Civil servants relegated to “the aisles”

Top-ranking government employees are often shuffled off to positions with little or nothing to do

Jaime Nicolás, a high-ranking civil servant who has been transferred to a job where he has nothing to do.
Jaime Nicolás, a high-ranking civil servant who has been transferred to a job where he has nothing to do.ÁLVARO GARCÍA

Jaime Nicolás is, much to his regret, the stereotypical civil servant often depicted in jokes. "I get to the office around 9am, read the papers, write a little... At 11am we go out for coffee, then I'm back in the office until lunchtime," he explains, taking the reporter through his average workday. "And in the afternoon it's more of the same. You don't know what that's like. It's the same every day. They weren't giving me any work and they were paying me for it. It's immoral."

Yet Nicolás is not your average public employee. He holds a degree in law from a Spanish university and a degree in political science from a German one; he is himself a university professor who speaks several languages, and has translated the work of the philosopher Jürgen Habermas. He sat a public examination and joined the Spanish civil service in 1972, and climbed the ladder to reach the position of deputy director general 25 years ago.

Under various governments he has worked as a lawyer for the Constitutional Court; the director of the Center for Constitutional Studies; adviser to the General Police Directorate; and the director of state-owned broadcaster RTVE's institute. Until the Popular Party (PP) came to power in November 2011, he was the chief of staff for Francisco Rubio Llorente, head of the State Council until 2012.

But with the change in government, Nicolás - who is a level 30 worker, a top echelon in the structure of Spain's civil service - joined what is known in internal jargon as "the aisles." After sitting idle at home for two months, he was finally given a job at the Management Office for Infrastructure and Equipment for State Security (GIESE). This body is tasked with selling lots and buildings. "It's as far removed as you can get from my own field of expertise and interests, but I accepted and I asked to be given some work to do."

Nicolás, an educated, determined-looking man, soon realized that there was nothing for him to do at his new job. He had an office and a parking spot in downtown Madrid, but he was left twiddling his thumbs. Months went by like this. The paychecks came regularly, but the tasks never did.

Then, one day, his patience ran out. On July 18, after being idle for a year-and-a-half, he filed an internal complaint with the Interior Ministry, citing a 2011 protocol that specified that a leading cause of harassment is "leaving the worker without occupation for a continuous period of time, without any cause to justify it."

They weren't giving me any work and they were paying me for it. It's immoral"

But the complaint produced no effects, and two months later Nicolás took his case to a higher body, denouncing Interior Minister Jorge Fernández-Díaz before the High Court for workplace bullying. The court accepted the complaint.

"They thought that I would retire, that I would leave, but I want to work and they have to give me work. It's sad to have to explain to family, friends and colleagues that I am earning public money for doing no work. It's immoral, but I don't feel responsible," says this 66-year-old, who admits to having leftist sympathies but says he has never been a card-carrying member of any political party. "I like public service," he explains.

Interior Ministry sources replied that as soon as the secretary of state learned of the High Court complaint, he negotiated with Nicolás and tried to give him work.

Nicolás represents an extreme and perhaps unique case. He says that his immediate superiors told him they had orders not to give him any work; he blames this on an old confrontation he had with someone who is close to the minister. But his situation is a symptom of something much bigger: what happens to many high-ranking government workers when the party in power changes.

Juan Pablo de Laiglesia is another top-level public servant. A former ambassador to Guatemala, Mexico and Poland, he directed the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation and Development, and in 2010 he was appointed secretary of state for Foreign and Iberoamerican Affairs. After a few months he became the Spanish Ambassador to the United Nations.

When the PP came to power, De Laiglesia lost this post, and in March 2012 he sent the customary telegram to the Foreign Ministry - but he added an ironic little postscript. "As of today I am leaving my position as Permanent Representative Ambassador of Spain to the United Nations to take up my new position in 'the aisle,' although as Your Excellency knows, I would have preferred a window seat."

Since then, De Laiglesia, 65, is indeed standing in the aisle. He writes reports on Sub-Saharan Africa that hardly anyone ever reads, although he still earns a level 30 salary, which is an average 52,572 euros a year without extras, according to government figures. Last April he requested a consul position in either Rome, Toulouse, Montpellier, Lyon or Casablanca. Consul is a lower rank than ambassador, and as such he thought his request could not be vetoed, as the appointment does not depend on the minister. The Council of the Diplomatic Career unanimously approved him for his first choice: Rome. But Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo vetoed the request anyway and privately argued that the little joke in the telegram was an intolerable lack of respect. De Laiglesia has also turned to the High Court to fight the decision.

But this sort of thing happens at many ministries. Teresa Ribera rose from a position at the Environment Ministry to secretary of state for Climate Change under the previous Socialist administration of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. With the government change, she joined the aisles as well. "I can see how I couldn't remain at the Environment Ministry after serving as state secretary, but couldn't they find a single spot in the entire government agency system where I might be useful?" she asks.

Everyone consulted for this article insisted that the same problem happening now with the PP also happened under the Socialists. "None of the two major parties are interested in a strong public workforce to serve as a counterweight to political power," said one worker, who is also currently in the aisles. "They prefer cherry-picked advisers."

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