more sinister.

GW
Guest

lookingglass,
When there is a change in the Oval Office, there is continuity in the government because political appointments are only a shallow part of the government and career civil servants are able to continue without a break. What is described here is simply management incompetence: a new government has tremendous flexibility in reorganization and they should have this flexibility, as every organization can be optimized and not every unit of a bureaucracy is necessary, but allowing whole departments of civil servants to go unused is poor management and an arrogant waste and abuse of both money and human resources, in this case likely including highly qualified personnel who entered into government career with the assumption that they had the security of civil service employment in return for the lowered compensation.
It is precisely because of the possibility of change at the political level that every democracy needs an competent, apolitical and loyal civil service. Some governments clearly do this better than others (in Greece, for example, the depth of the political appointees is far too great.) The government here is playing with one of the foundations of a democratic state.

John T
Guest

Paul – I think that you are overacting a bit here. The flag is the symbol of the country, and I don’t have a problem with a number of flags being displayed. It is it the values of the country that determine how we view them being displayed. If you go to the Mall in London, there will often be a line of Union flags from Trafalgar Square to Buck House. But I don’t see them as threatening, as the UK is by and large an established, tolerant democracy. But a row of flags behind Nick Griffin, and the policies he promotes, is far more sinister.

Member

It is off track a ‘bit, but look what is happening in the artist community. Nobody knows if there is any money or where the money will come from. Even museums are in the limbo. I understand that art often costs money for the government but that is not unique for Hungary. Although it could be questioned what art is worth it and what art isn’t, what happened to the Hungarian film industry is a shame. One of my favourite Hungarian filmmaker is Bela Tarr (who just won the Silver Bear at Berlin Film Festival),. This is what he had to say (sorry it is in German): http://www.tagesspiegel.de/kultur/kino/berlinale/die-regierung-muss-weg-nicht-ich/3862646.html

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

someone: “One of my favourite Hungarian filmmaker is Bela Tarr (who just won the Silver Bear at Berlin Film Festival),. This is what he had to say (sorry it is in German): http://www.tagesspiegel.de/kultur/kino/berlinale/die-regierung-muss-weg-nicht-ich/3862646.html
There is a brief summary of it in Hungarian:
http://www.hirado.hu/Hirek/2011/02/20/13/Biralta_a_kormanyt_a_nagydijas_Tarr_Bela.aspx
By the way, the problem is that this government also wants to develop a new culture of its own kind. That is the case with the film industry as well. You remember, the incredible amounts of money spent on second-rate block busters like Hídember (about Széchenyi). I hear now they want a similar film about Ferenc Liszt.

Guest

Eva, what a coincidence!
Just saw this news on Tarr in the Spiegel and looked him and his films up on wiki and also saw his interview in German – very interesting but also sad in a way …
Though I don’t know if I could go through six hours of film …
Just waiting for him to be denounced as a postcommie left liberal gay Jew …

Member
wolfi: “Though I don’t know if I could go through six hours of film … ” I felt the same, although I like long, winded storytelling, and I do like “perfect” still images. I was very fortunate to meet Mr Tarr a few years ago, when the Toronto International Film Festival provided a Hungarian retrospective. He is the most pleasant, down to earth artist you can ever encounter. I told him that I am not sure if I can sit through a movie, Satantango, that runs 450 minutes (yes, you read that right), and he told me to give it a shot. There are clips available on Youtube but to be honest, it is impossible to watch it on youtube. It seems extremely boring as you look at the scenes taken out of context. Tarr is not for everyone, as Picasso or Miro, Wagner, Avedon or Weber are not for everyone. Not everybody likes the same kind of “storytelling”. Anyway, Tarr is a poet, and not for everyone, but he is an artist, and a one of a kind. The future of Hungarian moviemaking would of deserve someone who is experienced with movies more form an art success perspective, then… Read more »
dani
Guest
This situation is by far not contained to ITD – from what one hears the same goes on in all Ministries, and government agencies, like the competition watchdog, which also ceased functioning. Friends or old classmates of Fidesz dudes, like Szijarto & co are being appointed to senior postions. They have zero competency to actually run things. It’s so sad, that it is actually funny. Nonetheless, i think it’s important to state that ITD was crappy at what it did before as well. Incompetence, and sheer stupidity were omnipresent. About three years ago, I have negotiated with ITD, as representative of an high-tech investor with the aim to set up a software development unit in Budapest. We were invited to seminars at the embassy, where we witnessed presentations in barely understandable English or topic as the “Hungarian pessimism”. It only got worse when we visited ITD HQ on Andrassy. We were told that it’s not ideal to hire developers and we should focus on open up a call center. Moreover, when asking about tax breaks and incentives mentioned in their powerpoint presentation, none of the four ITD people in the meeting had any idea what they actually mean. Adding to… Read more »
Mutt Damon
Guest

@Dani I’m not surprised.
“We were told that it’s not ideal to hire developers and we should focus on open up a call center”
WTF was their logic behind this? If there was any of course …

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Dani: “Nonetheless, i think it’s important to state that ITD was crappy at what it did before as well. Incompetence, and sheer stupidity were omnipresent.”
I have no doubt. What you write about your meeting with them sounds so typical. Incomprehensible English, badmouthing people in Hungarian, thinking no one understand then … Sounds familiar.

Paul
Guest

John T – I understand how you could post a reply to me on the wrong thread, as it’s easily done. But to do it twice??
someone – apologies in advance as this is a personal bugbear of mine, but it’s ‘could have’, not ‘of’.

Member

Thank you Paul for the grammatical correction. Please feel free to do it at any time. I have never been offended when being corrected (except when my teen daughter does it, just to show me how much smarter she is, lol). I cannot promise that I will not “offend” you again. I just go ahead and type away…

dani
Guest

@Mutt counterproductive targets i guess…
From what i remember, they were pushing the call center idea, as part of the service center approach. So you hire lots of low-skilled people and it shows up in the stats. We already had that in India, and were looking to hire ca 15 young and eager developer kids, highly educated and well paid, but thats just 15 ppl….

Vladimir
Guest

Interesting that I just heard a similar story about another office within Matolcsy’s ministry this past weekend. As I understood it, this office’s position isn’t in flux and sounded rather important. This person was a new hire and can come and go as they please, nothing is asked of them and they go merrily surfing the net.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Vladimir: “This person was a new hire and can come and go as they please, nothing is asked of them and they go merrily surfing the net.”
I have the feeling that there is absolute chaos in practically all the ministries.

Paul
Guest
someone – appologies again for the correction. I don’t normally do this, as I feel, as a mono-linguist, I shouldn’t comment too freely on the small slips of others able to write in my language as well as their own. But I’m afraid this particular bit of ‘English’ really gets me. I can cope with most ‘incorrect usage’ by the young, as language is constantly evolving and most of this change comes from the youth (and it’s going to happen anyway, whether I like it or not!). But ‘could/would of’ is just plain WRONG! I assume it comes from people hearing the common compaction “could’v” in spoken English and mistakenly thinking it means ‘could of’ (as ‘of’ is pronounced ‘ov’). Although this awful compaction has been in use for some decades at least, for some reason it is only recently that youngsters have started misunderstanding it and writing ‘could of’. And, once it started, as these things do, it took off. In much the same way of my other great bugbear, the misspelling of ‘definite’ as ‘definate’, before you could say “why on earth don’t the teachers sort this sort of thing out?”, it was all over the internet. And… Read more »
An
Guest

@Paul: I duno watz yr prob W yung people’s lang.

Paul
Guest

It drives me bananas, An!
But I’ve read enough about language development, especially English, to know that much of the ‘correct’ English I aspire to today is actually the incorrect English of (mostly) the young of yesteryear.
But when I log into football forums (fora!) and such like and see such gems as ‘we was’, ‘one of them things’, etc, etc, a purple curtain of rage begins to descend over my rational mind. Especially if ‘text speak’ (txt spk?) is involved!!
Still, I console myself with the thought that one day those same posters will be getting wound up about the youngsters of their time abusing the language.
Now, let’s discuss the terrible things Americans do to my beloved language…

Member

Paul: No apologies needed. Really. Funny enough, I do actually love reading linguistic books. Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves as well as some Byll Bryson’s books are my favourites. It all makes sense while reading, but I get carried away when typing.

An
Guest

@Paul: It’s quite amazing how language evolves. Did you know there is a txt poetry competition as well?
Sorry folks, for getting off-topic.

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