By R.M.B Senanayake –
I refer to the dispute between the Chief Minister Mr. Wignesweran and the District Secretary. The latter has said that she is co-operating with the Chief Minister but that she has to act in accordance with the law. But she has not given instances where there have arisen such conflicts of law and the expressed wishes of the Chief Minister. But the Chief Minister cannot claim an exclusive right to appoint the District Secretary. The Administrative Officers Union has woken from their deep slumber and taken up her cause. But this is only one episode in the long politicization of the public service which began in 1956. But the 17th Amendment corrected the situation and the law was passed unanimously in Parliament. It set up Independent Commissions including an independent Public Service Commission to handle appointments, transfers and disciplinary control of the public service. But the 18th Amendment has done away with such independent commissions and the President has assumed total and exclusive powers vested with the independent commissions which were set up by the Constitutional Council. So we have lost the enforcement of the Rule of Law by the Police and the Attorney General’s Department and the independence of the Judiciary as well.
Decision-making in our public administration has been progressively politicized since 1956 but individual officials stood their ground against errant Ministers and even the President J.R Jayewardene (the late Cyril Herath was one such noble example). But with the Cabinet and the President assuming all powers over appointments and disciplinary control over the bureaucracy all decision making has become politicized. But as President Wilson pointed out in 1914 most decisions in public administration are technical and cannot be entrusted to elected Ministers or the President without undermining efficiency in the operations of the government. We are seeing it today in practically every field.
Public administration is for the good of society and not to enable those in power who were elected, to perpetuate themselves in power or to make money for themselves. Power is a trust and the elected Executives are only trustees required to act in the public interest and not in their personal or political interest
Postulates of Public Administration
Public Administration in a democracy is based on certain fundamental postulates and they were formulated by theorists of public administration in the West. They realized that power corrupts and that in a popular democracy contrasted with a limited democracy where the vote is restricted o those who are educated, it is the demagogue, the populist idiots, the criminal and the crooks who get elected. So in order to safeguard freedom and ensure good governance these theorists and political philosophers introduced checks and balances between the three arms of the State and the fourth arm the bureaucracy which had to be accountable in terms of the law and the ethical values of good governance. But the bureaucracy cannot be expected to police themselves and hence they were made accountable to the elected Executives. They also realized that the elected Executives were elected by the people not because of their knowledge or expertise in management. But public administration must be efficient to serve the people and the task of government is too complex o be entrusted to those who lacked the requisite knowledge and skills in management. So these theorists made the case for a meritocracy in the public service. Officials were to be appointed on merit for their knowledge and intelligence. They were to acquire the expertise in management while on the job where the best practices were introduced and followed. The accountability of public officials to the elected representatives is only in terms of the law and the canons of good governance and not for disobeying or not complying with politicized decisions or commands of the elected representative. If they failed the officials could be dealt with under the Disciplinary Rules and not transferred arbitrarily. Disciplinary control of the higher officials was vested with the independent Public Service Commission. So the Chief Minister should report the failures of the District Secretary to the Provincial Public Service Commission. Incidentally these Commissions should be set up if they are not already set up and the District Secretary should be brought within the purview of the Provincial Commission.
It is the independent Public Service Commissions that make it possible to have a politically neutral public service. We cannot allow the public service either at the national or provincial level to be a handmaid of the politicians or the party in power
So there are certain fundamental postulates of public administration which society must uphold if they want good governance. Another such postulate is that public administration should be conducted according to prior established laws. These laws have to be the same for those in power as well as for the common people. The King is not above the law. This principle is called the Rule of Law. But it requires a police and public service and a judicial service which can act on the basis of moral and ethical values required for good governance. There is no place for bribery, corruption or even for influence peddling or wrongful orders by powerful persons. The recent case of the Prime Minister issuing a letter to the Customs to bend the law in a particular instance is wrong. So the officlas should be free to ac in terms of the law and the canons of good governance.
Since 1956 all these fundamental postulates based on sound assumptions regarding human nature have been destroyed or undermined by elected representatives of the people and the people have tacitly accepted their actions. They have been content to receive benefits and advantages as favors from elected representatives rather than as their entitlements under the laws. So the politicians in power have converted the public service to a set of place men and encouraged the public to come to them for favors and unfair advantages over others in society.
The influence of these fundamental postulates is not confined o the problem of the lack of independent commissions. It ramifies into every nook and corner of the administration. How many Ministers should there be? How should functions be assigned to them and how should departments be grouped under Ministries? Should departments and agencies of the government be based on the hierarchical principle and should the President and the Ministers deal with subordinate officials in the hierarchy over the heads of officials in the top level of the hierarchy? Should the President and the Ministers intervene in the operating decisions of the departments? There are many such issues and they embody fundamental postulates of public administration. They can be violated only at the expense of efficiency and good governance. The theorists insist that there should be operational independence for the departments and agencies and Ministers should confine themselves to policy making. If these fundamental postulates are violated good governance is at peril. These fundamental postulates of public administration are not taught in our universities claiming to teach public administration and not even by the Institute of Public Administration whatever its present name is. They have to be discovered and taught and discussed by the public at large if good governance is to be restored.
In the case of the dispute of the Chief Ministry of the NPC and his District Secretary these fundamental postures cannot be ignored. In the case of the South perhaps the principles have died and cannot be revived. But the NPC should not go the same way.
The decline and fall of the Roman Empire was preceded by a decline in the standards of the Roman bureaucracy. The transformation of the British administrative service from an aggregate of placemen and political plunderers into an efficient administrative service created the bureaucracy which made it possible for a small country like Britain to run a far flung extensive Empire. This was achieved despite the extension of popular government with the introduction of universal suffrage in 1835. It was so in USA too after 1890
The issue of relations between the political Executive and the bureaucracy cannot be continued as at present in the South and at the national level. Any administrative reforms by the NPC should take this factor into account if democracy and good governance is to be safeguarded in the North.