The supervision of executive power

Executive power is the largest and potentially the most powerful branch of authority, with the majority of the resources of the state budget at its disposal. The extent of the public sector means that it is virtually impossible to obtain any statistical overview of the people working there. In order to keep an eye on such a huge structure, various mechanisms of supervision have been tested.

At the highest level, executive power is supervised by the Riigikogu — as the people’s representative body, its duty is to guarantee that the executive power acts in the interests of the people. In its supervision of executive power, the parliament thus functions as an intermediary between the authority of executive power and the public. Riigikogu members can put their queries to the Prime Minister and ministers and, if need be, express a vote of no confidence which results in removal from office.

The economic side of the work of executive power is inspected by the State Audit Office, its activity regarding the fundamental rights is inspected by the Legal Chancellor. In recent years, the Audit Office has started to scrutinise not just correct accounting, but also the efficiency of the executive in realising its aims. The role of the Legal Chancellor increased considerably in 2000 following the introduction of a law authorising him to carry out the duties of ombudsman — i.e. to inspect whether the executive power acts in accordance with the fundamental rights. For instance, the chancellor devotes considerable attention to the violation of rights in nursing homes, children’s homes and prisons.

The legality of the activity of executive power is inspected by the administrative courts — everybody whose rights have been violated has recourse to the courts. In case of damage, it is possible to claim compensation. Even when state agencies have acted according to the law, this might not justify their actions, because the courts have the obligation to check that laws are in accordance with the constitution, and must not apply unconstitutional laws. The court can, for instance, proclaim the regulations of the tax board invalid if they rely on a law that contravenes the constitution.

The duties of a county governor include the inspection of executive power at the level of local governments, which actually fall within the authority of executive power only conditionally. With the extension of the state’s power at the local level, the governor ensures the balanced development of his county and simultaneously carries out supervision of the local governments in the county.

The executive power is also under close scrutiny by the press and the public. The Public Information Act passed in 2000 guarantees access to all documents in the public domain — on condition that public disclosure does not reveal state secrets or damage anyone’s private life. Parliamentary, economic, legal and public supervision is supposed to render executive power understandable and easily accessible to the people. The multitude of supervision mechanisms and dispersal of responsibility, however, have created a situation where the drawbacks and errors revealed greatly diminish the credibility of the administrative system.

Research carried out elsewhere in the world shows that in spite of a generally negative attitude towards executive power, personal contacts with executive power are in fact not so negative. The veracity of this claim is by no means certain in Estonia, where negative attitudes towards executive power often arise from those areas of life in which people have direct contact with executive power (the vehicle registration centre, the citizenship and migration board). The development of a culture of communication in the public sector and administration seems to be an especially long process. Given that a ordinary citizen’s opinion of executive power is largely determined by personal contacts, the role of employees working in the public sector in shaping the country’s image is perhaps even more important than that of ministers.

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