60% of Spain’s top civil servants come from Madrid

In the last four years only one Catalan has joined the service’s senior management ranks

Calle Toledo, in Madrid / RICARDO RUBIO / EUROPA PRESS

“You negotiate anything with the minister. You hope to get 100, he wants to give up nothing, but eventually you meet nearly halfway. A few days later he rings you back and says: ‘no can do’. It happens a lot”. This is how former Catalan finance minister Antoni Castells recounted to this newspaper the reality of regional politics in Spain. Did the minister change his mind? He did not: he met resistance from a lower echelon, the mandarins that run the day-to-day affairs in the Spanish administration. The phrase “deep state” is an umbrella term that refers to the cogs and wheels that make the State tick along: the judiciary, the armed forces, the police, state lawyers, parliament lawyers, the diplomatic service and tax inspectors. Chiefly among them is the civil service’s senior management —which comprises nearly 1,200 high-ranking officials spread across the ministries— whose job is to manage, inform and advise government policy. Antoni Castells mentioned them, too. These mandarins have an important bearing on the daily affairs of the administration and, as a group, they present a very strong territorial bias, according to Professor Juan Rodríguez Teruel, who teaches political science at the University of Valencia. Between 2015 and 2018 out of 201 new recruits only one was Catalan. In contrast, 119 Madrid residents have joined the ranks of the top civil service in the same period, making up 60 per cent of the total number.

From 2015 to 2018 between 40 and 60 joined the civil service senior management every year and the trend has become a pattern: in 2015 65.9 per cent were from Madrid, 55.2 per cent in 2016, 59.5 per cent in 2017 and 58.3 per cent in 2018. Trailing behind Madrid are the regions of Castilla-León and Andalusia. The contribution from the rest of Spain is token, as the chart shows. Spain’s diplomatic service presents a similar dynamic, as shown by Dr Jorge Crespo of the Political Science Department at Madrid’s Universidad Complutense, who has researched the background of Spain’s embassy directors. This newspaper had asked to have access to the same information about state lawyers, one of the judicial bodies that has a key influence on public policy, but the Justice Ministry turned down our request. However, Carles Ramió (a political science professor at Universitat Pompeu Fabra) claims that he has been privy to an unpublished survey conducted by Spain’s National Institute for Public Administration which showed a “spectacular” territorial bias across the rest of the civil service.

Having said that, we must realise that Madrid’s numbers do not include merely applicants born or raised in Madrid, but also anybody who moved there to pursue their studies and career: all ministerial headquarters are located in Madrid, as are most of the tutors who help students to prepare for civil service entrance exams, a process that takes four years on average. Some sources claim that distance-learning solutions might buck this trend.

Cliques and social class

So what sort of applicants tend to go for such positions? Experts say that high-ranking civil service vacancies tend go unnoticed. When you add to that the difficulty of securing a spot, it means that there is an element of family tradition when people consider such career options. The financial burden of having to study for so many years is another factor which means that, in general, top civil service jobs tend to attract higher-middle and upper-class applicants. Ramió says that this leads to the formation of “cliques”. Furthermore, being socialised in the Spanish capital’s social circles means that candidates adopt an increasingly centralist mindset. The professor refers to it as the “Josep Borrell effect” (1). This centralist mentality is widely rejected in regions like Catalonia, so Catalans don’t even consider it as a career option, says journalist Dani Sánchez Ugart, who studied this phenomenon in an article published in Mèdia.cat. “It’s catch-22”, he concluded.

A 1980 survey by Julián Álvarez Álvarez revealed only 22 Catalans joined the civil administration’s technical management body between 1960 and 1977. Therefore, the trend has remained in place for decades. Crespo points out that, in the case of Catalonia, having a strong private sector and an enterprising tradition also play a key role. Professor Sabino Cassese studied this phenomenon in Italy. Identity issues may have had an influence, but they are hard to quantify. Internal sources point to another reason: the equivalent civil service jobs in Spain’s regional administrations pay better.

The resulting scenario is one where the higher echelons of the Spanish civil service do not adequately represent the relative weight of many regions which, according to Crespo, is detrimental to its “legitimacy”. The university professor believes that “the administration should draw and welcome candidates from under-represented regions so that Spanish society can feel adequately represented in all its political, social and territorial complexity”. Does the territorial bias have an effect on the agenda and government policy? Crespo argues that what is essential is the nature of the administration, rather than what it does because one hopes that top civil servants are guided by the pursuit of general interest.

Still, the pursuit of said general interest may also be skewered because of the “lack of familiarity” with Spain’s peripheral regions, says Ramió, who points out a salient issue in this new parliamentary term: “They do not know what is going on in rural communities. Without meaning to, they legislate as if all of Spain were like Madrid”, he claims. This would explain the rise of Teruel Existe (2), a slate that stands for one of the most sparsely populated provinces in Spain. Civil Service sources reject the idea and claim that policies are devised together with interested parties and higher-ranking administrations.

Hardly a decentralised country

Experts say that the problem with this centralist outlook is particularly serious because of the powers which the State still holds. Even though only 50 per cent of Spain’s total public spending is decided in Madrid —37 per cent by regional governments and 13 per cent by local councils—, the central administration retains key powers in areas such as Taxation, Social Security, economic planning and foreign affairs, among others. In contrast, regional governments merely manage schools, public health and social services, which shows that Spain’s system of autonomous regions leaves them little room to manoeuvre.

Castells suggests three ways in which the situation could take a turn: by effectively shifting political power to the regional governments, by seeking an active role in Spain’s top level civil service and by creating a Catalan civil service elite, like former Catalan president Josep Tarradellas proposed in an attempt to emulate France’s École Nationale. “That way when we’d begin a negotiation we’d be able to say: look, the Catalan government’s lawyer knows his stuff better than yours”.

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Translator’s notes:

(1) Josep/José Borrell is a former Spanish minister who was born in Catalonia but carved out his political career in Madrid and is known for opposing Catalan independence fiercely.

(2) Teruel Existe [Teruel Exists] ran in the latest Spanish elections as an independent slate for the constituency of Teruel, a rural, impoverished and largely neglected Spanish province, and their candidate went on to win a seat in the Spanish parliament.