By 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org