By C. Narayanasuwami –
Public administration has played a pivotal role in moulding the destinies of developing countries in the decolonised world because the concept of a welfare state, good governance, and democratisation of power-sharing have accentuated the need for increased state activity and intervention in all spheres of public life. The traditional concepts of public administration, including the classical Weberian type of bureaucracy popular in the 20th century, has given way to development-oriented administration that concentrates on good governance and results orientation. Ordinarily, a good public administration is said to include components such as managerial competence, organisational capacity, reliability and integrity, predictability, transparency and accountability, and financial sustainability. The characteristics of good public administration are determined by historical and political trajectories. Good governance as enunciated by the current government encapsulates the importance of transparency, predictability, accountability, the rule of law, anti-corruption, the independence of the judiciary, and active people’s participation in decision-making. A relook at the public sector in Sri Lanka is necessary to understand the existing framework for public administration, its strengths and weaknesses, and the way forward in the context of the Nineteenth Amendment.
The genesis of the Nineteenth Amendment has to be traced to the constitution-making saga of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. Both the 1972 and 1978 republican constitutions did not provide for an independent public service, as the Cabinet of Ministers was held responsible for matters relating to the public service. The need for reform in this regard resulted in some modifications to the 1978 Constitution through the Seventeenth Amendment, which sought to guarantee a degree of independence to the public service. The promulgation of the Eighteenth Amendment virtually nullified the improvements made under the Seventeenth Amendment. It gave unfettered powers to the President over all key public service appointments and had virtually removed the semblance of independence granted to public service under the Seventeenth Amendment. The Eighteenth Amendment replaced the Constitutional Council of the Seventeenth Amendment with a weaker mechanism designated as the Parliamentary Council. Substantial arbitrary powers vested in the Cabinet of Ministers and the President opened the doors for maladministration and negation of the rule of law concepts. This in turn altered the character of public sector management, specifically the development of an impartial, independent, and creative public sector that would cater to the emerging demands of a growing middle-income country.
The change in government following the presidential election in January 2015 and the priority accorded to good governance resulted in early action being taken to address blatant violations of the rule of law, restoration of media freedom, strengthened transparency, the maintenance of law and order, and effective administration of the principles of natural justice. This gave hope of a return to democratic principles of good governance and removal of the culture of impunity, which was pervasive before the new government came into office. Confirming the interest in the fundamental values upheld in the Seventeenth Amendment, the new government introduced the Nineteenth Amendment, which was passed in parliament with several not so encouraging modifications. The thrust of the Nineteenth Amendment was the reestablishment of the principles of good governance which included the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment and establishment of independent commissions, including the public service commission, that would ensure the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the public service and the judiciary. This chapter examines the extent to which the changes introduced under the Nineteenth Amendment provide support to the concept of an impartial and independent public administration.
A Brief Historical Perspective of the Public Service in Sri Lanka
The origins of the modern public sector in Sri Lanka date back to the British period. The administration of the country then was in the hands of a small hierarchy of British officials assisted by the local elite educated through the English medium. It was not until constitutional change got under way after the first World War that Ceylonese in any numbers entered the higher civil service. The higher civil servants were recruited through the medium of a competitive examination held simultaneously in London and Colombo. The lower civil servants, the clerks, were recruited locally mainly through competitive examination. With the grant of independence in 1948, Ceylon continued to recruit civil servants at higher and lower levels through competitive examinations. Recruitment to the higher civil service was governed by the Civil Service Minute, which was revoked in 1963 when the Ceylon Civil Service (CCS) was abolished, and a Ceylon Administrative Service was established.
The public service remained largely independent till the early 1960s. The Soulbury Constitution, in operation from 1947 to 1972, ensured that the public service maintained its independence largely free of political interferences. The Public Service Commission (PSC) established under the constitution was responsible for recruitment, transfers, promotions and disciplinary control, and supervision. This situation changed with the introduction of the first republican constitution in 1972, which brought the public service under political control by providing that the Cabinet of Ministers ‘shall be responsible for the appointment, transfer, dismissal and disciplinary control of state officers.’ This position was further reiterated in the 1978 Constitution. The compelling reasons for this change and the consequences of this change will be discussed in what follows. Suffice for us to state that the chain of events that followed thereafter took away some of the best elements of public service characteristics that overwhelmingly determined the scope and direction of public administration.
The Role and Character of the Public Sector Today
The public sector today is largely focussed on broad-based development administration with substantial importance attached to the planning and implementation of projects. Over the past thirty years about 40 per cent of development projects failed to achieve their intended objectives within the stipulated timeframes or within the expected budgetary allocations, for lack of capacity to plan, implement and deliver in a coordinated and integrated manner. Some of the major factors that have impeded more effective public sector performance, including utilisation of foreign aid, could be summarised as follows:
- Government organisations at central level did not adhere to a results-oriented management system, thereby lacking clear objectives and understanding of the scope of inputs required and the level of outputs and outcomes expected.
- The rigidity of policy and implementation structures did not lend themselves to change in line with emerging needs.
- Plurality of institutions and overlapping roles made decision-making difficult.
The factors that contributed to decline in capacity levels included politicisation of the public service, lack of an enabling environment for improving performance, inadequate punitive strategies, lack of consistent standards of recruitment to the public services, inadequacies in the compensation and benefit packages, disproportionate expansion of the public sector, and ethnic conflict and its debilitating impact on public sector morale.
The politicisation of the public sector initially arose out of a felt need, largely driven by the desire to transform a highly elitist pro-western bureaucracy to meet growing demands of a nation that had emerged from the shackles of colonialism. However, when public servants made use of this opportunity to seek favours and ignore tradition-bound value systems and ethical conduct, a service that had built its reputation on its ability to withstand political pressures, maintain impartiality, objectivity and transparency in its dealings since the time of the British rule, began to crumble. Loyalty was linked to political parties and individuals rather than to institutions and programmes. Capacities were determined not on the basis of performance appraisals but on the basis of a public servant’s political affiliations and beliefs.
Inasmuch as there were no reward systems based on performance there had also been no systematised approaches to adopting punitive measures against those who underperformed. Except when issues became complex, and serious irregularities were reported, public servants got away with indiscipline and poor performance, largely unnoticed or ignored. The inadequacies in the disciplinary framework seriously impaired the efficient functioning of the public sector. Punctuality, discipline, and commitment to work became rare commodities, partly because public servants did not have the opportunity to look up to any improvements in their career prospects. Irregularities in promotions and transfer, including political patronage in these areas, brought about some level of demoralisation and frustration among those who had hoped to build a career within their service.
The varying standards applied to recruitment to public sector positions also contributed to some quality deterioration. Consequent to the replacement of the Ceylon Civil Service with the Ceylon Administrative Service in 1963, for example, large-scale recruitment took place for higher level positions, albeit with relatively less onerous requirements, ostensibly on the premise that larger numbers were required to fill in vacancies that had multiplied consequent to increased public sector involvement in diverse activities, including statutory undertakings. While the quality of most public servants that entered the workforce was not in any way inferior to those who were admitted earlier, the level of admission requirements and the kind of in-house training provided before they were posted to responsible positions were reported to be less intensive and inadequate to meet the levels of leadership required for discharging their functions. In-house training before substantive postings became less and less emphasised also because of the compelling need to fill public sector vacancies expeditiously in government institutions. Although the situation has shown signs of improvement in recent years, the backlog of qualitative deficiencies added to declining performance levels.
Inadequate salaries and poor working conditions have also had deleterious effects on productivity. Poor salaries could have been compensated by appropriate reward and incentive systems, but lack of such systems resulted in weakened morale and reduced commitment to perform. It is noteworthy that the new government, under President Sirisena, as one of its first initiatives increased the salaries of public servants in January 2015, thereby signifying the need for revamping the morale and efficiency of the public sector.
About three decades of ethnic conflict further added to the woes of the public service. The war situation caused anxiety, depression, and helplessness among a substantial part of the workforce, resulting in lost working hours and weakened moral strength to withstand fear syndromes caused by suicide attacks and similar war-related incidents.
The factors outlined above serve to highlight the malaise that set in over a period of over forty years, gradually eroding the commitment, dedication, and loyalty of the public servants. It should not be assumed that the situation was all-pervasive or that there were no qualitative differences. As in all situations, there were core groups among all categories of staff that continued to serve with dignity, dedication, and commitment. This loyal coterie of public servants, in fact, contributed to saving the country from falling into deeper mires such as what occurred in countries like Indonesia, Myanmar, and some of the South American countries.
*C. Narayanasuwami – Member of the Former Ceylon Civil Service and retired Senior Professional of the Asian Development Bank, Manila , Philippines
 National Audit Office (UK), An International Comparison of the United Kingdom’s Public Administration, October 2008.
 S.A. Pakeman (1964) Ceylon (London: Ernest Benn Ltd).
 The Constitution of Sri Lanka (1972): Section 106 (i).