The Politicization of Sri Lanka’s Public Service
Posted on May 11th, 2011

Shenali Waduge

Sri Lanka’s public service is one of the largest in Asia. Political interference has put a halt to whatever reforms have been introduced or recommended over the years. The question remains would politicians drafting changes to revamp Sri Lanka’s public sector want to or be ready to divest the power over people that would deny them the ability to flaunt their power? Would they really want to give up the unprecedented powers they wield over the public sector?

 A states administrative system must be accountable, transparent, respect the rule of law, function without discrimination & protect all forms of human rights. Absence of some or all cited above equates to the failure of the public service & the rights of the people become jeopardized ironically as a result of the public service because it is their actions that can lead to denial of fundamental rights.

 Sri Lanka’s public service is a long one & dates back to ancient times.

Following colonial rule the Colebrooke Commission & the Donoughmore Commission was introduced. For the British, public service meant facilitation of revenue collection in Sri Lanka. It was in 1948 that the public service was brought under the Public Service Commission recommended by the Soulbury Commissioners. The recommendations being to ensure the Public Service became an engine for development. This resulted in every ministry having a Permanent Secretary (the highest officer in the Public Service), tasked to help the Minister achieve the objectives of that Ministry as well as to administer the department(s) under the Ministry. The Permanent Secretary is also tasked with advising the Minister on policy planning. The Permanent Secretaries were given Additional Secretaries, Deputy Secretaries, Assistant Secretaries & Heads of Departments. These staff officers or gazetted officers belonged to the Sri Lanka Administrative Service (SLAS  which succeeded the Ceylon Civil Service in 1963) or either to the Sri Lanka Accountants Service, Sri Lanka Educational Administrative Services.

 The colonial kachcheri system also continued with changes & Government Agents (known also as District Secretaries) earlier appointed on provincial basis now appointed on a district basis. To assist them were Additional Government Agents, Assistant Government Agents (Divisional Secretaries) who were assisted by numerous clerical staff of different grades. Changes arose through the 13th Amendment in 1987 & the Provincial Councils Act. What issued was the Public Service becoming bifurcated into the Public Service of the Central Government & the Provincial Public Service & exercise of authority becoming divided. Creating further chaos was the manner in which divisional secretaries had to perform their duties to the dictates of the Central Government as well as follow the dictates of Chief Secretaries of the Provinces & Provincial Ministers. Division Secretaries do not fall under the Provincial Public Service Commission but they are however answerable to the Chief Secretary of the Province. Imagine the difficulty with which this officer would have to function wherein two different political parties are in control (Central Govt & Provincial Council) The Grama Niladaris end up suffering the same fate.

 Friction began with disagreement between the Minister & Permanent Secretary with the later citing reasons not to pursue certain projects promulgated by the Minister. The answer to opposition was to replace obstructing officials with amenable ones. Soon isolated cases of politicians taking control of the bureaucratic decision-making turned into a trend. It spread through Government, to Provincial Councils & practically to every area of the State apparatus. Soon the trend was to turn into a common practice with every citizen made to accept how Sri Lanka=92s public service functioned. Sri Lanka’s public service was becoming authoritarian & distancing itself from the public. Gross violations of corruption also took place when Ministers who are accountable for controlling the allocation & use of funds ended up not including actual expenditures in the budget & instead passing additional amounts through supplementary votes.

 The recommendations by the Soulbury Commissions began to be changed with the 1972 & 1978 Constitutions. It clearly spelt the death to the independence of the Public Service Commission & eventually to the public service itself.

Politicians began to care little for the need to maintain a self-sufficient & efficient public service. Developing Sri Lanka through the Public Service was also forgotten. Political appointments soon became practice. The flipside of the new system was the manner in which top officials themselves began to go behind politicians for favors. They soon turned themselves into stooges putting to the dustbin the rare qualities that previous public service officials were respected for. These officials began to appease & agree with the wishes of Ministers most of whom had little or no educational qualifications and desired only to bulldoze their way forward. It spelt tragedy to Sri Lanka & the expected engine of development through the Public Service. One good example often cited is the nationalization of the transport services & introduction of the Ceylon Transport Board. By purposely streamlining the services of the CTB, subsequent governments had to allow private buses to supplement services.

Secretaries to Ministries were appointed & removed at the discretion of the President under the new Constitution. The unwritten understanding clearly is that these officers are expected to be loyal to the party in power. This certainly guarantees his/her eventual promotion to a statutory board or even a diplomatic posting. Thus, officials become bound to agree to everything that he/she is expected to do. An officer not agreeing naturally stands the dangers of losing his position, foregoing changes of securing a higher position or being sent to a pool. So if you see plenty of yes men you

will know why they do as they do. When Ministries function in ad hoc manner , when total disrespect for proper governance becomes a hallmark of a Ministry. The public should be able to fathom the type of Secretary that is functioning under that Ministry, & conclude what capabilities, suitability, experience & qualifications he/she has or rather doesn’t have! Another example of the appalling situation where politicians take full control over public service is the manner in which appointment letters are handed out & appointments to professions such as doctors, engineers etc end up with these appointees having to line up to take the appointment letter from a politician who would not have passed his O/Ls!…. this becomes a blow to the self-respect & integrity of these appointees. Why should they have to line up to get what they had qualified to achieve, there appointment letters should be sent to them by registered post as had happened in the past?

 What differentiates the public service from the private sector is that the latter is a service for profit while the former provides a service at a minimal cost. The private sector is guided by a set of internal policies, flexible to adjust to changes whereas the public sector has a structure of laws & regulations which are inflexible. The private sector is more customer-driven while the public sector prefers to follow the regulations related to the work they handle. Private sector works with a sense of competition that encourages efficiency & effectiveness which is totally devoid in the public sector as policies are more often than not dictated by political will & rewards come only to poodles of politicians. Public service staff that don’t want to go behind politicians end up coming to work & going home with little productivity coming out of them. Private sector staff however are rewarded for their accomplishments & a system of reward schemes & incentives are designed internally. Nevertheless it must be pointed out that public sector staff are very thorough with their rules & regulations & often these are quoted from memory which certainly implies that their talents are not put to use properly.

 We are all in agreement that one key feature between the Public & Private sector is that the former enjoys security of service. Private sector employs have only the labor tribunals to appeal to against any type of discrimination. The public officers have the legal right to continue in service till he/she reaches the age of 60. Nevertheless, public officers who end up refusing to concur with Government Ministers or their stooges naturally end up being transferred. Their relief is through fundamental rights in the Supreme Court yet this is not only expensive it is cumbersome & time consuming.

 It is not that attempts had not been made to reform the Public Service with a mission to make the Central administrative & the regional administrative system efficient & effective. In 1969 the Ministry of Public Administration was established with 3 divisions =96 Combined Services Division, Administrative Reforms Division & the Establishments Division. The effort proved no help whatsoever. In 2000 another attempt was made with the appointment of the Public Services Management Development Authority. The chairman of the authority was to report to the President on the progress being made. The surveys conducted revealed what we all already knew lack of accountability, inadequate knowledge of the subject matter by public officers, ineffective supervision, absence of motivation & without any surprise political interference. How so abuse of government property using state vehicles for election purposes, not leaving official residences, taking belongs of these institutions, abuse of official position by giving unfair promotions just to name a few! An example is giving state vehicles to senior officials from residence to office & back to make up for anomalies.

However, despite these anomalies becoming fulfilled these officers still continued to make use of these vehicles & whats more these vehicles became used by their wives & families as well & moreover this facility became the norm for every Tom, Dick & Harry. Similar instances prevail in the military.

Since the new authority was not established by an Act of Parliament it had no power to make changes & the staff eventually ended up absorbed into the Administrative Reforms Division of the Ministry of Public Administration.

 With this unfortunate trend & practice prevailing is it any surprise that our public sector end up naturally deciding to function with lethargy where inaction or little action was preferred to standing up & telling one’s mind & ending up in a far corner of Sri Lanka! Criticisms on abuses become merely election rhetoric with each political party accusing the other but committing the same set of crimes once in power.

 It is politicians that have turned Sri Lanka’s public service into a place of lethargy where people do not feel obliged to reveal or report wrong doing & abuse of authority is watched as if it is part & parcel of governance! The irony is that when one is prepared to watch & wait in silence the others follow yet if all equally stand up against abuse & corruption the benefits would be amazing. Challenging actions of administrative authorities becomes a citizens right. There have been instances where courts have favored petitioners against administrators.

 The 17th amendment to the Constitution proposed the establishment of the Public Services Commission with power over appointments, promotions, transfers, disciplinary control & dismissal of public officers. However, this was contradicted by Article 55(3) with the above said to be vested wit= h the Cabinet of Ministers after ascertaining views of the Public Services Commission. It was a mere hoodwinking & nothing had actually changed.

Politicians drafting changes were just not prepared to work alongside a public service that would function independent of their control! Whether public service was under the Central Government or the Provincial Councils it made little change to how the public service had to function. Devolution only resulted in duplication of work & nothing more.

 What we can conclude is that while political will can certainly put a stop to discrepancies that prevail the public sector too need to certainly change the manner in which they presently work. It is lame to pin point the blame at the doorstep of the politicians alone

 Attitudinal orientation is a must as well as the possible consideration of introducing performance based salary structure whereby staff are given opportunity to be rewarded for their proven performance with no weightage given to influence by politicians. This would become a cost saving as well.

It would also enable performing staff to be recipient of attractive salaries & would answer to the motivation factor. A common grievance is that the lower rung are prone to corrupt practices because they find difficulty in making ends meet. This certainly cannot be accepted as an excuse for indulging in corruption & this practice must stop. Politicians should also not be allowed to interfere in any disciplinary proceedings whatsoever.

 What politicians do not seem to understand or may not have the astuteness to understand is how beneficial a changed public sector can create & how it is likely to affect what the public at large think about the Government in power. A Government able to revamp the public sector & have all officials whatever category they work in function to a proper mission & proper line of authority with accountability will certainly deliver the results that the public expect from their Government.

 The alarming case at present is that the public sector is over staffed Sri Lanka has one of the largest public services in Asia. Walk into any Government Ministry or Statutory Board to view the scores of public servants who do not have a single work to occupy the time period they are in office.

If you see them reading newspapers or chatting with one another =85you will understand how idle they are. The answer to overstaffing is voluntary retirement schemes & it would certainly be a good initiative to take unless all these staff can think of ways they could add value to the Ministry or institution they belong to.

 While understanding & accepting that public service works under enormous pressures as a result of political interferences there are certain independent variables that they can work under & which does not have any connection with politicians. Carrying out their daily duties with precision & accountability has no interference with politicians. That fault totally lies with the supervisor responsible for these staff. When citizens come to seek assistance, answers to their queries public service staff are bound to answer these without making citizens waste their time or having to pay additionally for these services! Therefore it has become an easy excuse to blame the politicians & idle at work which is as unethical as politicians interfering. There is a degree to which autonomy is given & a person is able to work in freedom without any political interference however what most of us feel is that the public service has found it convenient to point blame at the politicians & ignore their own sense of accountability.

 If Sri Lanka’s public service is to turn into the engine of growth not only political interference must stop but every member of the public service needs to take personal accountability for lapses & lack of productivity & decide to be more citizen-centric in their approach to the service they are bound to offer. Attitudinal change becomes a prerequisite for the public sector while politicians need to understand their popularity or lack of it depends in future on how they can revamp engines of growth that comes directly under their purview & control. With citizens becoming wiser fooling them would certainly become an arduous task! Citizens themselves need to realize their own power & how they can make politicians change instead of the other way round.

 It is pointless shouting slogans for changes to the public service all that is needed is for politicians to follow recommendations (that should not change with change of Government) & for the public servants themselves to take a more proactive attitude towards delivering the service expected of them & to function independently while being accountable for what they do.

 Shenali Waduge

4 Responses to “The Politicization of Sri Lanka’s Public Service”

  1. Ratanapala Says:

    Thank you Sheanli, you always write meaningful and educative articles. I sincerely hope that the dud heads in Sri Lankan politics will appreciate what you have to say. Also it is of importance that these well thought out writings are translated to Sinhala and if possible Tamil for the education of the Sri Lankan public. Thank you for being a true patriot of Sri Lanka.

  2. KingSasanka Says:

    Agreed but who will bell the CAT ?

    When the opportunity comes, many shy away from taking the correct decision and then blame the politicians later.

    Let us get out of this blame culture and take the responsibility in to our hands.

    Non performers will be shown the exit next time.

    Are we ready for that?

    I think NO.

    We are happy to blame others than taking responsibility of either our foolish actions or inaction.

  3. AnuD Says:

    Any system is as good as the people who implement it.

    I remember long ago, politicians jumped up and down, voters danced to that tune. the accusation was Mrs. B’s govt bought new BENZ cars for ministers. So, those cars were sold as the first prize of the Lottary.

    What is happening now. Instead of ministers those days, now every MP, provincial politician get a car permit. provincial politicians who even were promoted to federal politics got the permit again.

    But, University lecturers have to wait 12 years while a politician get it every 4 years and with whose money – those sent by middle east working maids.

  4. AnuD Says:

    Sri Lankan system is every thing is promoted as something brand new and never it was here in the world and no one knew and it was the genuine and ingeniuous idea of the president, I mean chuintanaya. Then every thing is carried out by the minister following the chintanaya. when the minister leaves another minister comes he blames privious govt or the minister he start some thing new.

    So, Professionals are there for nothing. they are not there to implement a five plan or something similar based on the national policiy.

    Worst politicization is the Buddhist monks. Monks can not escape politics. If they talk the justice they are threatened. the next dangerous thing is the politiciazation of the forces.

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