September 19, 2011

Local Vocab: "Los Funcionarios"

A simple answer to what is a "funcionario" would to be say that he or she is a state public employee. I think Americans often mistakenly interpret this to mean a functionary or bureaucrat, since these are usually the funcionarios that tourists and exchange students interact with. However teachers in public schools, doctors in the public healthcare system, not to mention nurses, policemen, firefighters, and garbagemen, are all also funcionarios. Indeed, as of 2010 one in six working Spaniards was a funcionario in the sense that their salary was paid by a local, regional, or national government administration. Much more of Spain's economy is run by public institutions, so many more people in Spain are state employees.

Yet this alone still doesn't help you to fully understand the reasons for the heated public debates in Spain over whether funcionarios are, according to some, the scourge of the Earth, people with overly cushy jobs and little incentive to innovate or care about providing good service, or according to others, respectable workers who provide normalcy and consistency in service, and who, given their large numbers, are likely to be someone you know personally.

Perhaps the biggest difference in government employees here in Spain and in the U.S. is that funcionarios can get a permanent position, a job for life, something like tenure in the U.S. academic system. So even while salaries are often lower than private jobs (though perhaps not so comparatively low as they would be in the States), this job security makes these positions a highly coveted and desirable career path. What's more, many of them have special perks, such as only working half days (many government offices are closed after lunch) or having longer holidays (i.e. teachers).

In all fairness, though, to get one of these positions involves jumping through hoops, complicated and highly competitive selection tests ("oposiciones") for very few openings. And many problems with the system are unintended consequences: it is hard for young people to move into positions filled by more experienced though aging staff, and rules intended to ensure fairness and objectivity in selection result in little flexibility to adapt to changing markets and social needs. In short, if you are not inside the funcionario system, if you run a family business, work for a corporation, or are an "autónomo" (self-employed), then you might be envious frustrated by the widespread presence of this power-wielding, overly protected class of employees.

It can result sometimes in a kind of culture wars, pro-funcionarios versus anti-funcionarios. I have seen friends strongly divided over the question of whether the public employee system needs to be heavily reformed, or thrown out entirely, or whether 'since it ain't broke, don't fix it.' One problem is that the image that Spaniards often first think of when they talk about funcionarios is also probably the local bureaucrat, maybe the town hall (ayuntamiento) administrative worker who pushes paper for a living and is in charge of said citizen's success processing their taxes or resolving some social security problem… such as your unemployment checks.

(For an excellent and humorous critique of life under this system, check out this Spanish short film, with English subtitles!)

In the heat of the economic crisis last year, when the government was exploring one route to balancing the national budget by cutting salaries and benefits for funcionarios, El País (one of the main newspapers here), did an excellent "radiography of public employees" in Spain. The article burst some common stereotypes about funcionarios. For one, most funcionarios, in terms of numbers, can be found in the public healthcare or education system. So cutting money or benefits for funcionarios means penalizing that doctor that treats you (think Spain's aging population) or that teacher who educates your kid, too. Moreover, only 40% of funcionarios had that mythical permanent position, so the majority of funcionarios were on part-time or temporary contracts and also experiencing some kind of job insecurity like everyone else.

A regional breakdown of population, public employees, and the ratio of inhabitants to public employees in 2010

But as an American, what is amazing about the El País radiograph are the sheer numbers, there is a funcionario for every 17-18 people inhabiting Spain. As of last year, 2.7 million of them in a country with a population of just 46.7 million. Another interesting thing is the wide variation across regions in reliance on and presence of the state. Almost 1 in 10 people are a funcionario in Extremadura, whereas only 4 of every 100 people in Catalonia are, Catalonia having a much stronger private economy than other regions in Spain. This means that any public initiative to reduce funcionario wages or benefits could be devastating for some regions, while barely affecting others. (Though despite all the loud ranting here about funcionarios, Spain is squarely in the middle range when its statistics are compared with other European countries.)

So keep an ear out for discussions about funcionarios. Whether this crisis erodes their social importance or reinforces it, funcionarios make up a central institution in the everyday lives of Spaniards, and chance are you'll hear people talking about it.

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