Sri Lanka needs a Customer-Centric Public Sector
Posted on August 17th, 2012

Shenali Waduge

A country’s public sector is essentially the key component that lays the foundation to the successful journey of a country. It is the effectiveness of the public sector that enables the citizens to carry on with their lives irrespective of the nuances that take place politically either internally and externally. This is why in the developed world people are far happier with the public service. All it takes for any country to put their affairs on track is simply the will to do so and with Sri Lanka having achieved a marvelous victory over terrorism the next success story must surely be how we have turned around the public sector.

There is no opportune a time than now to have the public sector take notes from how the private sector is run. Private sector employees almost always are required to prove their return on investment to their employer. Delivery is the key.  

One of the first factors that a private sector employee is made to understand and have drilled into them is the vision/mission and what the employer expects of them. Periodic reminders help to reinforce these requirements. These periodic reinforcements and motivation methods have ensured the private sector is always literally on their toes dedicating their time towards delivering a service to their customers. So what is stopping the public sector from integrating a commercial mindset?

Public sector employees may be super at quoting circulars but in terms of communication skills, prioritizing customers needs, discipline and working to targets is something that public sector can learn from its counterpart. Our lists of the appalling manner we are treated is too long to mention though there are a few who have shown that the public sector service apparatus is not beyond hope and nothing that needs the oiling of palms to solve!

The private sector has regular programs to appraise their staff of the situation in the country/company and the world which impacts their business. This enables them to devise counter measures and think of new avenues for profit. What the public sector is never made to realize is that it is also a revenue generating agency and its staff must be aware of what is going on outside of their Ministry or office and a good way to start is to rotate staff to associated line ministries to enable them to continue to be refreshed in their knowledge. This additional knowledge outside of their work arena is essential for them to connect their own importance and their role in the chain of delivery.

What we the public find fault with in the public sector is the lethargy, corruption, extravagance and irregularities at the expense of us and very few measures have been taken to curtail or reduce this. The oft quoted excuse is that if the big wigs are corrupt and nothing gets done why is it only they who are taken to task. Logical reasoning too yet if we continue to use the logic and do nothing about it we can well wonder where it will all end. By the manner some public offices function one wonders whether there is an agenda to bring these entities to such a level to demand that they be privatized. That is a cowardly solution and option. The public sector needs to awake and they need to start now.

We are always told that the public sector was once a place of prestige and honor and before making any changes the first step is the need to change the attitude of the public servants giving them strict work ethics which must be followed from the top.

Negative bureaucracy is not easy to change. Simply introducing reforms and waiting for miracles is unlikely to happen. Certainly we want the public sector to be more efficient, transparent, less corrupt but what first needs to be done is to make the public sector realize that they are there to serve us the public. Currently, in their hierarchy of bureaucracy the public do not even belong to their hierarchical chart! This superiority complex needs to be addressed.

So how best do we instill a change of mindset where officials including the peons do not behave as Lords over the general public? How can they be made to understand that they are paid to serve the general public? How can they be made to understand not to delay decisions, not to pass what they can help solve which all adds to the cost and adds to our bad impression of the quality of these staff. They also need to be told exactly what their full potential can yield and how much revenue is being lost by their lethargy. What the public sector staff need to all be told is how far the entire country is likely to progress if they simply change their attitude towards the way they work and start the ball rolling on the systems that can be simplified without creating nightmares for the public.

The term good governance has been used lavishly but with little or no genuine desires to make necessary changes. Calls for reform often end up by outsourcing to external parties who come up with fancy programs that do little towards handling the fundamental needs. Change can happen within without much expense by themselves if only they start with the desire to sincerely change. Therefore, let that process be “homegrown” coming from within the ministries and other Government bodies.

All it should take is flatter internal structures, delegation of operational authority, simplified processes, better communication channels, ability for the public to address their grievances etc. 

Even the state media can be used to showcase some of the achievements made by the Ministries in a column that will provide further service to the public. The media can be used as a good information distributor for new circulars, amendments to laws, announcements etc.

Essentially the public sector must function under the principle of equal treatment, equal neutrality, legality and continuity. They must all be made to realize that whatever political affiliations they have that SHOULD NOT come in between or influence the service they offer. They are paid by the State from taxes generated from the public and not by any of these political parties.

The public sector will excuse their lack of motivation for low salaries, poor working conditions and appointment based on criteria other than merit.

Yet they must also know that though their salaries compared to private sector is low, they are beneficiaries of a state pension whether they have been performing or not.

The start comes with the ambition to want to change. That desire must come from top down. It is when the public sector feel they must change and not change because they are compelled to change that we can start seeing some realistic services coming our way. There is no point having hoardings across public sector offices claiming they are a dedicated service if they do not function with a customer-centric mindset.

Since much has been said about “home-grown” solutions it is timely for the Ministries to begin the change by first obtaining feedback from its staff of what they feel their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats are. In formulating their own charts and taking every internal players inputs the heads of these ministries can begin to get teams together on how they can take care of the internal set up later to address the external maladies vis a vis relationship to other ministries and bodies as well as other establishments. There is no magic portion to create that much needed change. All that is required is the willingness and the acceptance that something is amiss and that it should be addressed with an appropriate Action Plan. That desire to change needs to begin with whatever resources are available at hand without delaying by demanding what is not.

Can we envisage a “one stop shop” concept that the private sector offers? It is nothing that cannot be done if the will to do so rests with the entire public sector with the momentum coming from the secretaries and department heads. It is undesirable and unhealthy to have change happening in the form of circulars for the satisfaction in drawing one’s own program for customer-centric service within one’s department is far greater.

If we are to consider the Ministers as people beyond repair at least the rest of the public sector led by the secretaries should begin the change in mindset. In the public sector no one can be terminated for telling the truth and if everyone starts to do the same the likelihood of becoming cornered will surely be a thing of the past.

Essentially what must be remembered at all times is that political parties have used and misused its wagon of growth and has proudly passed that abused baby to successive government thinking they have done a great achievement without thinking that the baby will again be passed back in possibly a worse condition!

To enable first class public service we need to nurture first class employees and once that is achieved and the delivery mechanism has seen that much needed rejuvenation and resuscitation the sector itself is likely to benefit monetarily whilst making us the public relieved that finally things are on track which indirectly will force the parliamentarians themselves to also improve their act too!

A Government that has long-term goals will know the benefits of turning the public sector towards a prosperous entity and no external factor can come between the faith in a government that can rejuvenate its public sector.

Changing the mindset of the public sector, making its staff customer-centric and focused towards delivering to its citizens is left to the top most public official in Sri Lanka to steer and the President’s Secretary has all the qualities needed to raise Sri Lanka’s public sector to the enviable and proud position it once held.

 

Shenali Waduge

 

One Response to “Sri Lanka needs a Customer-Centric Public Sector”

  1. Vijendra Says:

    Shenali, in SL we have a public sector which has given the control of the system to the minister who is at the top. These ministers are there to make money while the government lasts. Thus they have a very short-term vision. Unfortunately, this applies to all political parties. People come into politics to make money, show their power and not because they want to serve the public. In the olden days, people lost all the wealth they had, when they got into politics. Today the village thug becomes a billionaire in a short period of time as a minister, through illegal means. Look at the Ministers we have. Where were they twenty years ago? How are they today? Did they make their money legally?

    If the intentions of the minister in charge of a department is to make money for himself while he is in power, then the Secretary and the other officials have to make sure that they serve their master “right” or else they will not survive. When the top is like this, can you imagine the motivation they provide for the officers lower down? This is a very sad state of affairs. The whole government system is corrupt as a result of these “square pegs in round holes”. Most public sector employees are frustrated when they see how things work at the top.

    Having said this, there is still hope if there is a political will to set the administration straight. It will certainly not be easy, as a real paradigm shift is needed. Here are some of my thoughts.

    Firstly, the political leadership must lead properly by setting up a strict code of conduct, guidelines and discipline to ensure that the right type of person is selected as a minister to lead a ministry. They should be prepared to put the country first. All those who contest in the election to a government position must publicly declare their wealth before entering into the race. If elected, they should re-declare publicly and annually their family wealth every year they remain in an elected position. Any undue wealth accumulation must be explainable and also contestable by the public.

    Public Service Commission should remain free from political interference. Any political interference must be dealt with by the Cabinet/President.

    The Secretary should be appointed by the PSC based on the qualifications and other merit criteria, subject to acceptance by the Minister responsible. Responsibility for the administration of the personnel of the department should rest with the Secretary with no political interference from the Minister or other political personnel.

    All public sector employees should have a common code of ethics and values that they should be familiar with and follow on a day to day basis. These must be made public so that the public can bring forth complaints or file cases against a government employee if they go against these values and ethics or the code of conduct.

    To work in the public sector, any potential employee selected should take an oath to work diligently and loyally to the government of the day while upholding the values and ethics of the public sector.
    The responsibilities of any public sector position should be clearly defined and the salary range attached to the post should be available for anyone to access.

    Every job should have a certain annual target outputs and indicators to measure whether these targets have been achieved at year end. There should be recognition of good service and appropriate follow-up action for poor service. Quality of service should be improved on a continual basis.

    The promotion system within the public sector should be fair and equitable and should be based on good client service.

    Any employee should have a clear understanding of who his/her clients are and as to how his/her work helps the department to achieve its goals.

    There should be an upward feed-back system for getting the pulse of the workers so that the processes and procedures could be continually improved to serve the clients.

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