The word “funcionario” is one most foreigners learn rather early on as no one gets very far without meeting one. “Funcionario” is Spanish for “public worker”.
The percentage of government workers in Spain is one of the highest in Europe and one that is entrenched in Spanish history as past governments were famous for multiplying their agencies and offices at often amazing rates. And it’s well known that once created, these things don’t usually dissappear.
British journalist, John Hooper, offers intriguing perspectives on the Spanish civil servant in his book The New Spaniards, second edition. His experience and knowledge of this country make his book a “must read” for all who wish to better understand contemporary Spain.
Public workers are hired through a process of official state exams known as “oposiciones” and it is not difficult to find Spaniards of a certain age – mainly in their 20’s and 30’s – who are preparing for these exams. Often they will continue to live at home until they are able to finally secure that much desired public position.
The most commonly cited reasons for seeking government work include job security and short work days. And, in a country with high unemployment, lack of job security and a private sector that is hard pressed to make a profit (thanks to the high taxes that – among other things – go to pay public workers), it’s no wonder everyone wants to work for the State.
Unfortunately, the “job-for-life” mentality does create a considerable amount of apathy and inefficiency. The idea that public workers might actually work for the taxpayers who need their services is just beginning to creep in and has by no means reached every “funcionario” yet.
To work effectively with a public worker it is important to “do as the Spaniards”, which translates into the following advice:
- Pay attention to your image; Spaniards place high value on appropriate dress and good grooming.
- Approach public workers with patience, good will, your best manners and a nice smile.
- Have clear objectives when entering a public office.
- If you are sent to another office for help or information, be sure to politely obtain the name and title of the person sending you, both for use at the next office and to call upon should you be sent back to where you started.
- Understand that public workers are like soldiers, with each one interpreting the general’s order in his or her own manner. If you are sure the information you have is correct even though the person in front of you says it’s not, insist on seeing a superior.
- Try to find out in advance what you will need in order to complete your transaction.
- Always go prepared with photos (if they might be necessary) and up to 3 photocopies of absolutely every document you might need when you finally meet Mr or Ms “funcionario” face to face. Have your papers well organised and be mentally prepared for the possibility that even after all that preparation this person might ask you for still more documentation or photocopies.