Interview with the President of BUKO – Austria and President of Honor of CEPLIS, Mr. Rudolf Kolbe, on the current and future challenges of the Austrian Liberal Professions in the context of the COVID 19 crisis

We are delighted to continue our series of interviews of the Presidents of our member organisations on their experience and views in the context of the COVID –19 pandemic, with a discussion with the newly elected President of the Bundeskonferenz der Freien Berufe Österreichs (BUKO) – our own President of Honor, Mr. Rudolf Kolbe!

Rudolf Kolbe, President of Bundeskonferenz der Freien Berufe Österreichs (BUKO) & President of Honor of CEPLIS

How have liberal professions in Austria adapted to the Corona Virus crisis?

The adaptation happened very fast and efficient. Naturally the medical professions formed the spearhead in the fight for the reduction of the number of infections. For this, the Medical Chambers put a special and very successful home testing system in place to prevent people from going to hospitals and doctors for testing. Other liberal professions efficiently supported society from the second row, such as for examples engineers guaranteeing the functioning of digital and medical infrastructure, tax consultants guiding businesses in how to get access to financial support, lawyers supporting their clients in the legally complicated situations regarding confinement etc
All in all the important functions of liberal professions in society, their flexibility and trustworthiness in a crisis and their system-relevance became quite obvious. They took on a leading role in the crisis and in the successful stabilization of the pandemic situation in Austria as professional experts and also as consultants for the Government and other public authorities. The situation also made very clear that for an efficient social dialogue it will be necessary to better include liberal professions and to strengthen the role of our organisation as social partner.

To what extent has the confinement disrupted the functioning of your organisation?

All the professional Chambers that are members of BUKO worked in full force to support their members with guidance and information, most of them at least partly in home-office. They were in close contact with their members, with public authorities and also with media and public. It was a very intensive working period for all of them. Home-office and video-conferences proved to be very efficient tools that will probably stay with us as an important part of our working lives. The major role of our organisation in that phase was defining the common needs and interests of all of them and to efficiently communicate them towards authorities and public.

Did this bring your association closer to public authorities as an interlocutor?

Yes, public authorities were in urgent need of expert advice and – in this situation of crisis – grateful to get the support from liberal professions, especially of course regarding medical expertise, but also in areas like legal and technical aspects, financing etc. These experiences will make it easier to enforce the involvement of liberal professions in the social dialogue also once the crisis is overcome.  As our organisation is the umbrella for the liberal professional Chambers it will be a leading force in negotiations and approaches towards reaching this important aim.

Have the members been able to use your association as a relay of information and to send their feedback to the authorities?

Yes, as explained it was a main role of our organisation to define and bring together the common needs and requirements of liberal professionals in the crisis situation and to ensure that they were met by government and other public authorities. For example, the clarification that liberal professionals have to have full access to the financial support measures was an important aspect.

Did the general population come to your association and members to get informed?

Yes, medical, legal, financial, engineering… information and support was of course in high demand and it was also part of the work of our organisation and our Member Chambers to provide the professionals with all available information from government and public authorities, such as for example the rapidly changing COVID 19 regulations and the guidelines for access to the COVID 10 support measures.

Do you think that this difficult period had an impact on the relationship between members of liberal professions?

It indeed had and still has. It’s well known that appreciation for and trust in medical professions considerably grew during the crisis, but there are similar effects in other liberal professions. In the insecure crisis situation, values such as of professional expertise and quality, of trust and responsibility gained importance for a lot of people. We do hope that this is a long-term effect that will help us in regard to the unremitting deregulation efforts of the European Commission.

What is the financial impact of confinement on the offices and SMEs of liberal professionals in your organisation?

There is no blanket answer for this, the impacts have to be regarded from branch to branch and we do not have complete and verified data on this yet. Nevertheless, with some caution I daresay that due to their system-relevant services and tasks and their special roles in the crisis they were less affected than many other branches. But of course, there were problems arising from the confinement and other restrictions, which we are currently still analysing.

How did the response from the national authorities meet or disappoint the needs of your professions? Were professional associations forgotten when the States proposed aid? Was the specificity of the Liberal Professions taken into account when the governments announced their economic support and protection measures?

The implementation of the crisis support measures at some points has overwhelmed the national authorities and the existing systems. In the beginning the funding guidelines contained numerous hindrances, mistakes and unclarities and were in a constant process of adaptation.  At that stage, they were also not compatible for many liberal professionals. By communication with public authorities we were able to better adapt the requirements to the needs of liberal professionals in many areas. Although there are still a few funds existing in Austria that are not accessible for liberal professionals, the exclusion was not intended in regard to crisis support measures. Nevertheless, this example clearly showed that the knowledge about the system of liberal professions is not high enough in the current Government and that we urgently need to improve this situation. Overall, the crisis situation has prepared a good basis for this as politics became much more aware of the important role of liberal professionals in society.

Now that the confinement is over, how do you see your profession in the future: a return to normal life or deeply marked by new habits?

When answering this question, there are two different aspects that we need to focus on:

One aspect is the question of impacts on the professional lives of liberal professionals. On one hand – of course – the crisis has enhanced digitalization and has made visible its possibilities and limits for different liberal professional branches. This will certainly have a long-term effect for many professionals. Additionally the public and personal appreciation that many liberal professional received during the crisis is something that could have a long-term effect: As the awareness for the importance of values such as professional excellence, quality of services, personal responsibility and trust was raised during the crisis this could bring a boost for many liberal professional services and at the same time influence the self-perception of professionals. It might also make the professions more attractive for new-comers. It will be important and interesting to follow up on these questions and further analyse the impacts.

The second aspect is the question how the crisis will impact the societal and political role of liberal professionals on a long-term basis: I personally hope and believe that all the experience that was gained during the last weeks and months will lead to a much better inclusion of liberal professions in the social dialogue. This might not happen automatically, but the crisis has given us – the representative organisation of liberal professions – very good arguments to explain, how recognising us as full social partners will improve and enrich the social dialogue not only in times of a crisis.