1 July, 2022


Politicization Of Public Service

By Austin Fernando

Austin Fernando

Austin Fernando

During my 35 years of public service I have heard the complaint “Oh, there is political interference, and we cannot work!” As a junior I made the same complaint. But right now I do not publicly hear such frustrated grousing or moaning, not because there is no politicization; most likely it is accepted as unchallengeable!

Politicization of administration is a universal social process bringing a political character or flavor to administration. It is high in the developing world, but not absent in the developed world.

Politicization in Sri Lanka

A former Ceylon Civil Service (CCS) officer may find politicization as the least experienced.  Politicization in public service was tolerable during my times, but with occasional conflicts. Now it appears as “a matter of fact” issue / consequence.

The healthy economy and minimal socio-political requirements at Independence minimized vast political demands made from the administrations in Sri Lanka.  Hence the politicians were a distanced lot.  With enhancing economic, social, terrorism, political complexities, politicians’ involvement in administration increased.

There were several main reasons for this status.

In fifties one reason was the foreign reserves reduction after the Korean War boom leading the politicians to economize, rationalize administrative actions.

Secondly, the Marxist interventions boosted demands from the governments – especially after 1956 creating new issues for which politicians’ intervention was required.

Thirdly the politico-social “revolution” (1956) resulted in the “common man representatives” entering the parliament. They lacked comparative knowledge of intricacies of public administration but had loads of novel aspirations to be hurriedly achieved, which required personal interventions. The electorate also looked up to them to intervene.

Fourthly, with more money circulating for development (e.g. District Budgets, large scale projects) more interactions took place within the administrative system, sometimes invoking corrupt transactions by  politicians and their proxies, even with the connivance of public officials.

Fifthly, with accountability to government performance pinned on politicians by party leaders, they took on them the responsibility to also ensure administrative accountability.  In this they sometimes did assault, harassed, beleaguered and even tied public officers to trees, shamefully!

As long as these interferences were distant public servants did not consider it a nuisance. But this status changed to the worse later and also bemoaning.

However, more than on the top notches of the government machinery, interventions affected the district and divisional public servants.  Administrative delays or lethargy excited the politicians because it affected their political causes and postures.   The complexities made the pressures heavier.

Delay / lethargy initiated corrupt practice opportunities in officers and politicians both embarrassed government leaders. Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike was one to rope-in his corrupt parliamentarians (i.e. CAS Marikkar, MP de Zoysa) and it is pertinent to wonder how many other leaders followed his footsteps or covered up the sins.

Politicization in operations

With passage of time the ministers and governments recognized political influencing as an essential component of administration. For instance, Land Kachcheri selections had to be vetted by government party parliamentarians, though not in the law. Teacher appointments had to receive parliamentarians’ consent. Always such follow-up was through their agents, who were not elected representatives. Hence political partiality took precedence.

Demands for politicization was so heavy, in 1978 even the 5/6th majority JR Jayewardene government started the “Job Bank” system where the pro-government parliamentarians were given 100 forms to be distributed among job aspirants, annihilating democratic values.   The Opposition parliamentarians did not receive them.  Old school public officers who respected Max Weber Principles of bureaucracy would have found it difficult to tolerate such politicization. There were no Anna Hazares to resist such, then and now!

Politicization and patronage

With closer linking between politicians and officers political patronage for appointments, promotions etc commenced. First appointments to public service whether to executive or operational grades routed by a registered post letter then are now routed through high level politicians. In this manner from day-one the appointees were politicized. Media made it appear in public eyes as the appropriate way it should happen.

Thereafter, when appointments to jobs are made the political patronage assists to locate officers in congenial jobs and stations. Once a politician has obliged this way the officer is obliged to reciprocate and couldn’t refuse demanded political favors.

Intensifying political participation

But with local level development and resources management with political participation [e.g. Decentralized Budget supervised by a District Political Authority (DPA) earlier and by Chief Ministers / Senior Ministers as Co-Chairs now], mutual understanding and upgraded relationships were required for efficient performance. These politicians slowly but surely displaced the Government Agents (GAs) in district level coordination. It did not halt with GAs or Divisional Secretaries or Heads of Departments, but extended even to Police Inspectors or Grama Niladharies.

Political blessing requirement extended to Provincial Councils (PCs) through Article 31 of the PC Act requiring the President to obtain concurrence in appointing the Chief Secretary.

However, one cannot grouse the appointments of Secretaries of Ministries since it is a political appointment.  Nevertheless, Secretaries’ permanency was clipped off by the 1972 Constitution!

Personality related politicization

It must not be misconstrued that politicization consequences are always negative. Politicization for example can yield positive results in motivating officers though as in the Job Bank instance it negatively discriminated. Politicians possess the sense to judge officers.  I have had experiences with Minister Gamani Jayasuriya proving extremely reasonable judgment. I have heard of the manner in which Prime Minister / President Premadasa could sense the value of officers and similarly devalue! Of course there had been strong personalities among public administrators who drew the lines between politicization and administration.

Experiences show that some senior politicians shelve in their hearts any unfavorable actions of officers. They could be very dangerous and vituperative. Nevertheless, experiences with President Jayewardene as an executive endorsed his maturity and capacity to forgive and forget issues, but be firm concurrently. His politics would have been sometimes different!  President DB Wijetunga had been inclined to forget and forgive in administering, more influenced by humanitarian considerations. Politicization effects from such personalities could be educative.

Legal reinforcement of politicization

Public administrators were politically influenced by institutional adjustments over time, backed by constitutional changes.  Erasing Article 29 of the Ceylon (Constitution) Order in Council, 1946, the independent Public Service Commission and providing the Cabinet of Ministers to determine all matters relating to state officers (Article 106 (3) were constitutional (1972) reinforcement for politicization. This was repeated in the 1978 Constitution.

Public administration faced changes with the 13th Amendment. The Transfer of Powers (Divisional Secretaries) Act provided for Divisional Secretaries to perform on assignment by a Statute of a Provincial Council or any function delegated by the Governor. The DSs accountable to the Ministry of Home Affairs were made accountable to the Governor- the President’s executive political representative in PCs, from whom one cannot expect apolitical responses.

The 17th Amendment had overall integrated arrangements for good governance and de-politicization but was repealed by the 18th Amendment, which weakened public administration and good-governance mechanisms, paving way for increased politicization.   

Institutional reinforcement for politicization

Political interventions were formalized by governments. Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike initiated two development administration arrangements, i.e. District Political Authority (DPA) and the Decentralized Budget system.  A later intervention was the appointment of District Ministers (DMs) under the 1978 Constitution by President JR Jayewardene.  They were expected like in case of DPAs to formulate, monitor and evaluate district development plans; identify bottlenecks and initiate corrective action; supervise inter-departmental activities. These were GA’s functions earlier, and can be considered as political encroachment of long-standing recognized institutions.

1977 saw liberalized investments increasing with new policies and institutions undoing the anti-market orientation of yester years. Many multilateral financing organization and private enterprises required higher level of support from the public servants. More the investments arrived, more was the political fingering. These projects (e.g. Mahaweli, Million Housing) were managed by public administrators and there were no extreme allegations of corruption against them though the ministers were not spared.

However, with the establishment of PCs there had been more complaints of corruption. The unsolicited project propositions that have been in the increase in recent times led the politicians and officials to be criticized for abuse and corruption.

Late seventies saw the emergence of the Integrated Rural Development Programmes, which were executed through the district administration. This gave a more organized slot for politicians to intervene, especially through coordinating / steering mechanisms.

Worst political experiences were observed in the North and East where the public servants had to be under the influence of the state political demands as well as the terrorist political and economic demands. During intense conflict even the military had to be listened and adhered.  Even after the end of conflict and with recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, public administrators especially in the north face difficulties as reported in the media to operate within the constitutional framework due to politicization. Even for senior officers politico-administrative compromising has become the way out. Cannot there be change of attitude both in the government thinking as well by those in power in the Northern PC?

Posing recent Indian experiences

We always look at India for any governance issue and hence let me repeat it here too.

India that has equally or more political interventions has shown way forward to rid of politicization and abuse of power by politicians. A Bench of Justices K.S. Radhakrishnan and Pinaki Chandra Ghose, giving a series of directions while disposing of a public interest writ petition filed by very senior former public officers inclusive of senior Indian diplomats and also a former Governor said that “bureaucrats should not act on verbal orders given by politicians”. To what extent a Sri Lankan public servant could follow such may be questioned these days in the light of what Prime Minister DM Jayaratne is faced with!

While our constitutional provisions differ, this could be considered worthy of study. The issue is our former public servants will not follow suit of the above mentioned officers, for various reasons- one being post retirement attractive postings- to become chairpersons of statutory authorities, advisors, diplomats etc or other perks! Hence, they cannot contest the State. Additionally, they mind their own business once leaving public service and lose interest in administration and its issues. Incidentally, without any disrespect to the judiciary one may say that such judgments are rare.

Justice Radhakrishnan stated the Civil Service Board, “consisting of high ranking service officers, who are experts in their respective fields, with the Cabinet Secretary at the Centre and Chief Secretary at the State level, could be a better alternative (till the Parliament enacts a law), to guide and advise the State government on all service matters, especially on transfers, postings and disciplinary action, etc., though their views also could be overruled, by the political executive, but by recording reasons, which would ensure good governance, transparency and accountability in governmental functions.”

The issue is that a similar Board as proposed also has to be subsequent to constitutional amendment here.  Even if it is constitutional the performance of very senior ‘super-Secretaries’ has shown passive agreements with violations and hence unfortunately this too may not work well in Sri Lanka. Even in India in the latest issue between the Haryana State Government and Ashok Khemka, the latter speaks ill of his Chief Secretary and a Committee, and if he speaks the truth, Justice Radhakrishnan’s will be a futile solution.  

Ashok Khemka vs. Vadra – son in law of Sonia Gandhi

While this judgment may attract those who appreciate an independent public service sans undue political interference, India concurrently exhibits bitter experiences of politicization.  This refers to a recent case where  over a year after he cancelled the mutation of a land deal between Congress Chief Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Varda, the Haryana State Government has charge-sheeted (December 4th 2013) a senior IAS officer- Ashok Khemka for administrative misconduct and damage caused to the reputation of Vadra. Fortunately we do not still hear of such actions, in Sri Lanka, probably because our politicians are satisfied with minor “punishments” like transfers! Or it may be, we do not have Khemkas in our administration and retaliation like in the Indian case is redundant!

The charge-sheet has been signed by Haryana Chief Secretary Pradeep Kumar Chaudhery after Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda’s approval. Media reported that the charge-sheet also mentioned the clean chit given to the deal by a Committee formed by the government last year to probe into Khemka’s orders. The panel held there was no undervaluation of the land for payment of stamp duty on land registration as alleged and had put Khemka in the dock for acting beyond the authority vested in him. I doubt whether the fact that Vadra was the son-in law of Sonia Gandhi did not have any effect on the Committee decision.


One can observe that politicization has come to stay. It may increase rather than weaken, with legal and institutional reinforcements and socio-political environment’s demands for politicized interventions and societal resilience- including the media.

Through legal interventions corrections may be possible as in the referred Indian cases. The Sri Lankan experiences are mixed, sometimes upholding administrative actions and sometimes being mercilessly criticized for judicial failures.

From the referred Indian cases, she has proved to be having upright judicial decisions, but sometimes allegedly failing follow up. Therefore, solutions may lie with strong propositions for admissible changes, bureaucracy’s respect and demands for positive change, politicians’ commitment to make depoliticized administration happen (Am I dreaming?), judiciary’s commitment to stand-by with public administration and media’s role to highlight correct approaches and uprightness to stand against negative politicization.


I am remembered of a book by TN Sheshan read about 15 years back titled “The degeneration of India” in which he reasoned very eloquently that India’s degeneration had been caused by politicians, “un-public service”, judiciary and the media. I may only change ‘India’ to ‘Sri Lanka’ if these relevant parties do not take the correct proactive steps, and probably write a book on the lines of TN Sheshan, titled “The degenerated Sri Lanka”! 

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Latest comments

  • 4

    Austin Fernando has highlighted some important factors behind the increasing politicization that has invaded the Sri Lankan Public Service-today to the point of making the Service dysfunctional. His analysis comes out of his vast experience in the field and writers on the subject might do well to make a note of what he has stated.
    I wish to add a few more elements for the benefit of public discourse on an important issue:
    1. There is a cultural aspect in Third World lands that predisposes the political ruling elite to believe that they have some sort of proprietary right over fields of governance assigned to them. Example, A Minister in charge of Higher Education would tend to assume personal ownership of the universities and he would then monkey around his resources of men and money. This cultural factor is largely missing in developed modern administrations like we have in Australia, for instance. In this part of the world people involved in governing acknowledge the need to keep the two spheres of duty and personal life separate. I think, the Third World model came to be known as the SALA model.
    2. Based on the same value Rajapakses think that the country is their private enterprise. His underling Ministers, likewise, think that the delineated fields given to them are their personal property
    2.Again, derived from the same cultural value checks and balances are frowned upon in countries like Sri Lanka.
    3.In modernized developed countries the economic opportunities for successful living are available in plenty. In Third World systems such options are severely limited and political power becomes the quickest way to one’s economic freedom.
    4. Politicization of the Public Service becomes inherent under a dictatorial regime. On the other hand, in democracies the availability of independent channels of appeal permits leverage for the citizen to seek and obtain redress over unfair dealing consequent to political interference with executive decisions.
    5. Of course one has to remember that there cannot be a sharp division between political influencers and the acts contemplated by a Public Servant. It is a question of balance and symmetry that has to be handled with good sense on both sides.
    I hope these additions of mine are useful

    • 0

      Your added comments are most useful, Shyamon, if someone is to follow up improvements to public administration. Appreciate very much. But unfortunately and sadly it is lip service and no more back home.
      Hope you are healthy and full of life down-under, with peace of mind.
      Cheers and best wishes.
      Happy Christmas!

  • 1

    Well said Shyamon,

    Austin, wearing a tie does not help. Perhaps its time to accept what van der Poorten calls “lower form of Sri Lankan Life” that is clearly interfering with more civilized concepts of life practiced outside.

    • 0

      You are correct Kiri Yakka; wearing a tie will not help….having a backbone will!

  • 0

    This is depressing reading Mr Fernando, and your conclusion leaves little hope. Then, Mr Jayasinghe exacerbates the situation further. The trend he identifies, of little fiefdoms, will only lead to protection of those interests and we have all seen the result when that happens. Whatever happened to our ‘free education’ system that spawned men and women of a class that would brook no nonsense when it came to doing the right thing? Admittedly it is not an envious task being a public servant dancing to the whims of parvenus, crooks and thugs. Everything points to the barbarian at the gate. What is to become of us?

  • 0

    Typical ignorant bullshit by former third world public servants like Shyamon Jayasinghe and comments by that Van der Pooten character [Edited out]

    The writer has made the point “It is high in the developing world, but not absent in the developed world.”

    But the commentators are pushing the wrong end of the stick.Whom are you trying to fool?

    Your ignorance about the bureaucratic processess in the US that enabled the Enron scandal, the so-called Global Financial Crisis and the Iraqi war, just to name a few, in the US and the UK’s own involvement in Iraq with Tony Blair rejecting the Attoney Generals’ opinion shows, and allows you to think that they are lilly white.

    Van der Pooten [Edited out]

  • 0

    “During my 35 years of public service I have heard the complaint “Oh, there is political interference, and we cannot work!” As a junior I made the same complaint. But right now I do not publicly hear such frustrated grousing or moaning, not because there is no politicization; most likely it is accepted as unchallengeable!” (AF)

    Unlike the days of Mr. AF, there are more meetings because of PCs and mostly chaired by politicians. Minutes of the meeting are supposed to contain the issues, deliberations and decisions. In almost all cases no objections or constructive criticisms from participating officials. Minutes are recorded by stooges who record only the instructions of the politicos. Most participating officials are not familiar with what can or cannot be done within the legal frameworks governing their institutions. They go back and wait for the minutes to take action or prepare action programmes without checking it with institutional mandates. When such programmes are put for approval of the Head of Institution the trouble begins. Rejection or expressing concern after many weeks from the date of the meeting results in the institutions and/or heads being labelled as negative or ant-government. Political interference is invited in such cases.

    The other issue is that unlike the days of Mr. AF, there are more and more national and regional sector policies. Lack of integrated development plans results in politicos in-charge of sector development exercising superiority and instructing or ordering to implement programmes and projects, which they think are the best for the country.

    The other point I wish to emphasize is that state some state institutions prepare programmes without basic research or surveys on the sector under the purview. Targets are set without addressing priorities and ground realities at national and regional levels. Funds are allocated for poorly planned programmes and projects and politicians are very clever at getting funds diverted to sub-programmes when main programmes are unsuccessful. Whatever it may be supplements in the print media are full of praise of the politicos and the officials. Finally the politicos and the officials are happy because the funds allocated and released are spent leaving the rest to the Auditor General.

  • 0

    Politicians could do so due to the fact that public servants did not address the problems of the general public. Senior Public Servants did not take much heed to make their juniors efficient and effective. About 40-30 years ago public servants considered themselves as obedient servants of the members of public. Gradually public officers turned their attitude and made themselves obedient servants of politicians.
    There is a sanskrit sloka: Narapathi hitha kartha dweshyathan yathi loke, Janapada hita karthaq dweshyathe parthiwendriah- Iti mahati virodhe warthamane samane, Nrupathi Janapadanan durlabah Karyakartha.

    One who acts according to the whims of fancies of the rulers will not be liked by the public. One who serves the public will be hated by the rulers. It is therefore rare to find a person who serves the public and satisfy the rulers at the same time.
    Japanese rulers believe that they could uplift their economic and social standards because of their Civil Service. German Rulers too accept the same thing. Can Sri Lanka too say the same thing???. Our Civil Servants tried to maintain a gap between the public and themselves. Kachcharies had interpreter mudliers even though GAA were locals. Courts had interpreters although judges were locals. Even senior PSs tried to maintain a gap between themselves and their juniors.To present their grievances public had to go to politicians and not to public servants. Even peons of public offices were rude to public. That way pubic officers lost the grip on the public. Politicians captured power and now they (not all but many) exploit the public. What is the ultimate outcome. General Public is being to exploited by both the Politicians and Public servants.
    Politicians of today do not perform any Honorary Service although it is so on paper. They are elected but highly privileged public servants who are entitled to get salaries and pensions who do not meet their voters other than during election time.

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