7 October, 2022


Some Thoughts On Good Governance & Public Service Orientation

By C. Narayanasuwami

 C. Narayanasuwami

C. Narayanasuwami


Governance in broad terms encapsulates the importance of transparency, predictability, accountability, stakeholder participation, rule of law, anticorruption, independence of judiciary and media freedom, among others. Sri Lanka has suffered substantially in upholding many of these values in recent years largely due to the adoption of undemocratic and often ill-conceived policies and practices in implementing varied development programs. The determination of the new Government to overcome these tendencies forebodes well for the future of the country. This brief note tries to capture some of the priorities underscored in the 100 days program and evaluates the need to address some fundamental issues affecting the public service.

The efforts already taken to address blatant violations of the rule of law, including arbitrary removal of the former chief justice, civil and military restrictions placed on the former Army Commander and restrictions placed on media freedom, are welcome steps which should be further strengthened with more rigorous efforts aimed at improving transparency in the maintenance of law and order, banishing the cult of impunity that prevailed for so long and dedicated efforts to ensure effective administration of the principles of natural justice. Crucial to strengthening governance will inevitably have to go beyond the repeal of the 18th Amendment to the constitution and establishment of independent commissions as proposed, namely, a Judicial Services Commission, a Police Commission, a Public Service Commission, an Election Commission, a Commission against Bribery and Corruption, an Audit Service Commission and a Human Rights Commission, although this would undoubtedly set the pace and direction for moving towards a transparent and democratic process of governance. The effectiveness of these commissions however, would largely depend on the selection of commissioners who have a proven record of integrity and honesty and demonstrated ability to act with impartiality and fairness in adjudicating on cases.

The strength of commissions to act with due diligence and propriety would also be defined by the calibre of staff attached to work in these commissions. It is in this respect much needs to be done to restore people’s confidence in the public service which has eroded over time due to a variety of reasons within and outside the control of the public service. A relook at the public sector is considered appropriate at this juncture.

Public Sector

The public sector 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 percent of development projects have failed to achieve their intended objectives within the stipulated time frames 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:

(i) Organisations at central level do 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.

(ii) The rigidity of existing policy and implementation structures do not lend themselves to change in line with emerging needs.

(iii) Plurality of institutions and overlapping roles make decision making difficult.

The factors that have contributed to decline in capacity levels include 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 polticisation of the public sector 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 programs. Capacities were determined not on the basis of performance appraisals but on the basis of a public servant’s political affiliations and beliefs.

In as much as there were no reward systems based on performance there had also been no systematised approaches to adopting punitive measures against those who under performed. 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 demoralization 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 Sri Lanka 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 work force 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 emphasized 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 as one of its first initiatives increased the salaries of public servants 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 working force 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 thirty 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.

A Case for Reorienting the Public Service

The need to reorient the public service has been recognized more than ever before. A reform agenda should ideally consist of the following:

  • Redeployment of superfluous staff in ministries and departments- the criteria for determining excess staff have to be worked out in consultation with key ministries and departments. Various approaches to staff reallocation and redeployment could be considered; viz, (i) there are time honoured performance standards which could be reemphasized in redeploying staff, (ii) those who are closer to retirement may be given “golden handshakes” with attractive benefit packages, (iii) voluntary retirement may also be encouraged to enable those unwilling or ill-prepared to conform to performance standards, (iv) some items of work could be outsourced to retired staff or private sector entities pending new recruitment and (v) new recruitment procedures should be enunciated giving emphasis to competence, qualifications and integrity issues.
  • Introducing systems to measure performance through a results-based management system. This system essentially defines objectives, outlines responsibilities and assesses performance based on outputs anticipated at every milestone of activity. Such a system helps ensure delivery of outputs in a timely and cost effective manner.
  • Performance appraisals should be considered a necessary component of a reformed public sector because of the inherent advantages that the system offers to evaluate strengths and weaknesses of staff.
  • Adoption of a systematic approach to provision of training to the different levels of staff based on priority needs identified through annual performance appraisals. In particular, training should be provided in the areas of (i) project preparation and planning, (ii) project implementation and management, (iii) project monitoring and evaluation and on (iv) results-based management concepts. Public sector organizations should be held accountable for results and this would be possible only if public servants are fully conversant with results-based management concepts.
  • Provision of incentives/rewards to high performers among the public sector staff would help to uplift the morale and enthusiasm and contribute to enhanced performance. Lack of such a system has often been highlighted as one of the factors contributing to less than satisfactory performance.

The role of the public sector in Sri Lanka to accelerate development would increase substantially in the future consequent to increased economic activity. Capacity to absorb increased aid would be largely dependent on the extent to which public service reforms are carried out, including the introduction of new results based procedures and processes for enhanced decision making, and commitment to deliver. Decision making must be devoid of political patronage and should be based on judgments that reflect the integrity and impartiality of decision makers.

While a reformed public sector would pay dividends in the long term, immediate attention may need to be focused on improving the capacity of devolved provincial entities to carry out the programs of reconstruction, reconciliation and development. It would be essential to ensure that competent staff whose credentials have been suitably tested for achieving desired implementation outcomes are transferred to devolved entities.

Role of Provincial Councils

The Provincial Councils should not only have access to funding resources but should also have the capacity to assess needs, prepare programs of action and implement, monitor and evaluate them in due time. A major intervention in this respect would be to look at the current structure and capacity dimensions of the public service at provincial levels. The reform agenda should examine the staffing capacity of public sector entities at the provincial level and appropriate interventions should be made to provide leadership training to implement specialised action programs formulated to enhance development activities in the war torn areas of the north and east. The private sector’s role in this regard also needs to be redefined in the context of changed circumstances.


In the ultimate analysis, good governance and development would depend on the quality, integrity, commitment and dedication of the public service which has the overall task of implementing development programs for reconstruction and development at both central and provincial levels. The initiative taken to uplift the morale of the public service through sizable salary increases in the recent budget should be accompanied by the introduction of incentive/reward systems that acknowledge superior performance and increased productivity.

*The writer – Member of the Former Ceylon Civil Service and retired Asian Development Bank Professional, could be reached at cvnam@optusnet.com.au

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  • 1


    Modiji , Avarkalukku / Esqr

    We the people of Jaffna welcome you, to the parched land, That was site of Modern Kurushatra, which witnessed 30 years of Battle, in the 21st century.

    The theater is which you are now, was the site of Modern Maha Baratha, Ramayana, Silapathikaram. These epics were given by India to the world of literature. Nuances of dharma, and karma, art of living and the role of various persons, functionaries and establishments, for righteous living and good governance were the bed rock of these literatures. What are the repercussions and manifestations, that arise, due to failures of adherence of values, morals, Dharma and consequences due to non adherence to Karma and its connected effects.

    The Yarlppanam witnessed and world watched all.

    The eternal absolute truth, told and retold and lived by great personalities , manifestations, like lord Krishna, Lord Buddha, Jesus Christ, Mohamed Nabi,
    Pronouncements, of these eternal truths, manifested and was lived by the soul of Jaffna.

    We welcome you, as a symbolical friend of the great Barath, India, which taught, the universality of self, the ultimate reality of vasudeva Kudumbakam.

    The tiny dot, on the globe, Jaffna, which reached every nook and corner of the globe, always has the habit and warmth of heart, to welcome everyone.

    The great Saints like Babaji, who meditated in Kathiragama, where Lord Muruga, eternally captivated by Valli Amma by love. Rama Landed in Lanka and took back Sitha.

    Lord Buddha , disciples of Lord Buddha, Mahinda and Sangamitha, landed in Mathakal, Manimekali at Nagathivu (Nagadeepa). Saint Thirugnna sampanthar and saint Arunakiri, sang on lord Shiva and Murugan

    The Aathi Guru of Jaffna, Kadaiyit swami, who was a judge of the Bangalore court, threw his worldly job and wealth, came and lived in Jaffna, and so many souls were enlightened.

    Swami Vivekananda, manifestation of ultimate reality of universe and oneness of Brahman, the essence and substance of Indian thought of wisdom, was welcomed with all grandeur, pomp & glory.

    The modern days of Jaffna, had witnessed the visit of Mahatma Gandhiji, Rabindranath Tagore, Rajendra Pirasad and Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, Presidents of India. They were very spiritual in nature, had the humility and humbleness to visit, the great sage yoga swami, (who was spiritually initiated by gaze of Swami Vivekananda, initially, to grow, glow, like the radiant morning sun. They all had prostrated in front of the living, Lord Shiva, Yogar Swami , at that time in his small cadjan koddil (shed)

    The soul of Jaffna welcomed, these great souls/personalities with the fullness of heart.

    We welcome you paying homage and prayers to all these great personalities
    All will crumble. Corps will be everywhere, Everything will be destroyed, No lights will flicker anywhere for fifty miles. After that, everything will be fine, and great things will happen and glory and greatness will descend and dawn (1950/1960)

    Mahakavi Subramaniya Barathy addressed / praised his guru in his poem, as Kuvalayathin Vili Poonra Yarlppanathan. His guru – Arulampalam swami, hailed from Jaffna, was an eye for the world /Globe/Universe.

    In that power of spiritual concurring, might of love, we welcome you sir, to this tiny speak of land mass.

    Jaffna is always a spiritual fountain.

    Chanting the names with reverence and homage to all these saints , sages and great personalities, who had beautified, enriched, developed, guided the beautiful Jaffna, We welcome you, With that hope, trust and faith of time surpassed wisdom

    We welcomed , Abdul Kalam not as a king or manifestation of power, but a personality of knowledge & wisdom, love, simple sweetness, humility, not succumbed to greed of power, or vices of immorality, but personification of truth ,love and renunciation.

    In that name of values and greatness of Dharma, we welcome you.
    Jaffna had witnessed, once Governor ruler of Sri Lanka, Lord Soulbary, whose son Ramson, and the great Subramaniya Sivaya Swami (adopted, christened name ) of Saiva Siddantha church, Hawai, surrendered everything, to the spiritual Himalayas, yoga Swami of Jaffna.

    Jaffna welcomed all. We welcome you Sir,

    Hon Srimavo Bandaranayaka’s crown, was made to role by enactment, engineered in Colombo , made as a person of non grata, by designs of power. She was welcomed and crowned, with torrential shower of love , by people of Jaffna, in spite of all obstacles and consequent repercussions.

    When the above enactment, episode happened, she stood defenseless, in parliament of Sri Lanka. where hundreds heckled, ridiculed insulted. Her party men and others were benumbed and were seated silently. She was defended singly , standing in the well by Mr. Amirthalingam in the true spirit of Jaffna. Every one were wonder struck , on his defense dexterity on that day.

    We welcome you, sir, with that spirit of defending the defenseless.

    So many had come, so many had lived, so many had ruled. All will have to go , one day. We had witnessed so many events and episodes.The history had recorded. We have to live with certain norms of values, culture adhering to eternal truth, for us to progress, spiritually, which, Aadhi Shankaracharya preached in Vivekasoodamani. The Great Sri Sankara Aachariyar, who taught spiritual wisdom, guides the world for Conflict free and progress of humanity. This is the Essence of Indian thought of spiritual wisdom.

    We welcome you, based on that philosophy of universal consciousness.

    In that spirit of reverence to all sages, saints, Rishis, and erudite men of boundless wisdom personalities,

    we welcome you with warmth of heart, and reverence.

    We welcome to you, welcome to the simple abode site of simple people,

    Though Jaffna is a nano particle in relativity of size, power, wealth and other worldly dimensions, and definitions of vocabularies, the soul, will glow and grow to eternity, which will make men and women of wisdom, to reflect, admire, and surrender to that soul.

    Surpassing the time tunnel

    Wisdom anchored on the guidance and trust on divinity of lord Murugan/Karthigeyan of Great Nallur, In that trust, hope, and prayers Yarlppanathan had lived and living.

    We welcome you to this Land of Jaffna,
    We welcome you sir, and
    Welcome all, forever.

    Dr.K.Sivam 13 -03-2015

    • 1

      Dear Dr. Sivam,
      Very pertinent remarks. I am particularly pleased with your reference to the sages and mysticism of ‘ Old Yarlpanam’.
      What Yoga Swami prophesied has unfolded to the world. We are now on the path to recovery as also prophesied by him.

      Good governance in the north, to the extent possible under the 13th amendment should come from the NPC. The critical issues facing the people- displacenent, unemployment, under employment and poverty – should be tackled by the NPC through programs that empower them. Large sections of the Tamils have become dependent on charity and this has become a bad habit. It has weakened the sturdy self respect that was the hallmark of the Tamil man. Now they have been made the likes of Scrooge, who always demanded more. In this case charity!

      Issues relating to agriculture, agricultural product marketing, value addition to agricultural and fisheries products, water resource enhancement and management, estastablishment of small and medium industries, greater community engagement in education and teaching Tamil as a language better, should engage the immediate attention of the NPC.

      The NPC should formulate a six-month action plan, based on specific targets to deal with the above issues. This action plan should be adopted and executed by the NPC with the assistance of the central government. It should also receive wide publicity and every target achieved or work done to achieve it, should be made known to the people. Passing meaningless and purposeless resolutions is stupid. It is time the TNA and the NPC it dominates show the Tamils, the rest of Sri Lanka and the world that they are capable of DOING something, beyond sloganeering.

      Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. This is what the people want. This is good governance.
      Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

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