The nightmare of dealing with red tape in a pandemic

Long queues to see a doctor or get an appointment.
Long queues to see a doctor or get an appointment. / SUR
  • Telephones always busy or not answered, a lack of available appointments and complicated procedures online. People are coming up against a barrage of problems with administration, as the authorities struggle to come to terms with the 'new normal'

In this 'new normal', which has nothing normal about it, the security guards outside the doors of offices such as the SAE and SEPE employment agencies, Social Security, Hacienda (tax agency) and the traffic department, among others, have found themselves doing thankless extra work for which they are not paid. They are the first people members of the public see, the ones who have to stop people going in if they don't have an appointment, put up with their bad temper, tell them what steps to take if they want to carry out a particular administrative process and even give out forms and collect them once filled in. It is ironic that these subcontracted workers, whose employment conditions are often not ideal, have become the face of the Administration in Spain.

Anyone who has had to deal with the State (in any of its forms) since the pandemic began will know: you need patience and determination to carry out bureaucratic processes these days. If you phone, the lines are constantly busy or not answered at all, and in situations where you are allowed to go in person you need an appointment first, and that can take a long time.

You can't just go to a desk for information anymore; in fact, you often can't go into the office at all. "Do it online," is the new mantra, but even that isn't always easy. Many processes demand a digital certificate, electronic ID or Cl@ve code for security reasons, but that is an obstacle for those who are not familiar with such technological tools.

The pandemic has also revealed that some institutions haven't done their homework in the digital field, because online processing can be problematic for them too. The local president of the Colegio de Graduados Sociales (a professional association of administration specialists), Juan Fernández, told SUR: "We suddenly wanted to have a completely digital society without taking into the account what this means in reality for most citizens, many companies and the Administration itself."

The overworked administrative system is making life more difficult for individuals, as well as for professionals and companies, who are complaining that the Administration still seems to be in a state of alarm and that delays, errors and a lack of communication are not helping them to get over the crisis.


"We shouldn't generalise because some departments are managing extremely well, but the question is, why is it that some are and some aren't? I believe it is to do with good governance, that abstract concept that implies having guidelines, coherence and coordination," said Javier González de Lara, the president of the Confederación de Empresarios de Andalucía (CEA, an Andalusian business association), who doesn't understand why there has been a gradual return instead of all the offices reopening fully at the same time.

At the SEPE offices, the security guards are the only faces the general public see.

At the SEPE offices, the security guards are the only faces the general public see. / M. Fernández

The greatest example of a public institution which has been overwhelmed by the effect of the pandemic is SEPE, the Servicio de Empleo Público Estatal (State Employment Service). The service has 8,000 employees all over the country (310 in Malaga province) and has received nearly four million applications for unemployment benefit relating to ERTE furlough schemes brought in with the arrival of the Covid crisis.

Between March and May, with offices closed and staff working from home, this organisation had to deal with 130,000 new applications in the province. The backlog was inevitable. May arrived and many people who had been unable to work since March had still not received any payments.

In June the problem seemed to have been solved: the government came to an agreement with the banks to make the payments in advance once people's applications had been approved. It also allocated another 30 workers to the SEPE in Malaga.

However, when the summer arrived it became clear that this had only patched up the problem. Civil servants started to go on holiday and the ones who remained stopped working overtime, tired of trying to cover for the lack of staff.

The delay in approving applications for benefits was just one in a long line of problems. Another of the most common issues was that some workers were paid when they shouldn't have been. Companies started to bring staff back to work and advised SEPE they had done so, but the service continued to pay them unemployment benefit.

Again, all these problems are exacerbated by the impossibility of contacting these departments by phone, because all the lines are constantly busy or are inoperative.

Despite the offices reopening in July, people can only go in person by prior appointment and, in Malaga at least, there are no dates available on the websites when you try to make one.

Every morning, in despair, dozens of people turn up at the SEPE offices but can't get past the door. "It is unacceptable for the security guard to be collecting in forms that contain personal information from individuals and professionals," said Juan Fernández.

Nevertheless, this is also the scene every day outside the Social Security and tax offices. Both allow only a few appointments a day but they are still overwhelmed with work.

The record is held by the department that deals with the new Minimum Living Income: according to figures from the CSIF union for civil servants (the government doesn't provide information on a provincial basis), up to 25 August Social Security had received 41,507 applications for this new subsidy in Malaga province, and 4,050 had been dealt with. Not even ten per cent. Also, nine out of ten of those applications had been turned down, so only 224 families in the province had been successful.

CSIF says this fiasco is due to the lack of staff. The department that handles benefits for people with dependent children was given the task of dealing with these applications as well, and in Malaga it only has six members of staff. A further 20 workers from other departments are helping out voluntarily when their own working day is over, spending hours of overtime processing applications.

In the field of law there are also a few problems. For example, if a worker is dismissed and wants to take their employer to court, they have to attend a conciliation meeting at the Centro de Mediación, Arbitraje y Conciliación (CMAC) first. The problem in Malaga is that the worker only has 20 days to take the matter to court and they can't get an appointment at the CMAC within that time.

"They haven't been holding these meetings there since the lockdown, but we still have to present the claims. It means we have to go to the general registry, and that delays things," said Daniel Pérez, an employment lawyer.

Vehicles and drivers

Anyone who needs to go the Traffic Department must also arm themselves with patience: it's almost a miracle to actually get an appointment. The same applies at the National Police for obtaining an NIE (Número de Identificación de Extranjero). Things aren't so bad at Hacienda, but tax advisers are complaining that they can no longer go in person if they have queries and require information.

One factor is that many of the staff in the public administrations are still working from home.

"We wonder why a teacher has to risk their health by going back to school but a civil servant can't sit behind a perspex screen," said González de Lara, but he is keen to point out the exceptions.

"The Junta's Employment Ministry has been highly efficient in dealing with the avalanche of ERTEs," he said. The head of that department, Rocío Blanco, said this week that one of the key parts of her strategy is the automisation of processing. "We are going to continue using this because it worked well with assistance for the self-employed. Their applications were processed robotically and we dealt with over 60,000 beneficiaries in three months," she said.

"During the lockdown it was clear that nobody could do anything in person, so there was a backlog. The problem is that when the state of alarm was over, the Administration didn't fully reopen. It is still in a state of pseudo-lockdown. With the holidays and remote working there is a shortage of staff to deal with the public," said the president of the Colegio de Gestores Administrativos of Malaga, Daniel Quijada, who also believes the Administration was not properly prepared for functioning remotely.

Fernando Cubillos of the CC OO union in Malaga denies that remote working is to blame and says the problems are due to a lack of staff and planning.

His counterpart at the CSIF union, Juan Carlos Pedrosa, says people are suffering the consequences of years of understaffing, and warns that things could get worse: "A lot of civil servants are due to retire in the next few years."