Beamter: Check out any decent dictionary and it will show a string of translations – official, clerk, functionary, civil servant etc. – none of which do justice to the soul of that mystical creature, the Austrian bureaucrat

Older arrivals will remember the Stempelmarken, amusing now, irritating then. The game was as follows: You’re in line to get some papers fixed. Shortly before 12:00 you’re there, alles in Ordnung (everything okay), pay 40 Schilling please. You proffer money or wave a card – no, no, only Stempelmarken. Your blank gaze elicits a dismissive wave of the hand: “Bei der Tabak Trafik, round the corner.” You reach the store just as the Trafikant is locking up for his two-hour lunch break. At the stroke of two, you are back and in seconds you have your 40 Schillinge, handsomely ornate chits like oversized postage stamps, vaguely reminiscent of share certificates of long bankrupt companies. But the door is locked … it’s Friday and the Amt closes at 13:30. Come back Monday please.

In the meantime, Austrian government services have been massively streamlined. The Stempelmarken are long gone and gv.at online sites are among the most user-friendly in Europe. A World Bank study ranking countries by their degree of business-friendly regulations puts Austria at the 19th spot (out of 180), behind the Anglo-Saxon arch-capitalists (U.K. 7th, USA 8th), but together with Germany and well ahead of France and CEE immediate neighbors Czechia and Slovakia. This has been a long time coming.

The great reform began after wartime disasters exposed weaknesses in the system. Maria Theresia’s right to succeed her father Emperor Karl VI was contested by an alliance around the newly aggressive Prussia on the grounds that Salic law prohibited a woman from ascending the throne. But the gentlemen underestimated the redoubtable “Mother-in-law of Europe.” The War of Succession, 1740-1748, lost much of Silesia to Prussia, but confirmed Maria Theresia as the legitimate heir to the Austrian throne. One of her first priorities was a thorough reform of a creaking and systemically corrupt bureaucracy, which was failing to hold a huge multicultural empire together. Sinecures for favored aristocrats were replaced with educated bourgeois academics; positions were for life and improved salaries stemmed corruption. In return, public officials in the far-flung imperial territories were expected to remain resolutely loyal to the central government, regardless of local, regional and ethnic loyalties (as we might prefer in Catalonian officials right now).

Adamant Administrators

But today’s relentless drive to reduce people costs is biting into public services. Since Beamte cannot be fired, they make frequent fodder for the popular press and the cabaret stage. Superfluous post office workers were drafted into the police force with bizarre results, the federal rail system was complicit with pliable physicians unloading healthy railroad workers onto the state pension system. The Austrian daily Kronen Zeitung recently reported that 40 percent of Vienna bureaucrats applying for pensions under the Hacklerreglung (early retirement for those doing physically demanding jobs) were not firemen or frontline police officers, but administrative staff. Even the cautious General Accounting Office found this“hard to understand.”

Despite today’s general understanding of government as a public service, there are still moments when the old arrogance of the authoritarian state shimmers through. In the Rathaus (city hall) a few weeks ago, this correspondent was looking in vain for a department that had moved on. Tapping gently on the door meant disturbing the present occupant, as she was putting on her coat. “I’m not here to answer that sort of question,” she snapped and barged past me. A brief moment of irritation, but then a shrug. The fun of witnessing an heir to the great imperial bureaucracy behaving like a pouting school child is perhaps reward enough.