By R.M.B Senanayake –
All governments must be efficient in addition to being representative. There is no formal thinking about efficiency in governance in our politics or administration. There is also little or no reflection on the process of efficient governance, although keep condemning it as full of red tape.
Much of our Public Administration including the Ministerial level is not planned. But the people know when there is efficient governance and when there is not. Hardly anybody would say that the so-called “Yaha Palanaya”, the latest political slogan means the same thing as efficiency. Instead the concept of ‘Yaha Palanaya’ refers more to the genuineness or ethical nature of the administration. But those engaged in administration know that the administration is not efficient and they invariably blame political interference to be the bane of efficient public administration.
Inefficiency in administration has a cost- a cost in terms of resources which go to waste or are inadequately utilized. The burden of the cost is ultimately on the people.
The efficiency of the Administration is important for the welfare of the people. It is the people who suffer from the inefficiency of the government administration. Public Administration encompasses the activities of the Executive branch of the Central Government, the Provincial Councils, the Pradesiya Sabhas and the so-called independent Boards and Corporations. Specifically excluded from the scope of Public Administration are the Judicial and Legislative Agencies of the State although they too have administrative problems of their own in their fields. But Public Administration in theory confines itself to the Executive branch excluding the legislative and judicial branches.
There is a widespread conviction not only in Sri Lanka but even in the West that what governments do is done inefficiently and hence there is a demand for privatization of some public service handled by a government department or agency.
Many people compare Public Administration and Business Administration and want the former to emulate the latter. But there are wide differences between Public and Business Administration so that the methods of Business Administration cannot be totally adopted in Public Administration. For one thing Public administration does not engage in advertising their services and are not dependent on attracting customers. For another, Public administration is expected to work showing no favor to any member of the public but to treat every one the4 same way. Yes having said so, it must be admitted that there are similarities in the administrative problems of a government agency or a State Corporation or even a Church where they face more or less similar problems. Of course there are also important differences. A government department for example has to face criticism from any member of the public while a private administration has to cater to its shareho9lders or established customers. Irregular or casual customers may not merit the same consideration where criticism applies for example.
To protect oneself from criticism from the public the ordinary public servant hides behind laws, regulations and procedures which they seek to apply uniformly to all those who deal with them. They also make such procedures transparent and lay down the procedures in regulations or in Departmental Manuals which are then scrupulously followed like the Bible. The average public servant also makes a detailed record of his decisions. These are recorded in files and are called “Minutes”. Since the public officials want to treat all members of the public equally they tend to be consistent in their decision making. They may seek to apply a uniform rule with regard to some matter coming for their decision making. But it is difficult to make rules which cover all contingencies. The human circumstances are complex and uniformity can be hard or even unfair to affected individuals whose case is different from the general run of cases. But in order to be uniform the public servant tends to be consistent in the application of the rules, regulations and procedures. Whenever they meet with a new situation or circumstance they seek to apply a past practice which they call a “precedent” So the use of “precedent” is a common practice in public administration. If there is no precedent to cover the particular instance or circumstance a new decision has to be made. But decision making and rule making in a government department or office is only done at the higher levels of management and not at the operating or operational level where the ordinary member of the public operates. So files containing minutes or observations of the hierarchy of officials are recorded in the file which then keeps moving up the hierarchical ladder up to the Head of the Department and sometimes he may in turn refer it to the Secretary of the Ministry. Who in turn may consult his Minister? This is the chain of procedure which is practiced today. In the past the buck used to stop there. But since 1956, the Members of Parliament who are elected to the Legislature have intervened in individual decision making and hence such files get pushed up to the Minister himself whose decision alone is acceptable by the ordinary member of the public. Since 1956 members of the public have been encouraged by the members of Parliament and politicians in general to come to them with their problems. I encountered this phenomenon for the first time in the Madawachchiya District where the pubic used to call over each day at the residence of the then MP Maitripala Senanayake an MP recognized by the people who treated him like a demi-God.
All these procedural barriers collectively called red tape, affect the efficiency of Public Administration. This red tape is said to include what is designated as “passing the buck”; pigeon-holing; or the delays in the processing of a decision required by the public. It has come to be assumed by even most critics that what passes for red tape is necessary since such procedures ensures that the same decisions are applied irrespective of the person or persons who are at the receiving end of the public service. But red tape does affect efficiency adversely and most critics accept that some sacrifice of efficiency is required in the interests of transparency of decision making. But while some delay or inefficiency may be necessary yet the prevailing degree of inefficiency may not be warranted. While people would like public administration to be as efficient as private business administration they do realize that transparency and consistency in decisions is very important in the public service. So some sacrifice of efficiency for transparency and consistency in decision making may be inevitable. But there are many methods and procedures used in private business administration which can be adopted by public administration. So the government departments can aim for some efficiency and emulate the private business sector where it will not damage transparency and consistency in decision-making.