“But what is to be done when the political will and the conviction of the civil servant diverge exceedingly…?” – 5in10 with Dániel G. Szabó
Dániel G. Szabó has been a Head of Department at the Municipality of Budapest responsible for participatory governance, the city council, and IT with a staff of 130 since 2019. He supervised the city’s first participatory budget process and he is currently working on bringing citizen-oriented digital services. Previously he worked on the rule of law and the independence of administrative courts at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. He has a background in social activism, worked as a journalist and as a think-tank analyst. Previously he was a consultant and intern for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He was a member of the Hungarian National Election Commission for two election periods. He holds an LL.M. in Comparative Constitutional Law from the Central European University. He is a re:constitution Fellow 2022/23 at the Forum Transregionale Studien with a project on “Bureaucrats under Illiberal Rule”.
What were academic or personal inspirations that led to your current research?
My work is not in academia, I have managerial tasks in the civil service and I wanted to take a step back and dig deep into something; and this is what the re:constitution Fellowship allows me to do. I am head of a department at the City of Budapest with five units and more than a hundred people to supervise, where the duty is to keep the department running with deadlines and projects to keep track of. So on a personal level, I wanted to have some time to learn and reflect on what I am doing.
My choice of topic was inspired by my experience, which is special because I work and live in a country led by an illiberal government. I wanted to better understand the implications of an openly illiberal government on the civil service: how power is exerted, what are the goals of the government, how civil servants react and how to build resilient bureaucracies which can withstand pressure and fulfil their responsibilities not only towards the political leadership, but towards constitutional values and future generations. Because the civil service is essential for carrying out all government policies – politicians alone cannot do anything in a complex society. Thus, the quality of bureaucracies, the democratic commitment of civil servants is a valuable topic of research.
How would you explain your research to someone who is not an expert?
Civil servants, not only those working under illiberal governments, have two duties which might conflict: a duty of loyalty to the democratically elected political leadership and a professional responsibility towards good governance. Think of a civil servant disagreeing with a minister on the direction of a certain policy. One solution is that the minister and the government are democratically elected and, thus, should have the final say on the matter. But what is to be done when the political will and the conviction of the civil servant diverge exceedingly, as was the case under President Donald Trump, President Jair Bolsonaro or Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The loyalties of civil servants towards democratically elected political leaders and good governance might be present everywhere but it is more accentuated in times of crisis, such as during illiberal governments when the requests of a political leadership might strikingly collide with constitutional values or the public good. This is what I want to research in the case of Hungary and Poland.
Which stations of your professional journey were particularly formative to you?
There are two levels to this question. On a broader scale, I come from a legal background with experience in journalism and NGO work on the rule of law, with extensive practical managerial experiences first at a political party and now at the city hall of Budapest. Joining the civil service in 2019 was definitely a formative experience. I never before experienced government work in a big organisation with all its beauties and difficulties. My choice of research topic has much to do with my desire to better understand my position as a civil servant.
On a more direct level, the re:constitution Fellowship allows participants to visit two institutions in two EU-countries. I find myself between the two – I have spent time at Leiden University at the end of 2022 and am looking forward to my research stay in Poland this summer. My time at Leiden University had a huge impact on my research because I had the time, the resources and the right people to talk to. Spending some time at a research institution was definitely a refreshing experience.
How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods?
I do not have any interesting experiments or other fascinating research methods to talk about. What I do during research is mostly reading – and I enjoy it greatly because it helps me to structure my experiences, and to better understand both my work and the broader field of bureaucracy and democracy. But of course, I also talk to people, which is sometimes the best part of it, either during a workshop, a one-on-one with an expert or while having a coffee. One of these conversations can be listened to in the form of a podcast episode in Hungarian, because, together with a fellow civil servant, we are running a podcast on bureaucracy in Hungary.
What book, article, film, exhibition or song would you recommend, and why?
I would recommend a television series and a book – both having much to do with bureaucracy. The television series is Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope and its sequel, The New Pope. Both seasons are set in the Vatican, with beautiful pictures and a storyline revolving around – among many other themes – power and its effects on people. It is fascinating to see how the characters cope with doubts, power struggles and moral questions. The book is La Divina Commedia by Dante Alighieri, which is not at all a recent work of literary art, but still hilarious and interesting. Written by a former city councillor some 700 years ago, with sparkling absurdity and humour – for example, corrupt bureaucrats bathe in hot pitch in Hell –, it is the perfect break from serious research.
Citation: “But what is to be done when the political will and the conviction of the civil servant diverge exceedingly…?” – 5in10 with Dániel G. Szabó”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 11.03.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/46470