Turns out, we’re in pretty good shape! End story.

Just kidding! Three members of ISP’s EMEA Department attended the second edition of this very well-organized, annual conference by Forbes and Aspen Institute Prague at the National Gallery in Prague, on November 10th. The conference was a full-day event that provided “a comprehensive overview of the political, economic, and social development of the Czech Republic in a long-term perspective” by focusing on five key areas: Governance, Quality of Life, National Security, Economic Potential, and Education.

There were some heavy hitters on the panels and in the audience that made for a very intriguing day of info and discussions. Some of the more notable names were: Bohuslav Sobotka – Prime Minister of the Czech Republic; Tania le Moigne, Country Director – Google Czech Republic & Slovakia; Jan Pokorný – Czech Radio; Martin Stropnický – Czech Minister of Defense; Zuzana Tvarůžková – Czech Television; and many others. The format of the panels provided a good balance of government and business representatives and allowed everyone to share their thoughts and opinions from their own perspective on the focus areas, and also made for some interesting/awkward back-and-forth at times!

Aspen Institute Konference 2016 - Česko: Jak jsme na tom?979-big

For those interested in the state of the Czech Republic, below are some notes to sum-up the discussions and what the conclusions were, and following those, some personal observations/comments…

Governance – the general level of performance among government institutions is not very satisfactory, for a variety of reasons: too slow and too much bureaucracy; lack of a stable political system which leads to a fragmentation of political parties and a difficulty in coming to consensus; lacking in conceptuality and modernization/electronization in public institutions. While the country is doing well overall, there’s a tendency among citizens to be too self-conscious and not confident enough in the position and capabilities of the country as a whole. All that being said, there are some clear strengths among the CZ’s government relative to neighboring and other countries: very open and making positive progress regarding corruption and transparency; more modern than relative countries.

Panellists discussed a general lack of respect among citizens for political decisions and political offices, which is interestingly contrasted by the fact that there was only a 23% turnout for the local official elections in Brno, the country’s second-largest city. In that light, one panellist made the comment, (paraphrasing) “Not every decision can be made using diplomatic principles. Sometimes government/public institutions need to step in and say, ‘Your concern (about the frog, for example) is not as important as the need for this highway.’” Noted.

Quality of Life – one important note is that there is a huge difference when comparing Prague and other regions/cities in the country and, unfortunately, those differences seem to be growing and rural communities are actually becoming less tolerant as a result. Also of note – while the CZ is among the countries with the highest quality of life, respondents perceive a decreasing amount of space for exercising their abilities, performance, and recognition of their merits. Talented Czechs are leaving the country for better opportunities abroad, and not enough children are being born in the rural communities. There are continued debates about the boundaries between ensuring security and personal freedom, and major concern about the issues of mental health, which currently represents the largest socioeconomic burden for the country.

National Security – the CZ is one of the safest countries in the world by just about any measurement, however it’s expected that the security situation in Europe (and the world at-large) will continue to deteriorate in the following years. One major discussion topic was the lukewarm approach to defense spending by most NATO members, which continues to undermine the relevance of the alliance and fuels threats by other members (namely the U.S.) to leave NATO, which “need to be taken quite seriously.”

Economic Potential & Competitiveness – while 2015 was a record year in terms of economic growth, 2016 didn’t follow the same path as the pace of economic growth this year dropped again to 2%. In short, the CZ’s economy doesn’t come close to the economic level of it western neighbors and is slowly being overtaken by its Eastern European competitors. On a global scale, the CZ ranks #31 on the Global Competitive Index and is projected to improve over the next four years. One of the issues that precedes this is the general lack of a consensus and lack of leadership in the government (mentioned in the Governance section), summed up in a very telling quote by one of the panellists: “one threat to progress in removing barriers is that it will add more work for people and the ministries.”

Panellists also discussed the issue of “brain drain” in the Czech Republic and the fact that while so many qualified people are leaving the country in search of better opportunities abroad, not enough (qualified) people are coming in to replace them. And often times, those that do come back return over-qualified and there tends to be a lack of well-paying opportunities for them.

Citizens and residents of the country can, however, take comfort in the fact that there was recently introduced a “Czech Republic 2030 Vision”, basically the first time such a concept has been rolled out. Whether the plan will reach its potential or be successful will remain to be seen, but it’s a start in the right direction of forward-thinking and less fragmentation among the powers that be.

Education – five key areas were addressed: 1) lack of long-term “horizon”/vision within the educational systems; 2) teachers are completely undervalued; 3) schools live and die with the Headmaster; 4) content – programs are very complex, however the divide is often focused too much on certain subjects; 5) socioeconomic dependence on education – schools are the only place where education/discussion takes place.

The Education panel was one of the most interesting of the day and really provided many note-worthy moments and comments. Much of the discussion revolved around the general complacency with the current system which, according to the researchers/presenters, actually supports the brain drain in that it doesn’t generate enough skilled workers for today’s modern businesses and the digitalization of society.

After some back-and-forth, the panellists made some headway with each other and started to get on the same page regarding the improving perception of the education system and the fact that the new generation of parents are placing more demand on it and the teachers, generally agreed upon as a positive. And in 2018, the plan is to raise teachers’ salaries by roughly 30%, so those considering getting into education, now’s the time! Beware, however, that the pressure on educators is higher than ever and the focus has now switched from ‘what to teach’ to ‘how to teach,’ a step in the right direction.

Interested in more details including summaries of each of the panel discussions, each of the studies presented by independent research group on the various topics, some key quotes and tweets from the event, the full list of panellists and participants, and lots of pics? Feel free to visit the website: http://www.aspeninstitute.cz/en/news/CZ-shape-we-re-in-2016/.

 

Personal observations: It was quite interesting (entertaining actually!) to witness the exchanges between the independent researchers, the government representatives, and the business people on all of the panels. That was one of the strengths of the conference – the balance of perspectives and experience on each of the panels, not to mention the abilities of the panel moderators to give everyone space to share their views.

One recurring theme throughout the discussions was a general frustration among the government representatives; to me, they just seemed very thin-skinned and defensive to any/all criticism. Another strength of the format of the conference was that each panel was preceded by a presentation by an independent research group (independent being the imperative word) in which they conducted various studies, interviews, etc. and then presented their studies over the course of about 20 minutes. Regardless of the topic/results/study, each and every one of the government folks were defensive to criticism, some more than others. While their frustration is understandable to an extent due to the lack of cohesion and stability among the political parties, one would hope that they’d be more willing to listen to the findings and statistics with an open mind and, at the very least, respond “diplomatically” in a way that conveys confidence in the Czech institutions in working towards solutions and making improvements…but nope! Just lots of sour grapes out there.

Another theme that was quite prevalent throughout the day was peoples’ lack of confidence in the quality of life in this country (also specifically mentioned in the study). It’s a general observation I’ve had about Czechs for some time now, but it was interesting to truly see it played out through studies and statistics, and even through the participants of the conference.

With that in mind, I’d just like to point out to Czechs that there are nearly 500,000 foreigners living in the Czech Republic and there are many reasons for that, the most prominent being – because it’s awesome here! There, I said it. Be proud of being Czech and living in this enchanting land of freedom and ever-growing opportunity. I feel like that lack of confidence in the quality of life here is changing with the younger generation(s), but time will tell if those changes become the new norm, or are just a passing fad.

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