24 October, 2021

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Public Office Holders Must Not Only Be Seen, But Be Free From Politics

By Thangamuthu Jayasingam

Prof. Thangamuthu Jayasingam

People make choices in life all the time and if you choose politics then it may be that you would like to refrain from being a public officer. Members of parliament are not considered to be public officers. It is the expectation of an officer in a state institute to be free from political affinities or interference and also seem to be away from political influence however small it may be, in the greater interest of the public administration. Public officers thus need not only to show that they are free from politics as they often claim, but must be really free as they will and should  remain in office to serve the people long after all the politicians leave the game table.

Political ideology is a right of an individual but it may not be the same if you are affiliated to a political party when your neutrality would be in question to others apart from your ideology.

Public officers in Politics

The Establishment code (e-code) based on constitutional provisions requires the public officers of the system to resign when contesting an election. But it has also provided an option for them to be re-employed if necessary subject to their performance record in their work. It also suggests that all benefits of the previous positions would be foregone and they be treated as a new appointment.

Many interpret the above literally and not meaningfully and are confused in essence over these and have been arguing over it. Legal interpretations also have rules and one is to analyze from its origin, the reasons for the regulation are to interpret the law itself. If one is expected to resign the position before affiliating to a party in a general election, it should be interpreted as that the state would not like to see them as a means of partisan decision making in that position in future, for whatever it takes.

Further the option of re-employment is given as there may be cases which might be of great value to the system and to use their benefit to the best for the institute. But it also comes at a cost to the political office seeker as there is the deprivation of their earlier seniority and to be treated as a fresh candidate. This includes the salary being fixed as the basic for the position as stated in the E-code in black and white. In a way this is also to prevent those is public service to desist from being seen as a political personality and to discourage them getting into this venture, while allowing them to participate if they so choose the path. The higher principle at stake is that every citizen in a democracy is given an equal right to seek political office. There are confusions in many minds whether the former benefits include the salary code and the answer is ‘YES’ and it is vividly expressed in the government establishment code, but silent in the university e-code.  The UGC circular states that in the case of silence or doubt to utilize the E-code of the government. This settles it as the basic salary that would be provided for the re-employment position as the case may be.

There are also those who seek administrative positions on return which has two drawbacks. Once the person is seen as / with a political tinge and it may become difficult to see them as non-partisan in the future as they may be seen to favor the political persons and personalities. This may be serious as there would be a doubt on the service provided or decisions made by this candidate all the time. Further if the candidate is from the University and had canvassed the students for election then the examination marks and associated events need to be of concern as these may lead to human errors and support to a group, at least may be seen to support a group of a particular party. This may be of more serious nature where students unions also have political affinities which could make a serious question of balance. A person who had contested election and had returned to the public office with an inclination of contesting the next election may have a skewed outlook in office and may favour to be seen as an eligible candidate for votes in future and may compromise the position. Even if he is not so and seeks to be non-partisan he may continue to be seen as having a partisan hidden agenda.

It is therefore best to avoid those who return to public office from contesting an election into administrative positions or those which would be of significance where one group often political may be favored form the position eg. Award of contracts. It is though not written in black and white, the simple request for a resignation of all public officers while allowing other minor grades to contest on leave, says it all. The avoidance of a possible influence in the work place is anticipated. It is also likely that the candidate may be favored for certain office/appointment by the political party in power for whom he, may have contested or the reverse. A person may be penalized by the party in office of different political orientation. Either of this may affect the institution and its smooth running. Prevention is better than cure and thus avoidance of returnees from administrative management positions or others that leverage power needs to be secured for the larger interest of the institutions.

Public officers in Governance 

In contrast, there is no need to colour the officers who work continuously with the President, Prime Minister and Ministers or in other Public offices. They are employed by the state and are obliged to the state to perform a duty diligently. It is in my opinion unfair to change officers when the Ministers change or the Government change as they are not their servants but the servants to the people appointed by the state. It was unfortunate that the robust administrative system with Permanent Secretaries was dismissed in 1972 and personal secretaries were established which had in my opinion undermined the system. The Permanent Secretary knew all about the institution, issues, people, strength and weakness and was able to balance it. With all due respect to the personal secretaries who tag with the minister may be new to a ministry and change to another new ministry even before they understand the ministry itself. It is regrettable. Restoration of the Permanent Secretary may be an option for improving the efficiency of the public administration in general. Transferring secretaries and officers for each error does not make sense unless they are intentional. We note many issues of transfer of staff with COVID, but what I had seen is that the death analysis which was listed by the Epidemiology unit has halted at 28 may 2021, and those who  had taken over have not updated that to date (beyond 28 may 2021). It is such changes and actions that make the administrators seem to be wagging the tail to the Politicians in many cases to avoid inconveniences, unfortunately. This in turn makes the public officer weak and the politician strong, the result being poor. In effect, the operation is a “success” but the patient dead.

Public officers go through a series of trainings and those at the helm are often some of the best minds, recruited and trained for managing the country. It is sad when we see appointments made away from the usual practices, to domestic administrative and overseas services, which may affect the quality if the service itself. Such appointments had been contested in the past by the officers themselves. However, these are likely to have a long term impact on the country as they are often political. Recently a secretary of a Ministry had resigned from his position for ‘personal reasons’ and has been posted to another state institution.

It is essential that we ensure that the functioning of the Public officers are free from politics. After all, it is their pen and their pen only that certifies the birth or death of every citizen in the country, even certifies the election of the President himself.

*The author was the chairman/member of the Public Services Commission of the Eastern Provincial Council for three years and was also Professor of Botany and Vice Chancellor of the Eastern University, Sri Lanka.

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    Prof. Thangamuthu Jayasingam, thank you for this. It should get us all thinking about reforms for which endless room exists in this country.

    Our policy makers (politicians) who make up our corrupt and treacherous political landscape, make policies that best serve them and their political agenda. Hence, private secretaries (instead of permanent secretaries) to carry out the political propaganda and distortion of reality in favour of the ruling party.

    Perhaps our #1 priority is to find a way out of politically influenced cherry picked appointments of our judges and judiciary. For starters, there needs to be a rigorous and transparent vetting process.

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