By Austin Fernando –
We were ruled by the British through their administrative mechanism- the Ceylon Civil Service (CCS); of course engaging “imported” British civil servants. Since the Sri Lanka Administrative Service (SLAS) is the successor to the original British CCS and its domesticated CCS since Independence, one can trace its origins to 1802, the year the CCS was established by the British, though SLAS was established in 1963.
After Independence with some reforms the CCS carried on governing. However, with Independence public needs changed, less drastically due to prevailed economic stability- especially due to the Korean Boom. However, with the socio-political-cultural changes of 1956 and deflation of Korean Boom bubble, the demands on the government were diverted to welfarism with development.
With the 1956 political upheaval the parliamentarians and political activists changed in stature, experiences, sophistication and origins. Radhika Coomaraswamy quoting Professor AJ Wilson says that despite the fact that political leaders belonged to the well-educated elites, a fair number were “unsophisticated villagers who never used a cheque book in their lives or even knew what a bank account was…” Hence the post-Independence CCS administrators had to look forward for changes in administrative attitudes. It took a while to happen. I believe it was due to the elitist political leadership finding valued coinage in the CCS and the CCS-stalwarts’ hold on politicians, thus creating reduced enthusiasm to change administrative systems.
But this resistance and lack of political will to change was short-lived. The lower political hierarchies wanted change. They demanded a people friendly administration. The “Ejantha Hamuduruvo” (“Venerated Government Agent”) attitude had to change. The Gammuladeni (Village Headman) had to change. It wasn’t a wonder (as I learnt in Batticaloa as a Ceylon Administrative Service (CAS) probationer in 1967) when even a Minister had to seek an appointment to meet the Government Agent (GA) in early-fifties!
The raw-recruit CAS officers were sent to the districts as Divisional Revenue Officers (DROs), District Land Officers, Land Development Officers, Assistant Commissioners / Assistant Directors of various departments. Though the DROs’ Service was absorbed to SLAS, they were still called “DROs.” The DRO was a miniature CCS model, working mostly under CCS GA, later replaced by senior SLAS hands. However, the Ejantha Hamuduruvo feeling in the GAs and DROs was not totally extinct by 1967- especially in the public eyes. Subsequently this designation was revised to Assistant GA and Divisional Secretary. Their duties were mostly related to land, agriculture, food supply, provision of welfare / social services, disaster management etc. Some like me had the rare opportunity to learn work in “Un-policed DRO’s Divisions.”
Constitutional Amendments and SLAS
With pro-socialist ideology the 1972 Government though its Republican Constitution brought the civil service under Cabinet’s control, through Article 106: “(1) The Cabinet of Ministers shall be responsible for the appointment, transfer, dismissal and disciplinary control of state officers and shall be answerable therefore to the National State Assembly.” It repealed Article 60(1) of the 1946 Constitution: “The appointment, transfer, dismissal and disciplinary control of public officers is hereby vested in the Public Service Commission” (PSC).
The SLAS also underwent the effects of this provision and was subjected to politicization. On this effect on public service Professor KM de Silva has commented that “the Republican constitution moved away from an independent public service, but introduced a “spoils system.” We who received appointment from the PSC by registered post now see the how “spoils system” operates when SLAS officers receive their appointment letters! With initial politicization, the seniority or merit concern for higher level appointments then was overtaken by favoritism and political patronage.
From a politician’s viewpoint a powerful executive armed with a bureaucracy manned by sympathetic political cadres would have been ideal to implement a well-defined political party programme. In this background from 1972, SLAS officers had to be partners of implementation of the Land Reform Act of 1972, which attacked the privilege of land-holding. This was augmented by the Land Acquisition Act, which permitted the state to utilize private property for public purposes, and the Agricultural Productivity Act, which set productivity standards with the threat of confiscation. The GAs, Assistant Commissioners of Agrarian Services were mostly involved in these operations.
Slow encroachment of peoples’ participation was observed from 1972 afterwards when services of SLAS officers were taken to manage Local Government Institutions as Special Commissioners, when the elected political representatives faulted. It was repeated in cooperatives after consumer cooperatives were converted to Multi-Purpose Cooperatives in early seventies. Such involvements increased with passage of time and by now envelope all areas of administration, due to enhanced politicization by all successive governments.
SLAS officers had to live with the same Cabinet controlled status even after the Constitution passed in 1978 which vested “all the powers of appointment, transfer, dismissal and disciplinary control of public officers” in the Cabinet. [(Article 55(1)].
This government’s many integrated development projects like the Million Houses and Gam Udava Programmes were mostly implemented through the District Administration, preponderantly administered by SLAS officers. After 1977 with mega projects (e.g. Mahaveli) undertaken with huge foreign assistance, some functions that were the traditional/ legal forte of District Administration implemented through other line departments like Survey, Land Development, Land Commissioner’s etc. were taken-over by the Mahaveli Development Authority. These officials enjoyed higher pay, perks and were comparatively free to perform. Project Managers became Kings! Some SLAS officers joined them and added value to the projects.
However, there was exceptional performance that was exhibited by SLAS officers, carrying the government’s official fiat under severe duress during the long conflict. Special mention must be made of the SLAS officers from the North and East (e.g. Chief Secretary HM Herath, GAs M Anthonimutthu, V Panchalingam, M Macbool to name a few) who sacrificed their lives in the line of duty. As a retired SLAS officer who has worked with them I salute them on the 50- Year Celebration of SLAS.
The 13th Amendment opened new vistas for SLAS, and reference will be made later.
17th and 18th Amendments are two hackneyed constitutional provisions affecting administration. I do not wish to deal on their appropriateness. I may only mention that even with the weaknesses in the 17th Amendment it would have given a better deal to public service, inclusive of the SLAS, which the 18th Amendment nullifies.
Current demands on SLAS
There are many, but I will focus on a selected few.
The 13th Amendment to the Constitution was another which affected SLAS officers. It gave an opportunity for the SLAS officers to work under a devolved system. Though we have heard of a few conflicting situations (as in the North now) it must be appreciated some development has been achieved, as publicly stated by the Chairman of the Finance Commission. Making devolution meaningful is a top priority for the SLAS.
However, there had been opinions expressed even by the Secretary to the President that the Provincial Councils (PCs) are White Elephants, endorsed by senior politicians. These must be due to reported complaints of corruption and wastage. We need not condone them. I am also mindful of similar allegations against the center, which is not publicly accepted by superior state authorities, only orchestrated by the Opposition politicians for political advantages, well knowing they had skeletons in their cupboards too! However, in these circumstances it becomes an essential duty of SLAS officers in all PCs and Chief Accounting Officers at the center to ensure such criticism does not occur.
Another challenge is in the foreign direct and aided investment in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka expects billions of dollars invested in the future. The contribution in facilitating such development is in SLAS officers who serve the Ministries, PCs, departments like Local Government, Land Administration, Customs etc. They have to cooperate with the technocrats, financiers, environmentalists, private sector etc. to motivate, ease and promote development investment. This requires great leadership, strategy, tact and training, and knowledge on globalization.
The SLAS officers who looked after the humanitarian needs of the displaced, traumatized, affected for about 25 years in the North and East have now received the opportunity to develop these areas with state, international, non-governmental, private sector, Diaspora funding. Hence, development-oriented attitudinal focusing in the SLAS officers serving in North and East is demanded.
The managerial sciences have developed leaps and bounds during the last few decades. Obtaining a Masters in Business Administration or Public Administration by SLAS officers is insufficient. Whether such gained knowledge could be utilized for resource mobilization for greater good of the people, innovation, motivation, facilitating also the private sector, sustainable development and poverty alleviation is crucial.
Another area is the need to be E-Managers in E-Government. According to the President the E-knowledge which was about 5% in 2005 has increased to 35-40% by 2013. This calls SLAS to further focus on E-Government to promote more efficient, less time-consuming and cost-effective government, facilitate more convenient government services, allow greater public access to information, and make government more transparent and accountable to citizens. Initiatives taken in this regard by the Presidential Secretary are appreciated.
Though there is no public outcry, SLAS has subtle challenges- some caused by SLAS officers themselves. Recent reports on corruption, misbehavior (a few though) are quoted by critics. SLAS should be open to and faster in accumulating knowledge, maintaining integrity / discipline, innovating and modernizing. It is the way to counter competing services grabbing SLAS opportunities. It is time to do a serious SWOT Analysis and act, rather than to grumble of competitors.
I may only remind Peter Drucker who once wrote that those who identify the future challenges today and thus prepare themselves and organizations to face them will be the leaders and dominate tomorrow. I wish SLAS leaders would consider this seriously when celebrating 50 Years of SLAS and plan to face challenges. Best wishes!