27 November, 2021


Recasting Of The Sri Lanka Administrative Service

By S. Sivathasan

S. Sivathasan

S. Sivathasan

The article below written over 34 years ago but never published, is now being made public in CT in view of its topicality. A few might have wished that the SLAS was not created in the first instance. When the writer discussed with a senior Civil Servant he said that in the early fifties, JR Jayewardene desired to see the Civil Service and the Administrative Service co-exist. 

Some appreciate the survival capacity of the SLAS for 50 years and more. Some others see rectification in replacement. The writer saw fraying more than 35 years ago. The rather lengthy and detailed account seeks an elitist Civil Service culture and Administrative Service culture complementing each other. Both of them growing up, overshadowing and replacing the existing Service without displacing a single serving officer. In 20 to 30 years what was proposed would have been in place.

The writer’s public service experience is: any worthwhile document is long and anything long is not read. A respected civil servant told us 45 years back at a seminar “Any memorandum exceeding one page is never read in Colombo”. Many would affirm. 2.22.2014

In a modern state, the responsibility for a whole range of complex functions reposes with the Government. The vast spectrum of obligations impinge on virtually every sphere of human activity. This feature is particularly accentuated in a developing country seeking to compress the growth of centuries in a few decades. If the Government’s commitment to such a drive is firm, the administration has of necessity to be highly efficient. A point of crucial importance to be realised is that the tenor of administration at its commanding heights determines quality at levels below. It’s an elitist service that imparts this quality. Such a service is closely associated in formulating programmes and determining policy issues. From the privileged position in which it is placed, it becomes the repository of a rare experience. Such a background enables it to execute the policies of Government with competence and acceptance. Granted the above proposition, a Government should build up and nurture a service which deserves a superior status. The service should sustain its superiority through sheer excellence.

The Civil Service played this role in Sri Lanka in a magnificent way. Its abolition has created a deep void. The Administrative Service was supposed to be the legatee to the earlier tradition. But it has proved itself to be unworthy of the mantle. It has not inherited either its image or its virtues. This is the bitter truth. If the administration   is to be resuscitated, the Civil Service must be re-created. This is my firm considered view. To shy away from it would be to bypass the challenge.

An elite service lives in the public eye. This phenomenon is especially pronounced in a traditional society. What is of moment to an elite service is its image.  This has to be maintained at least till the modernisation process completes itself. Captains of industry or commissars may take over thereafter. Till then, the authority to be exercised has to be principally moral. Members of the administrative class have to possess these high attributes to command such moral authority. A service is really the officer writ large. The quality of each individual member would therefore condition the image of the service. Intellectual ability, having academic performance as its index would be basic to such quality. It is enhanced further by a reputation of unimpeachable integrity. Such integrity has to manifest itself in the quality of personal conduct and in patent objectivity in administration. In the selective process, a premium has therefore to be placed on rare qualities of head and heart and a certain greatness of soul. While academic achievement does not guarantee the possession of these attributes, at least it provides a certain base which no other qualification can assure. It  would  be relevant  here  to  recall  the  words of Macaulay in this context. “Indeed early superiority in science and literature generally  indicates the existence of some qualities which are securities against vice, industry, self-denial, a taste for pleasures not sensual, a laudable desire of honourable distinction, a still more laudable desire to obtain the approbation of friends and relations.  We therefore believe that the intellectual test which is about to be established will be found in practice to be also the best moral test that can be devised”.  The strength of one’s mental and moral fibre may thus be measured through the academic test.

If the need for a new service is appreciated, steps have to be taken to create it and to keep its image untarnished. The selection has to be meticulous. A code of conduct has to be evolved and observed with religious fervour. These are possible only in a compact service. Young men of the desired calibre with the promise of flowering into administrators of distinction are admittedly rare. No process of selection can pick out what does not exist. No amount of training can develop what is not in the man. Therefore, an elite service has perforce to be small. This consideration primarily determined the size of the former Civil Service. Many of the ills of the present Administrative Service are built in by its very unwieldiness. Its unfettered expansion has diluted all standards. Inevitably the erosion of its image followed.  An administrative class to fulfill its role in a dynamic and meaningful way has to be compact and well-knit. In my view the size of an elitist service should not exceed two hundred and the annual intake should be confined to ten. It the reasoning behind this proposition is accepted, the commitment of the Government to stand by this principle should be unremitting.  A carefully constructed service can be shattered otherwise.

The functions that an Administrative Service is responsible for and the role it has to play will be conditioned by the particular historical context, the nature of the social system and the texture of Government. In a post-independent era of reconstruction and transformation, it has to spearhead the process of development. Working as it does within a democratic framework, it has to be keenly aware of the people’s aspirations. As a permanent institution, it has to share power with transient Governments. In a Parliamentary system, executive power reposes with the Ministers.But the very system imposes limits on their terms of office. This brings into sharp focus, the crucial role of an established service well acquainted with the process of Government. It is the Administrative Class that discharges this function. Its role is well formulated in a Memorandum submitted to the Fulton Committee by the Association of First Division Civil Servants. “The essential function of this group of staff is to bring together the disparate issues involved in taking major decisions of policy, to advice on what these decisions should be and subsequently to put them into effect. The Administrative Class is uniquely able to perform this function because of its broad background, intellectual capacity and experience of operating Government. Administrators become conversant with the special subjects with which individual departments are concerned; collectively they know about the whole range of governmental and parliamentary affairs; they know how to cope with the complexities of the government machine; finally they are politically aware in the sense of regarding politics as the art of the possible”.

What enables the Administrative Class to discharge this role may be discerned from the above account.  It is the confidence derived from a knowledge of the political objectives and the process of Government. The permanency of this class contrasted to the periodic shuffling of the political element, adds to it a further dimension. The French Civil Service which kept the administration at top gear in an unstable political environment is a classic case in point. It is evident herefrom that policy initiative too falls within the realm of the Administrative class. To fit an administrator into such an exacting office, the selective process has to be rigorous. The programme of training has to be well designed. Early in life heavy responsibility has to be entrusted to him. Upward movement has to be very swift and those who falter should be moved out.

For creating a new service, several steps have to be taken and implemented steadfastly. To give substance to the principles that have been enunciated, some of the operational details are spelt out below. A decision has to be taken to constitute an elitist service.   It may be called the Sri Lanka Civil Service. It’s cadre would be two hundred.  It would have two classes corresponding to the two levels of responsibility, those of Head and Deputy. Recruitment should be annual and the intake should be confined to graduates. The age should be restricted to 22 and 25 years and no candidate could take up the examination on   more than two occasions. Recruitment should be similar to the open competitive examination for the former Civil Service.

The examination should be modelled exactly on the lines of the former Civil Service examination. The standard should be pitched high.  As in the French examination “candidates must have undertaken some special preparation beyond an ordinary degree”.  The written examination would consist of ten papers carrying 100 marks each. There would be four compulsory subjects namely, Essay, General Knowledge, Comprehension and English. The optional papers would be six in any of the subjects offered for the degree.  The medium of examination will be the same as for the degree examination.  For the viva voce test, the number of candidates to be summoned may be ten times the number to be selected.   That would mean the first hundred in order of merit on the written examination. The viva voce test should consist of two interviews before two different Boards. The Boards should comprise five members each.  An interview should last not less than half an hour if it were to do justice by the candidate and aim at the best selection.   This test should be designed to assess the candidate’s   intellectual horizon, mental resilience, versatility of his interests, verbal dexterity and reserves of character.  The interviews will carry  100 marks each. Marks awarded for the written examination and the viva voce test will be out of an aggregate of 1200.  The first ten would stand selection and rank will determine the order of merit. The Interview Board should not have access to the written marks.  After selections are made, the marks should be published.

Once selections are made, a period of training should commence according to a carefully formulated programme. The programme of intensive training may be called cadetship and the duration should be two years. The third year will complete the period of probation.

The life style of one’s official career is generally set in the first two years.  Hence the need to treat the period of cadetship with rectitude by both trainer and trainee alike.   The cadet of the Administrative Class should be initiated into the Public Service with a course of induction lectures spread over two weeks.   These lectures will be delivered by men of distinction who have distinguished themselves in the public and private sectors.   Emphasis of course will be on public service.  Lectures should be coupled with panel discussions with the cadets drawn into animated debate.  The cadets should then be sent in batches of two or three to selected Kachcheries. In deciding on the Kachcheri, particular attention has to be paid to the personality of the Government Agent to whom the cadet will be attached. The duration of this attachment should be three months. The cadet should go through the entire spectrum of Provincial Administration dove-tailing office work with field experience. At the end of the three months he should move over to the Academy for a course of lectures for two weeks. These lectures could seek to discuss Provincial Administration, its relationship to the Central Government, the concept of devolution, the Decentralised Budget and allied topics. Since these lectures follow a cadet’s spell in the Districts, they  would  make a  deep impression.

With four months completed on induction training and Provincial Administration, the cadet should move into the other areas of Government.  The next four months should be spent in selected key Ministries, Departments, Public Enterprises and Private Sector Establishments.  This period should be devoted to office work, study and research, field visits, talks and group discussions. Emphasis at this stage should be on extensive familiarisation of ideas where the cadets share their experience. A nine month period of intensive training will end thus.

The cadet should get his first posting at the conclusion of these nine months. With such posting he would begin to shoulder responsibility and cease to go alongside.  The billet should be to a District for a duration on one year. He should be attached to the Kachcheri and should function as an Assistant Government Agent. From this capacity he would learn the whole gamut of governmental activity as manifesting in the District. The conceptual base of his training will now be fertilised with Administrative realities. This assignment would be similar to the posting of a cadet in the French Civil Service where “the course begins with a year’s stage, usually in a prefecture”.  There is however a difference. In Sri Lanka the posting would follow a period of intensive training for nine months.  The Fulton Committee observes that the “stage is regarded by administration and the students alike as a particular profitable part of the course”.  The essentiality and the excellence of initial district experience would need little emphasis. During this period, the cadet should be called upon to do an exhaustive study of some of the important areas of District Administration. A total of four reports should be submitted at the rate of one per quarter.  The choice of the field of study may be left to the cadet. Some fruitful areas of research may be the District Plan and the Decentralised Budget, Agricultural Development, the Relationship of the Kachcheri with Technical Departments, Resource utilisation in the District or similar areas. Afteran year’s assignment in the District, the cadet should be attached to the Academy for three months. During this period, he should submit a lengthy dissertation on any subject relevant to the sphere of administration. At the conclusion of these two years, the officer would have completed his cadetship.

The next stage in the officer’s life would be placement.  This is what would make or mar his career. On fair and judicious placement would depend his morale and enthusiasm. Therefore this mater of placement has to be viewed with the deepest concern and seriousness. To be fair and to appear to be fair, objective criteria alone should govern placement.  The French system of placement has very much to commend itself.   In that system, marks are awarded throughout the course and determine a final order of merit. The student with top marks has first choice of all the available vacancies. In Sri Lanka too this system could be adopted with advantage. The cadet will be awarded marks for the four reports prepared in the District and for the dissertation.  In addition, the Government Agent to whom the cadet is attached for one year should furnish a confidential report on the cadet’s capabilities. This report should take the form of marks being awarded on a clearly formulated basis. The attributes to be assessed may be dedication, sense of pragmatism, mental flexibility, aptitude, application, standards and basic honesty. All these marks should be aggregated to the total of the entry examination and a final order of merit determined.  The officer who tops the list should have a choice of all vacancies.  The choice will narrow down for officers lower in the list. This system would eliminate the gnawing bitterness of haphazard posting, remove the subjective element, establish objective criteria and lend no quarter for patronage. It would reward merit and sustain morale.

At this stage, the officer will be 26 or 27 years of age and count two years’ service. He would operate in a key Department of his choice at the level of Deputy.  This spell may be for a duration of three years during which period the efficiency bar and the second language requirement may be satisfied and the officer confirmed. In addition, his foreign training in a specialised field also would be completed. At the end of these five years, he should be posted as Additional Government Agent.  It is preferable that this office is held in two Districts for a total of five years. At the end of this experience, he will be in a position to formulate policy in Ministries. The next five years may be spent in one or two Ministries. Thus there would  be an alternation of central  government and District Administration assignments.  This would endow a rounded and mature experience thereby fitting the officer to man the highest echelons of the Administration. By this time the officer would be around forty years and count fifteen years of experience.  At this stage he could be posted as Government Agent or Head of Department according to his aptitude, inclinations and specialised knowledge and experience.  After holding such office for nearly five years, an officer who has displayed ability and diligence, would move up as Additional Secretary or Secretary.  This would be at the age of   forty five or more with a service in excess of twenty years. Careers of officers should be planned in such a manner that both the state and the officer stand to benefit. What is needed is a resolve to place principles above exigencies or expediency.  This commitment has to effuse from the Government.

An officer’s career should be duly watched from the days of his cadetship. For consideration to the highest post of Secretary, the record of service should be impeccable. The story should be one of success in challenging assignments. A Civil Servant who ascends to the highest position after a chequered career of twenty years will find acceptance among parallel Services.  His word will get carried. He could hold the highest position for nearly ten years.  At the age of fifty five he could retire into a consultancy service or advisory assignment, yielding place to minds of vigour and youth.  The relative youth of the French Civil Service at its highest levels has impressed many an observer. This is a point to be taken diligent note of in Sri Lanka. A possible phenomenon of dead wood replacing dead wood should by all means be avoided.

An officer of the Administrative Class will be a generalist. Perhaps his merit itself may rest on the varied background he has gained by moving in several but related fields. He has to work with specialists from a position of prim us inter pares. He has to be primus through his intellectual capacity, understanding and broad experience. His responsibility also includes advising a non-specialist political executive on specialised subjects.  The scheme of training has to be patterned to endow the officers with the necessary qualities. It may be well to remember that what counts for most is the man. But a man grows on the job. Therefore, careful placement would contribute in great measure to an officer’s development. But there has also to be formal training to provide a broad and specialised conceptual base with adequate coverage and depth. The initial cadetship, careful placement, secondment to Corporations and international bodies, foreign scholarship and participation at seminars and high level conferences would endow general administrator with rare capabilities beyond the reach of any specialist. Such officers would compose a prestigious elitist service. This would be the Sri Lanka Civil Service to be created anew with an image of its own.

What has been discussed above is the creation of a new Service which would fill the void created by the abolition of the Civil Service. But besides the highest levels of the administration which require an elitist service, there are a multitude of functions which have to be performed by administrative personnel. A unified Service with semi­ compartmentalisation according to the various specialisms should fill this role. It may be called the Sri Lanka Administrative Service. While members of this Service should be assured of vertical mobility, lateral movement should be restricted to related fields only. This necessity is enjoined by experience. This Administrative Service should be clearly distinguishable from the elitist Civil Service. Mapping out the contours to demarcate the two is a matter of mere administrative detail.

It would be relevant here to take a look at the vicissitudes of the Administrative Service. It was created in 1963 with around 1100 officers. It expanded in size in subsequent years. By the Minute of 1971, the Service was restructured.  Several posts which did not have a real administrative content were extruded and the Service was reduced in strength. But it had expanded by about 200 since then. The necessity has arisen once again for a process of ‘winnowing’. If a Civil  Service with a strength  of  200 is created, the cadre of the Administrative Service may be fixed at  800. Recruitment should be by three modes.   Open competitive examination for 75 percent of the vacancies, limited competitive examination for 15 percent of the vacancies and merit promotions for the balance 10 percent.   Recruitment for this Service should be limited to around sixty per annum. Selections from the open competitive examination should not exceed forty per intake. Selections could be from the same examination as for the elitist service discussed earlier. While the first  ten candidates in order  of  merit  would enter  the elitist  Civil Service, the next forty  would  get  into the Administrative Service. Selections from the limited competitive examination and merit promotions could be on the basis presently in vogue.

Granted the crucial importance of an elite Service for efficient administration, ways have to be devised to attract and to retain the best talent in the country. In the choice of a career, a candidate is influenced by two vital considerations. The image of the Service and the salary structure. It’s axiomatic that the elite Civil Service should command the highest salary in the Public Service. The Administrative Service should have scales comparable to the salary and allowances of professional classes. Placing a premium on talent for excellence in administration, should take practical shape in this manner.

The burden of the foregoing thesis is the re-creation of the Civil Service. The Civil Service has been much maligned. But many regretted its abolition. They regret it still. Perhaps an act of resurrection may atone for the sin of crucifixion.

* S. Sivathasan SLAS – Written in 1979

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Latest comments

  • 2

    What was written 34 years ago is no kindergarten stuff.It should be viewed seriously. Bensen

    • 0

      Sivathasan’s plea for the resurrection of the dead Civil Service is based on a number of wrong assumptions i.e.
      Assumption 1.” It’s an elitist service that imparts this quality. Such a service is closely associated in formulating programmes and determining policy issues. …The Civil Service played this role in Sri Lanka in a magnificent way. Its abolition has created a deep void.”

      CCS was a remnant of the colonial administration and was suited for the functions of revenue collection and maintenance of law and order. It was a comprador elite devoid of hardly any national and development consciousness. Majority of them were persons catapulted to the affluent society though marriage and were imbibed with a bourgeois perception and marked by a concern for material benefits and status. At the time it was abolished only about ten percent were outstanding but another ten percent were misfits. Others were mediocre and were known as shifters. That is shifting files from the in-tray to the out-tray and shifting loyalties with the change of political masters.
      At the time when the IAS of India was established it is known that the IAS resisted political intervention in the IAS status even by a person like Shri Nehru. But in SL the CCS was prepared to sell their souls for private gain.
      It is a myth that the CCS played a magnificent role in formulating programmes and determining policy issues. If that is so they should take the blame for the present bad governance and the slow progress of the country. If one looks at the key policy changes of SL the persons responsible were non CCS officials. The radical changes that were brought in the field of Agriculture, Agrarian Services and Cooperatives under Philip Gunawardhana were initiated by the economist G.V. S.de Silva. The concept of development planning was introduced by Gamini Corea and the new national institutions like the Peoples Bank and the Insurance Corporation were results of the efforts of Kelegama a non CCS person. There are many other examples but one cannot ignore the role of non CCS ST,Tillekeratne who played a lead role in the liberalization of the economy. Non CCS giants of the rime of technical departments such as Rampala, Kulasinghe and Silva Gunasekera were more efficient and effective than most Civil Servants of the time.

      Assumption 2. ”The strength of one’s mental and moral fibre may thus be measured through the academic test. ….
      Members of the administrative class have to possess these high attributes to command such moral authority. ….Intellectual ability, having academic performance as its index would be basic to such quality”
      The examination should be modeled exactly on the lines of the former Civil Service examination.”

      An academic test modeled on the former CCS examination is a very poor method of one’s mental strength and in the least moral fibre. These examinations were a measure of one’s ability to regurgitate the information gathered in the degree program. Anyhow this does not go beyond a measure of a candidate’s academic ability at a specific time of his life and on a given date.
      The CCS type of test does not measure the ‘emotional intelligence’, leadership qualities and integrity of a person.

      3. What is better is a Senior Management Service of persons of proven ability selected from all the Services in the State with at least 15 years of service. They should be persons who have demonstrated their competence as well as their commitment in their duties. It may be necessary to provide training in general management to officers selected from outside the Administrative Service. They should be made to specialize in areas of their strength after a few years.
      Senior Management Service should also be the pool for selecting the Heads of Public Corporations.

  • 0

    This was written 35 years ago. Much water has flowed under the bridge since. Time and events do render some past theses completely irrelevant for the present. This is one such.

    • 1

      “This is one such.”

      How would one understand contemporary with knowing the past history??

      Not in the west but may be in your ghetto.

      Go back to school putada pillai!

      • 0

        Thanks very much for your kind comment. It has made my day.

      • 0

        Hi Javi

        Thank you so much for your kind comment!
        You have made my day

  • 0

    Those were days…One Chief Clerk, Five filing clerks, two typists ( One English/One Sinhala, one stenographer ( English) and to help everyone keep up, a peon!!!!

    And now..we have MS Office and we have Director of BS, two Asst Directors of BS, one Dep. Asst Director of BS, Two Managers of BS, three Dept heads, NO clerks, NO typists, NO stenos and NO peons and no work gets done because there are no file!!!

    Has anyone wondered how all the Consultant Doctors who show up at Asiri, Durdans and Nawaloka ever show up for work in the government hospitals they get their salaries, perks and fellowships from. If one is Consulting between 8a-930am, then 1230-230pm and then again 5pm to 7pm, when the hell do you see your REAL patients???

    • 0

      Hospitals: Its called privatisation by stealth as is happening in the cash strapped west.

  • 0


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