By R.M.B Senanayake –
Mr. S.L Gunasekera writing to the Daily Mirror has pointed out that devolution of power does not help to give power to the people and that what happens is that the power is exercised by local instead of national level politicians. So devolution only means devolution of power to local politicians and it does not enable the participation of the people. Yes indeed it is so. But why is it so? It is because we no longer have the institutions required for a liberal democracy. Democracy means nothing if it doesn’t ensure freedom for the people and equal participation of all the people in governance and not merely the majority of the people. This type of democracy which is the only democracy worth having requires a set of modern institutions. Liberal democracy is a modern evolution. Athenian democracy excluded women and slaves. American democracy excluded blacks until recent years.
The modern institutions required are not only an independent Judiciary but also a civil and military bureaucracy. These institutions must function according to pre-established laws and procedures and not arbitrarily according to the whims and fancies of those in these institutions who exercise these functions at the dictates of the politicians. The liberal democracy arose when government according to law implemented by a bureaucracy evolved. But this also requires the evolution of a rational cum legal bureaucracy not a patronage based bureaucracy.
A Legal cum Rational Bureaucracy
During feudal times the State was not run by a bureaucracy but by courtiers of the King and retinues of the nobles who exercised the power of the State. These retinues and courtiers were appointed for their pedigree and family background and not for any ability or competence in managing public affairs. The first people to employ persons on merit to provide the functions of the State were the Chinese. They are the originators of bureaucracy whose essential features were described by Max Weber. These features are appointment on merit through an examination and freedom for them to function using their expertise rather than according to the orders of the King or the nobles. They formed a distinct administrative class. After the Chinese the Roman Empire accepted these bureaucratic principles. Next came the colonial Empires- the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. The Spanish and Portuguese Empires inherited a kind of patronage-based bureaucracy in which officials, with no assurances of tenure; banded together to protect their privileges and positions, forming what can be referred to as a “retainer bureaucracy”.
But the British organized the colonial bureaucracy according to the “mandarin” principle first developed in ancient China. They used the principle in the government of England as well as in their Indian empire by creation of an Administrative Class. This meant that their successor states upon obtaining Independence, inherited administrative institutions staffed by mandarin-type careerists. In USA too there was first the emergence of a patronage based bureaucracy. But two Presidents were killed by those who were disappointed in their efforts to obtain patronage appointments. There was agitation by New York Society for Reform in the 1870s. The USA built a modern bureaucracy only after the Pendleton Act of 1883.
Members of Parliament take power over the bureaucracy
India maintained its bureaucracy inherited from the British after Independence too. But in Sri Lanka a new class of politicians educated mainly in Sinhala and ignorant of modern governance structures and the true values of liberal democracy, interpreted democracy as government by them as the representatives of the people. They resented the power of the bureaucracy and sought to exercise their influence with the party, the Prime Minister and the Ministers to exercise their will at the district level and below. They wanted public servants who did not comply with their wishes to be transferred and intervened in the internal running of the government departments and the kachcheri. This of course is a prelude to the disruption of the administration. But many officials resisted such political pressure and exercised their powers according to the law. They could not be dismissed by the politicians not even by the Minister or the Prime Minister since such powers were vested in an independent Pubic Service Commission. But they could be transferred at the request of the Executive and many officials who resisted undue political pressure from Members of Parliament were deprived of their posts and attached to a no man’s land called the ‘pool’. The Members of Parliament kept up the pressure on the bureaucracy and abolished the Ceylon Service which was a Senior Management Service – the prototype of the mandarin class and they set up in its place a broader Administrative Service including an Administrative Class. But this Administrative Class lacked the prestige and the esperit d corps of the Ceylon Civil Service. In 1972 the Government did away with the independence of the Public Service Commission and brought the mandarins under the direct control of the political Executive. Thus began the patronage-based bureaucracy in which officials, with no assurance of tenure formed what can be referred to as a “retainer bureaucracy. Officials oblige the Ministers and in return the Ministers protect them.
Mass democracy developed in Sri Lanka only after 1956. But unlike other democratic countries it was accompanied by an erosion of the legal rational bureaucracy which is a necessary administrative tool in a mass democracy. Instead, there was a conscious effort to stifle bureaucratic development in the belief that bureaucracy acts as a hindrance to democratic development and economic growth. The Leftists contributed to this mindset for they did not want what they called a ‘bourgeois state’. This “tampering” with the prevailing rational legal bureaucracy took place slowly in the beginning but later accelerated when regimes were headed by those who were not sophisticated in modern governance. Since 2005 the traits of democracy were obliterated. The concepts of individual liberty, the Rule of Law, equality and government according to law, the essential features of a modern democracy have disappeared, resulting in a regime that has less democratic traits with weak, formalistic administrative institutions- form without substance.
Competence is needed
But government needs competent officials and the system of political patronage cannot deliver competency or good governance. This is the crisis today. The services provided by the State like free health care and free education are collapsing. Hospitals are short of drugs or seem to be importing defective and outdated drugs because of corruption. There is chaos in both school education as well as university education. The political patronage based bureaucracy cannot tackle these problems. They would rather feather their own nests and left to themselves they will easily indulge in corruption, abuse of power, laziness and inefficiency. Conscientious and public spirited officials are still there but they easily succumb to counter-productive practices tolerated or even encouraged by their ambitious and aggressive colleagues who typically dominate bureaucracies through their patronage retainers. They are not effectively controlled by their political masters who are indebted to them to cover up their tracks. When, over two centuries ago, the administrative functions of the government were minimal and most public administration was, actually, carried out by district and local officials. Farmers, merchants, and employees working in the private sector were self-sufficient and able to manage most of their affairs without governmental intervention. Since then, however, the industrial revolution and the global interdependence have vastly increased the need for public administration in every sphere of life. All constitutional democracies, if they are indeed to meet the needs of their citizens, must provide a host of new public services. The inherent complexity and interdependence of these functions requires the support of a large number of talented and dedicated public servants. But a political patronage basis of appointment cannot ensure them.
So maladministration is now widely prevalent and the actions of these patronage based officials antagonize and worry citizens. Maladministration involves the fundamental inability of politically appointed officials to perform the functions normally expected of them. The politicians lack the expertise to run a modern administration. Their job is to hold the bureaucrats accountable for their work not to do their work themselves or give them orders on how to do their jobs. The bureaucrats need to become specialists with authority to act based on their competence and knowledge of the technical problems involved in every domain of public policy, not by taking orders from the Ministers or the Executive Presidency. Put simply, good public administration requires the empowerment of appointed public officials appointed on merit for their knowledge and expertise — they need to be able to act quickly and efficiently in order to accomplish the missions assigned to them. Understandably when they are appointed on political patronage, they often fail and maladministration results. When the bureaucracy- the civil and police fail crime, banditry, and underworld gangs emerge, provoking both public officials and political elites to resort to violence in futile fruitless efforts to restore or establish order. We see this in the killings and disappearances of underworld criminals. Such efforts, however, in the absence of effective public administration, merely provoke more anger and resistance to authority. Then there is the possibility that political movements based on ethnic nationalism, religious fundamentalism, may take shape in vain efforts to create islands of security (“sovereignty”) within the domain of anarchic states. The President should re-establish the Independent Commissions.