3 March, 2024


Delivering An Outstanding Public Service  

By Gamini Jayaweera

Gamini Jayaweera

“A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. Fail to honour people, they fail to honour you. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aims fulfilled, they will all say, We did this ourselves.” ~Laozi, book Tao Te Ching

In a recent presentation given at the BMICH by SJB parliamentarian, Dr. Harsha De Silva to Academics, Business Leaders, and Professionals from various quarters presented a possible way out from our broken economy in the short and medium term. He also gave a brief account of the proposals for creating a Social Market Economy which will be put in place by a future government led by SJB Leader, Mr. Sajith Premadasa. In today’s political environment where some politicians are claiming that everything is done by “The Me Culture” (මම තමයි හොඳටම කලේ), it is refreshing to hear a public acknowledgement by Dr. Harsha that this work is a collective effort of four individuals, namely Kabir Hashim, Eran Wickramaratne, Sajit Premadasa, and himself, is highly commendable.

Dr. Harsha briefly outlined the SJB vision for restructuring the state own enterprises to make them more competitive in the marketplace to ensure that they will become profitable institutions. He also emphasised the importance of generating “out of the box” thinking by the Leaders and the workforce to operate these institutions in a more effective and economical manner. As such, I have decided to contribute to this debate about how a future government can eradicate some of the deep-rooted problems in our public sector and other semi-government institutions in delivering an efficient and economic public service.

I honestly believe that some of the basic problems in our public sector can be eradicated to save billions of public monies in the long run. But only if we are bold enough to challenge the Status Quo and introduce some new processes and procedures to be followed in the public sector. The potential savings will make a substantial contribution towards our debt-ridden economy without lowering the quality of public service.

It is evident that an enormous amount of public money is being pumped into the Public Sector organisations annually, but there are no indications that the Taxpayers are getting value for money. Naturally, it is common sense to realise that in such situations in the commercial world, those organisations will go bankrupt quickly. Unless we take bold decisions as emphasised by Dr.Harsha, to address this erosion of public funds as soon as possible, the country will carry on borrowing more money to jack up these ailing institutions.

The Goal 

The goal for any commercial organisation is to manage its business performance to ensure that it delivers its products and/or services in a most economical and efficient manner, and to the complete satisfaction of its customers and shareholders. If they fail to act accordingly, those businesses will have dire consequences resulting ultimately ‘to go out of business. In non-profit organisations, the eventual goal is to deliver their products and/or services on or below the annual budget allocated by the government and to the complete satisfaction of the public and their political masters.

In the recent past Industrialists, Academics, and other Researchers have been researching this area and inventing new models, concepts, and frameworks to guide management of these institutions to apply new and/or improved processes to deliver good quality products and services which fulfil the goal of improving the bottom-line performance.


In this respect, Bechtel Corporation (USA) has been successfully implementing a methodology called Six Sigma programmes in their worldwide projects. The methodology has been defined as a process used by organisations to design, monitor, and manage their activities to decrease waste, increase quality, and directly impact the bottom line. It is a problem-solving methodology that targets current problems, implements improvements to address them, and changes the way the organisations are run to prevent future problems. It must also be said that the methodology can be a fad if it is presented as a panacea for all business ills, as pointed out by Professor Jiju Antony (2006) and Professor T.N. Goh.

Public Service

To fulfil the aspirations of the people and put the country on the right path to prosperity, I believe that the Public Sector in Sri Lanka has a huge responsibility to play its part in providing an efficient and economically viable public service. We need to take bold decisions to restructure these institutions and implement policies to reduce the wastage and motivate the workforce to accept the reality, no matter who is in government.   

The 2022 Budget forecasts presented by the former Minister of Finance had stated that the Public Service Salaries including Provincial councils, cost the nation a staggering Rs. 1,015 billion this year. It is evident that the government is urgently required to take some painful and decisive actions to restructure the Public Service to provide an efficient and economic service on or below budgets as allocated by the Minister of Finance for each of the public institutions.

We need to accept the bare fact that the human resources allocated to almost all government departments are well above the required number of workers to deliver the services due to the stacking of political supporters, without carrying out a “situation analysis” to find out whether additional resources are required or not. Once this analysis is complete the displaced workers should be offered redundancies, retrained, or redeployed in other trades where businesses are struggling for skilled labour. This is a very challenging task but must be done if we are serious about “Delivering an Outstanding Public Service”.

One of the common mistakes our politicians in Sri Lanka very often make is solely relying on highly educated people, ignoring the feedback from an experienced workforce who know the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of the problems in their respective institutions. Being clever and intelligent alone, Leaders cannot solve all problems in the workplace unless those Leaders have developed the wisdom to interact with the workforce and request and encourage them to come up with proposals to address the issues, remove blockages to progress and challenge the Status-Quo, to improve the existing processes and procedures to deliver goods and services in an efficient, timely and economical manner.

The request to participate in this consultation process should not be limited to the top tier of the organisation but must be opened to every member in the organisation. I can guarantee that the leadership of these organisations will be surprised to learn from the participation of the workforce at all levels, just how much knowledge and experience they have not harnessed or utilised effectively in the past, for innovative and efficient ways of delivering their goods and services in fulfilling their statutory obligations.

Public Sector Wastage

It is an accepted fact that the Sri Lanka public service has not been performing well for donkey’s years. According to the former Speaker of the House and the former Auditor General, the public service if working in an efficient and economic manner can make a saving of about 25% to 40% of the total budget allocated. This is a significant saving, if relevant processes and procedures are put in place to capture the savings and improve the quality-of-service delivery across the entire country. Successive governments have failed to implement proper policies to capture this enormous savings of public monies. We need then to apply a tried and tested methodology to capture these savings as soon as possible.

Cultural Changes and Motivation 

Culture is not a “soft” subject, but vast majority of managers believe the opposite. Culture is the behaviour of the employees and the infrastructure of the organisation. There is no doubt that technical and role performance of an employee will vastly contribute to the organisational performance. Can it make an impact on the employee’s performance improvement? It is well established that if the employee does not demonstrate the Behavioural Performance, the organisation’s overall improvement of performance is hard to achieve. There must be a paradigm shift in culture prevalent in the public service workforce at present.

To achieve the behavioural changes and carry out their changed work patterns in the long run, it is a natural human behaviour for the workforce to expect monetary or other gains in return for their renewed efforts to deliver goods and services in a more efficient and economic manner. There are no quick fixes for the changes in human behaviour.

As one of the Senior Managers working in an inefficient and uneconomic public service institution in England, I have had first-hand experience when the organisation signed a Public Private Partnership (PPP) contract, renewable every 71/2 years, with a famous American Company which employed 30 American Senior Managers to restructure the organisation. They appointed 50 local Senior Managers to work with them to manage the 2500 strong workforce and improve the managerial qualities of the local Senior Managers.

Much to my surprise, I found that some of the workers in the public sector organisation whom we had classified as “dead wood” before the PPP, became efficient, energetic, and innovative workers due to the behavioural changes emanated from the new processes and procedures generated by themselves and introduced through the PPP. How wrong we were to label them as non-performers? The previous leadership was at fault for not engaging the workforce effectively in the delivery process from inception to completion. We the Senior Managers learnt that to lead effectively, the leaders need to find ways to engage people and generate their excitement, enthusiasm, and commitment because it’s they the people that hit targets, beat budgets, improve quality, and deliver outputs.

Introduction of a reward scheme is a good way of motivating the public servants to change their behavioural patterns to achieve new goals which are set by the leadership. The rewards should only be given once the workforce could demonstrate that they have achieved the target savings on an annual basis. The Treasury should release annual funds to each Ministry less than 10% of the allocated funds in the Finance Minister’s annual budget, forcing them to find ways of delivering the same amount of work for less money. Every year the bar should be raised to achieve new reduced budget targets to improve the efficiency of delivering the service without lowering the quality. Those institutions which achieve their reduced target budgets should be rewarded in a suitable form to motivate the workforce in the long term.

Whatever said and done, a very high level of commitment is needed from the highest level to the lowest strata in the public service without fear or favour. A huge culture change is a must. This can be done, and it has been done in the past in Sri Lanka.

As I understand, the best example of a highly successful restructuring programme was carried out in the Govt Telecommunications Dept., and Sri Lanka Telecom was born. It started with the necessary culture change and staff took on their tasks seriously and with commitment. Staff discipline maintained at a high level with the least political interference, lesser Trade Union intervention and a well-defined and maintainable code of conduct. Sri Lanka Telecom is no more a liability to the Government and the country at large. In return staff are remunerated well and they are satisfied with their working environment.

Working Environment 

Another important factor which motivates the workforce to perform their duties in a successful manner is to have a happy and healthy working environment. A prime example of this requirement which has demonstrated in providing excellent service performance is the new Passport Office building and the working environment that has been provided for the workforce. When the workforce is happy, naturally they tend to provide a decent service which the public not only expects but deserves.

Public Sector Tendering Process 

Former President Mr. Maithripala Sirisena addressing a public meeting of police and anti-corruption activists in Colombo in Dec. 2016, said that he was regretted to inform the nation that more than 50% of Sri Lanka’s public procurement contracts were tainted by bribery and corruption. But successive governments including the current administration have failed to put in place the necessary mechanisms to tackle this cancer which is killing our society.

The dismal performances of some state institutions are down to several factors. On one hand these organisations lack vision, transparency, accountability, and smart systems & procedures. On the other hand, they deliberately ignore corporate governance due to widespread corruption in the procurement of public contracts and other unethical activities. In addition, insufficient business acumen at leadership level have contributed to the dismal performance exhibited by most of our state institutions.

Good governance provides better transparency and reduces the opportunities for undue political interference. Transparency and efficiency should be implemented urgently to ensure that management of our public institutions is credible, and they are in line with international regulations.

Appointing inefficient and corrupt cronies as CEOs /Chairmen in the government institutions and politicising the public administrative service by appointing politically biased retired personnel from the armed forces who have very little knowledge about public administration as Secretaries to the ministries, have led to corrupt procurement practices in the public sector. Can a future government take bold decisions to reverse this absolute corrupt and flawed practice?


As Kotter, (1990) points out majority of Sri Lanka Public Sector leadership can be considered as management in planning, budgeting, organising and control systems rather than leadership in terms of aligning the people, communicating, motivating, and coaching others.

I hope that future Heads of Depts. and Chairmen of state corporations will incorporate the application of an accepted methodology into their business strategy in forcing the management and the workforce to challenge the status-quo and improve the existing processes and procedures of delivering the products and services in the state sector. To achieve the full benefit of these methodologies, the Heads of Depts., CEOs of the semi govt. institutions, and the Senior Management must take an active role within the workforce to implement new processes and procedures in their institutions to eliminate the wastage and deliver value for public money.

As CEO of the Swiss drugs giant, Vas Narasimhan once said, “….being a good leader is not about bossing people around but instead giving them more power and making them happy. One thing we know about human motivation is that people feel their best when they have a sense of purpose and a sense of autonomy.”

We need to tell the leaders of our institutions to bring plenty of energy, dynamism, and ambition to the working environment. I think that a military type of Command-and-Control leadership style may deliver the goods in the public service or any commercial organisation for a very short period, but it is not sustainable in the long run because such organisations will end-up with a demotivated workforce.


It is evident from the successful commercial and non-profit organisations, the application of DCOM formula which is a part and parcel of the Six Sigma methodology, is paramount for their success in delivering goods and services in an efficient and economic manner. I sincerely hope that the Chairmen, Directors, and Senior Managers in the Government and Semi-Government organisations will take a note of the following to ensure that they create a High-Performance Organisations by providing all necessary requirements of the following four pillars of success.

Leadership must provide a clear Direction to everyone in the organisation, and if not, there will be Chaos in the workplace. This is exactly what is happening now with the current government. The organisation must have a Competent workforce. If the workforce is not competent enough to carry out their duties diligently, the services provided by the Ministries and the institutions will be of poor quality. The workforce should be given all necessary Opportunities and Tools to carry out their duties, otherwise the organisations will end up with a Frustrated workforce. Most importantly the leadership must work towards building a Motivated workforce and if not, the workforce will experience a clear lack of energy and enthusiasm. If the leadership fails to provide any one of the above mentioned four pillars of success, the consequences (symptoms) as explained above, are obvious as shown in the following Table.

The Leadership must create an environment and work towards changing the mindset of the employees where they “Want to”, rather than “Have to” perform at high levels. The following graph produced by Bechtel Six sigma Team, illustrates how leadership behaviour changes over time can increase the motivation of the people to perform at high levels. The difference between the minimum performance requirements and want-to-do performance is called the Discretionary Performance which is a crucial factor in the long-term success of any organisation.


It is with great interest that I have read in the newspapers about the unannounced visits by the President to some government institutions to inspect the way they work in providing their role/function in the public service. The President’s action is commendable but if the Leadership and Senior Managers of those institutions believe that his flying visit has done the “trick” to motivate the workforce, they are daydreaming. His brief attendance might result in some improvements for a short period only because of the fear of punishment by the management for not responding to the President’s unannounced visits. I believe that instilling fear in the workforce to perform well cannot be sustained unless the leadership take steps to motivate the workforce as described above.

There is one sticking point in this task. The Leadership must take note that we are dealing with people’s behaviour, amongst other factors, to change the mind-set of the public sector workforce. The Leadership must not forget that it needs the human touch, education, and motivation to succeed in this difficult task. Accordingly, Ministers and Leaders in responsible government positions must interact with the workforce to find solutions to problems rather than threatening and use of their political power to get things done. They must realise that such methods do not work in the long run.

The workforce in the public sector must be trained, encouraged and provided with all necessary tools to be actively engaged as a proud partner in the successful implementation of its Vision of “Delivering An Outstanding Public Service” in Sri Lanka. Only then, the Leaders and the Workforce in the public sector can proudly utter the words of Laozi, book Tao Te Ching, “We did this ourselves”.


Six Sigma in Service Sector – A Comprehensive Review – Grey Campus

The Six Sigma Way – Peter S. Pande, Robert P. Neuman, Roland R. Cavanagh

Bechtel Corporation Six Sigma programme 2003 to 2011 at Tube Lines Ltd., UK.

Core Leadership Programme, 2004 – 2011 – Tube Lines Ltd., UK

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Latest comment

  • 2

    “Much to my surprise, I found that some of the workers in the public sector organisation whom we had classified as “dead wood” before the PPP, became efficient, energetic, and innovative workers due to the behavioural changes emanated from the new processes and procedures generated by themselves and introduced through the PPP.”

    This is good news. There are some measures that can be implemented relatively easily, but other suggestions will be met with the usual obstacles – fear of violating the status quo, and fear of being made redundant. Workplace psychologists and management experts are much needed here.

    Who will take the risk of innovation? It must be made mandatory to come up with ideas – anonymously. People are very reluctant to speak up, however an anonymous system may yield some results.

    How about a Ministry of Productivity with targets to save billions per year? It’s an idea.

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