Is the Public Served?
Posted on January 19th, 2022

By Dr. Tilak S. Fernando

The Government constantly complains about public services being overstaffed. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa takes every opportunity to restate the public should not face harassment; instead they must be treated with courtesy.

When the writer was a schoolboy, letters from any Government institution carried the phrase at the end of the communication as ‘Your obedient servant,’ and signed by an authorised individual. This signing style of ‘Your obedient servant’ has currently flown through the window, and at times, Government letters carry no name or legible signature at all! As everyone knows, the taxpayer pays the public servants’ salaries, and they are appointed to serve the public and not be on cloud nine

Basic Problem

The fundamental problem with any Government institution is the apathetic approach by the average staff. They come in the morning, go to the canteen to eat breakfast before starting work. Once they sit, they must discuss the previous night’s television programmes! The writer once went to a Government office on an official task at 9 am and witnessed this melodrama. The frustrated writer instantly photographed the chattering of staff with his mobile phone. Later an officer who attended to the writer’s matter wanted to know whether the writer was from the press! 

Another distraction is the television sets installed in offices throughout the country and smartphones freely available in the Sri Lankan market. Facebook, WhatsApp, and Skype make the staff concentrate more on their natter rather than absorbed in office work during office hours. Today, easy access to the internet and mobile phones enables public servants to engage in social media or send friends messages via email or texted notes. 

Should the Government want to improve the standard of working in public offices, the most vital act should be disconnecting TV sets from all offices and banning mobile phones during office hours. Should there be an emergency, staff should inform the chief clerk and leave the office environment to make the call. Removal of TV sets countrywide will relieve the Government with extra expenditure in buying and installing TV sets in offices throughout the country and improve the staff’s overall performance. The Chief Clerks control the office, but they are not sufficiently strict or pay no attention to their staff’s behaviour. Chief Clerks should be made answerable for their team.

Computerisation

Computerisation helps overcome the old systems of maintaining records in ledgers, which is time-consuming. Registers finally must be stored in a separate room in the office building, occupying extra space. Stored logs become subjected to bookworms and insects that injure pages by gnawing the binding and piercing the pages with small holes. Computerised systems can save records into a microcassette, store them into a cassette holder, and mark them appropriately. The writer was familiar with this type of microcassettes in London; however, he is not aware whether Sri Lanka adopts that system!

If one visits a police station to lodge an entry, one must be prepared to spend hours until a police officer records in a Register using multicoloured pens. If the officer is busy with a previous customer, one needs to bite one’s nails and mark time until the officer is free, which is time-consuming. Therefore, one must keep a wide margin to visit a police station before committing to other appointments. That is why many disregard visiting police stations to lodge entries even to their disadvantage. In advanced countries, however, computers take over the task of helping the police by storing the lodged complaints in the hard disc of the police computer.

If the Government intends to computerise everything, it should go full swing. The Department of Motor Traffic at Maligawatta functions ingeniously as far as the computer systems are concerned. Anybody may produce the relevant documents to renew the annual road tax of a motor vehicle, while staying in the vehicle and the new disc becomes available in a matter of minutes. It should be an effective way to help the public. Meanwhile, privately-owned fast food outlets use a drive-through facility system for their customer’s convenience. Why can’t the Government adopt a similar method to serve people rather than frustrate the public?

The driving licence renewal office in Werahera needs a lot of adjustments and improvements. Although it appears simple on paper and TV to book an appointment to renew one’s driving licence, it does not work as simple as that. According to the Government’s instructions, one should get a text message to one’s mobile phone to collect the renewed driving licence. First and foremost, it isn’t straightforward to get through to the Werahera office on the phone to book an appointment as the lines are eternally busy. Even when one gets through to Werahera and obtains a fixed day, only the applicant can enter, the security guards do not allow anyone else other than the claimant to enter the building. There is also a day service: to enjoy this facility one pays an extra Rs. 2,150. This system however, does not always work like a horse, in reality it is quite the opposite. The case mentioned below is a typical example.

Online DL renewing  

Applicant B handed over her application and all relevant documents including her postal address, to renew her expired driving licence (DL) at the Werahera Office. Unfortunately for her, when her driving licence expired in March 2021, she was in the UK and was unable to visit Sri Lanka due to Covid-19 lockdowns. This is another area where the Government’s attention can be focussed and enable online renewing of driving licences. 

For example, in the UK, the renewal of driving licence offices is done online. They maintain the applicant’s photograph scanned in their database. When one applies to renew one’s driving licence online, the applicants need to advise whether they have changed from the profile picture in the database. In Sri Lanka, the officer handling each case takes a photograph of the applicant. Is it troublesome to attach the medical certificate compulsory?

In this case, the applicant requested a one day-service and paid Rs. 2,150.00 and was issued a receipt.. However, the applicant did not receive the renewed licence till after three months had lapsed, nor did she receive any text message on her phone as advertised. The applicant was told her renewed licence would be mailed. Later enquiries revealed the renewed driving licence was posted on 17 December 2021. The applicant contacted the sorting office at Pannipitiya to check and was informed in the negative.

Numbers out of order

On 31st December 2021, the writer emailed the RMV drawing the personal attention of the Commissioner in charge of renewal of driving licences. The writer did not receive even a courteous acknowledgement to his email. The writer then tried to contact the Commissioner’s on 011-254-5891 and 011- 251-8926 and made numerous calls daily for over two weeks, but they were in vain. Finally, through the internet, the writer obtained the telephone numbers of the driving licence department at Werahera viz: 011-2- 518- 926; 0706-334-134 and 0706-354-123. But the telephone response was that ‘none of the numbers were available’. Some Government departments do not care to update their telephone numbers on the internet.

It raises the question of how helpful the officials working at the Werahera office are in helping or harassing the public!When President Gotabaya Rajapaksa visited this office to inquire about the department’s efficiency, some time ago, it appeared that all they did was to whitewash the walls. It is still not clear why they charged the applicant Rs 2,150 in the first place for a ‘Day’s Service’?

The writer made a special request from the postman to keep an eye out for a registered post letter from the RMV, Werahera. On10 January 2022, the postman finally informed us that  a registered letter from the Werahera office had arrived. The postmark on the envelope was not very clear. The postman went on leave, but he arranged for his substitute to deliver the registered letter containing the renewed licence.

The cardinal point is why charge the applicant Rs.2150.00 for a day’s service when it was not provided? What drove them to mail the renewed licence? It sounds like an act of high-handedness. The RMV at Werahera, Renewal of DL section, should refund the Rs.2150/- as the service was not provided within a day.

Maybe the President is unaware of what goes on in this Government Department after his visit, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa repeatedly said, ‘public servants must help the public and not harass them.’

tilakfernando@gmail.com

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