The ACA audited the secretaries general
Upon a request of SPÖ members of the National Council, the Austrian Court of Audit (ACA) carried out an audit of the establishment of the general secretariats at the federal ministries of the first federal government led by Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. The audit revealed that the tasks and objectives of the secretaries general – who have been authorized to issue instructions from 2018 on – were not clearly defined. This resulted in an increased risk of duplication of efforts and of contradictory assignments given by the ministries’ cabinets and the secretaries general. The ACA also assessed the financial implications: the establishment of secretaries general, including the related staff, for example, did not lead to a reduction of staff members in the ministries’ cabinets.
The tasks of the secretaries general
The ÖVP-FPÖ federal government had established general secretariats in all its twelve ministries. Owing to a legislative amendment they were entitled to act as superiors and to issue instructions to the directors general and subordinate agencies. In general, the possibility to endow staff members with such a function has existed in the federal administration since 2000. Initially, however, they were only responsible for matters related to coordination.
The current federal government, in turn, appointed secretaries general in twelve of overall 13 ministries.
The ACA’s auditors criticize that the ministries of the ÖVP-FPÖ federal government failed to define basic tasks and objectives prior to the establishment of their general secretariats. A clear separation and allocation of tasks – such as in the allocation of responsibilities or in the rules of procedure – would also be necessary to prevent any duplication of efforts as regards the activities carried out in the ministries’ cabinets and in the offices of the state secretaries vis-à-vis the secretaries general.
Several functions, limited resources
In May 2019, the five secretaries general at the Federal Ministries of Social Affairs, Education, Foreign Affairs, Defence and Sustainability were exclusively tasked with the responsibilities falling within the sphere of competence of a secretary general. In the other seven ministries, the secretaries general were assigned several other duties. The ACA points to the limited time resources when it comes to the assumption of several functions. This gives rise to the risk that the related assignments cannot be fully performed due to the lack of time.
The cabinets' staffing remained unchanged
The staffing of the general secretariats with the equivalent of about 63 full-time employees should have entailed a reduction in the number of staff in the cabinets of the ministries and offices of the state secretaries. However, the number of staff members in the cabinets and offices of the state secretaries remained almost unchanged. This contradicts the objective of ensuring an economical administration. From 18 December 2017 to 31 May 2019, the staff-related expenditure incurred for the cabinets, the offices of the state secretaries and the general secretariats amounted to EUR 50.64 million.
Appointment based on trust
In the course of the audited period from mid-December 2017 to June 2019, 15 persons were entrusted with the function of a secretary general. Among those 15, however, figured only one woman. Similar to heads of cabinets, secretaries general may be appointed without a prior call for applications. This is done solely on the basis of the special relationship of trust with the respective minister. The procedure provided for in the civil service for the comprehensible determination of personal and professional suitability, as provided for in the civil service, does not apply in this case.
Until end-January 2020, secretaries general were entitled to a lifetime civil service contract. Of the four new secretaries general who had joined the federal civil service between December 2017 and June 2019, two were employed under public law.
Remuneration, rewards and overtime
The ACA also assessed the remuneration of the secretaries general and their office staff. In addition to the fixed salary at the highest possible level of a director general, rewards were sometimes paid as well as allowances for any sideline activities performed in the federal service. Eight secretaries general received rewards during their terms of office.
Six staff members of the office of the secretary general of the Federal Ministry of the Interior charged, on average, more than 40 hours of overtime work in 2018. As regards three of these staff members, the average overtime work amounted to between 73 hours and 124 hours per month. This resulted in overtime payments of EUR 4,131 to 5,645 per month.
The ACA furthermore notes that the secretaries general of the Federal Ministry of the Interior and the Federal Ministry of Defence were provided with an official car and a driver. The ACA recommends that the secretaries general make use of the general pool of vehicles when performing their official duties.
The ACA furthermore states the following: The secretaries general were – as shown by the audit – appointed by the then ÖVP-FPÖ federal government as officials at the highest internal administrative level, endowed with the power to issue instructions. The current federal government of the ÖVP and the Greens decided to upkeep the positions of the secretaries general. They are selected by the respective federal minister.
The secretaries general of the federal ministries are tasked with strengthening the administration in its operability. This requires an efficient coordination and management within the ministries themselves. In addition, important, inter-ministerial coordination tasks would have to be performed. It is, however, also clear that the secretaries general must not develop a political life of their own as they are, by their very nature, subordinate to the respective minister. The latter, furthermore, also carries the political responsibility. The secretaries general could and should, in particular in times of the corona crisis, exercise their coordination function also across the ministries.
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Report: General Secretariats at the Federal Ministries (in German)
From April to September 2019, the ACA audited the general secretariats (i.e. the secretaries general and their offices) at the federal ministries. This special audit pursuant to Article 126b para. 4 of the Federal Constitutional Law upon a request pursuant to section 99 para. 2 of the Austrian National Council Rules of Procedure Act 1975 (Geschäftsordnungsgesetz 1975) was initiated by members of the National Council in end-January 2019. The audit request concerned the then federal government, which was in office for one and a half years from December 2017 to June 2019. The audit aimed at presenting and assessing the organizational establishment of the secretaries general and their offices, the pertaining civil service and remuneration law, their interfaces within the respective ministry, their objectives and tasks and the conference of the secretaries general.
In accordance with the audit request, the audited period covered the establishment of the general secretariats from 22 December 2017 to the start of the ACA’s audit (as at 1 April 2019) and was expanded by the period of April to June 2019 due to the fact that the term of office of the majority of the secretaries general ended in June 2019.