16 May, 2022


Sri Lanka: The Destruction Of The Bureaucracy

 By R.M.B Senanayake

R.M.B. Senanayake

It was the Chinese who first realized the importance of a corps of learned men with technical knowledge to run the machinery of the State. They selected a cadre of learned persons on merit to man the State machinery. Such a corps of officials was called a bureaucracy by Max Weber. Plato has stated the case for a learned and wise ruler who he thought should be a philosopher. But Athens which was the first democracy where the people ran the affairs of the State- government by the people elected representatives to run the machinery of the State.  Even in a small City State like Athens it was not possible for the Assembly of the people to run the State. A set of officials was found necessary and the Athenians elected persons to run the state. They realized the danger of a permanent set of officials exercising power and introduced a system of rotation of officials who held office for a limited period only. But such a body of officials who rotated meant that they could not use their experience for the benefit of the State for with each rotation new persons were appointed as the officials who had to learn on the job but could not pass down their experience to the next set of officials. But if the set of elected persons appointed as officials were to serve permanently then they could not held accountable to the people. The Athenians realized that their people could be easily misled about the wisdom of decisions through mob orators who could mobilize people. So they exiled demagogues by sending them away to the islands and debarred them from returning. Our country is a paradise for mob orators today.

Freedom requires a buffer against the elected politician

The Romans too were conscious of the need for an efficient system of governance but they realized the threat of giving power to a Consul for a long time for to they would become dictators. Then in Britain the barons rose against the arbitrary rule of the king and in 1215 the barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta by which the King undertook to rule according to the law and to respect the freedom of the people. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 established the primacy of Parliament over the King.

But the King continued to appoint the officials who ran the State machinery. But the Parliament invoked a power to impeach officials who were acting against the interests of the people because of their loyalty to the King who appointed them. This uneasy situation continued into the 18th century. There was no democracy in the sense of government by the elected representatives of the people. But the British enjoyed the Rule of Law and personal freedoms. Democracy came after the freedom of the people and the Rule of Law were well established. The women were not given the franchise until the 19th century. This distinction between the Rule of Law and freedom on the one hand and the government by the elected representatives of the people on the other, evolved over two centuries. The ancient Athenians had seen the problem of having elected officials who governed the City State but who would disregard the freedom of the people. Their solution was the rotation of the personnel running the government.

The democratic governance model

A solution to this problem developed with the establishment of a permanent set of officials on merit who were expected to implement the laws of the country and provide a buffer to the politicians exercising power.  Britain was the first to establish a bureaucracy which governed according to law. To ensure accountability of these officials to the people they were made subject to the executive- firstly the King and later with the development of the constitutional monarchy the Prime Minister and the Ministers. The Ministers were to be confined to policy making while the implementation of policy was to be vested with the bureaucracy.  In Britain these relationships were left to conventions. Even up to the First World War this relationship had not come into force in USA where officials were appointed not on merit but on what came to be designated as the spoils system.   But two Presidents were assassinated by disappointed place seekers who had been overlooked. President Wilson realized the need for a competent body of officials to run the modern state which was complex unlike the State a few centuries earlier. There was the dire need for competent officials. A decision is technical if it has to be taken on the basis of modern scientific knowledge. Most decisions in government are of this mature. So President Wilson realized that the spoils system would not produce a competent bureaucracy in an age of modern technology.

Distinction between Policy and Administration

So he and theorists of Public Administration divided government into politics and administration. The elected politicians were to confine themselves to policy making while the detailed execution of policy was to be left to the bureaucracy. It was however realized that some in society would resort to political influence to obtain appointments in the public service and some of those already appointed would use political influence to further their careers. But this would militate against the development of a technically competent body of officials with the necessary expertise.  If such a competent bureaucracy was to be established then the principle of a meritocracy had to be established. The appointments, promotions and transfers in the public service had to be ring fenced from the interference by politicians. The mechanism was to be the independent Commission to carry out the function of appointments, promotions and transfers in the public service.

But what then should be the role of the elected representatives? The convention developed that they should confine themselves to policy making leaving the running of the departments to the Secretary or Permanent Secretary who was to be an experienced career official well versed in administration and management. He was also expected to be equipped with the knowledge of the work of the departments although it was difficult to get a combination of an expert in the subject who was also a competent manager. So the British colonial government had a senior administrative service called the Ceylon Civil Service.

These relationships between the top officials and the President and Ministers of the Executive branch were largely the result of experience. They are contained in Conventions rather than in laws or regulations. But Canada and New Zealand have enacted some written rules on the subject.

Here are the written rules from the Cabinet of New Zealand

Roles and responsibilities

3.5 Ministers decide both the direction and the priorities for their departments. They should not be involved in their departments’ day-to-day operations. In general terms, Ministers are responsible for determining and promoting policy, defending policy decisions, and answering in the House on both policy and operational matters. Officials are responsible for:

  1. supporting Ministers in carrying out their ministerial functions;
  2. serving the aims and objectives of Ministers by developing and implementing policy and strategy; and
  3. implementing the decisions of the government of the day.

Ministers’ relationships with chief executives

3.6 The formal relationship between Ministers and the public service is governed primarily by the State Sector Act 1988 and the Public Finance Act 1989. The relationship is also governed by convention, key aspects of which are set out in this chapter”

The decline and fall of the Public Service.

After 1956 our country was saddled with a set of elected representatives who were backwoodsmen. They were not sufficiently educated but wanted to exercise power – executive power quite outside their role as legislators. They wanted to exercise power at the district level. They could hardly contribute to the legislative process given their lack of education and sophistication. So they began dictating to the officials and when such officials did not oblige them they moved the Prime Minister to have them transferred. Soon there was chaos in the district administration. The SLFP under Sirimavo thought of regularizing this exercise of power without responsibility and instituted the office of District Political Authority. The Sirimavo government instead of realizing the need for decentralization of authority sought to sanction the MPs exercise of power. The Leftists realized the trend and wanted to hasten the process so that the administration would collapse of its own weight and they could take over power without a bloody revolution. So in the 1972 Constitution they threw out the institution of an independent Public Service Commission. The PSC was made subject to the Cabinet of Ministers- a collective body good for decision making but bad for executive actions. When President J.R. Jayawardene took office he continued with this subordination of the PSC to the elected Ministers and the President. He tried to ring fence the Police from the elected MPs but without an independent PSC which was then the appointing authority for the Police as well, he failed to do so.

Public spirited persons and the Organization of Professional Associations sought to restore the independence of the Public Service Commission, the Judicial Service Commission, the Elections Commission and the Police Commission. They succeeded because of the division of the political parties in the Parliament. They succeeded but their success was short lived. The present regime has done away with the Independent Commissions and today we have a politically affiliated public service lacking in competence  and a  Judicial Service servile to the authorities. This situation is not conducive to the maintenance of freedom, the Rule of Law or good governance. Further in the modern age this system based not on a meritocracy but on political affiliation and loyalty cannot produce efficient and competent government either. So the system will sooner or later produce a failed state along with the loss of freedom and the Rule of Law.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Thank you Mr.Senanayake for the great article.

    Yes we need a new direction of Economic and Political Administration of Sri Lanka.


    It is these Astrologers who advise President on which finance deal is successful,how the budget should allocate funds, or which Project is most profitable and I guess both Norochcholai coal power plant, Hambanthota Harbour and the Mattala Airport have a hand on these Astrologers.

    Also President go by the Astrological times to have the best auspicious times to win Elections and has many times mentioned about it. Hope you have seen the “Yakada kella”….iron piece he carries in his hand which may have divine powers……….but with electricity price hike to the country.

    If you remember how one of the President’s Astrologers who was appointed to the Director board at The National Savings Bank who advised it to purchase shares of Bankrupt The Finance Company, and as a result how ex. CJ’s husband Pradeep Kariyawasam had to quit his job and fell into trouble.

    Please read the following web.

    Our country went to dogs after Independence due to Ninety Percent (90%) of absolute uneducated Villege Bandas selected and sent villege Gamaralas to the Parliament. Even President’s farther was a Gamarala, plucked by SWRD Bandaranaike. Still many of these Gamaralas who are in Parliament don’t even have a basic GCE OL certificate and now who are incharge of all the Loss making corporations. My servent will do a much better job running corporations than these corrupt baboons.

    What I suggested even earlier was that with a board of Twenty (20) highly qualified Professionals and their advisory staff who should have knowledge in Economic and Finance, Business and Marketing, Engineering and Medicine, Statistics and Investments, Foreign relations and Geography, environmental Research and development,Agriculture and Industry, Transport, Civil, ports development and security, Human rights and Personal Management knowledge, COULD RUN THE WHOLE COUNTRY AND COULD TURN AROUND IT RAPIDLY FOR BETTER.SUCH A BEAUTIFUL AND RESOURCEFUL COUNTRY BEEN RUINED BY AN ABSOLUTELY CORRUPT VICIOUS SNAKE.

    Remember Toyota Company alone has their turnover 5 times that of our GDP which run by highly competitive executive staff. Not the Grade 9 educated Astrologers and Gamaralas.

    The more earlier we get rid of the Parliament, the more better for us.

    Why Rajapakses needed another Embassy in Kampala, Uganda when we already have a full-fledged Embassy in Nairobi Kenya (where I have been staying for over six months and know the whole environment), which is only 300 miles from Kampala is anybody’s guess. We hardly have any Sri Lankans working in Uganda while we have over 65 Embassies throughout the world. What do those Embassies do to us is anybody’s guess.

    I see only two reasons to why Rajapakses opened an Embassy in Kampala Uganda and the reasons are ugly.

    Please keep writing to both Educated masses to brainstrom them and to the uneducated to open their eyes and to enlighten them.

    Good luck.

  • 0

    The educated intellectuals have abdicated their responsibility and become the servile bootlickers of the political masters. Politicians are now elevated to the level of mini dictators running around in SUV’s with cell phones in hand. The Police from IGP downwards are at their beck and call. The Judiciary has been beaten into submission. It now requires a call from a politician to postpone a case or to allow bail. Criminals are set free while innocent taken into custody without charges.

    The professionals and intellectuals have surrendered their lives and intellect to the political masters. The OPA passes resolutions praising or supporting the govt. The IESL plays it safe with many Govt contracts at stake for its members. The ICA remains beholden to the Govt and UDA. The GMOA strikes only to obtain its pound of flesh. SLAS is now full of Govt sycophants who are the ruin of good governance and an epitome of corruption.

    Such is the state of the intelligentsia in the country. Having benefited from the free education system, heavily subsidised by the people of the country, they now sit back and charge thundering fees from their benefactors. They remain silent on many national issues since they are not much affected. They are quite satisfied as they benefit from all the duty free schemes, scholarships and tax concessions given by the govt. Even if the entire country is ruined they will not bother as they can always migrate to better climes.

  • 0

    I knew RMBS as a high official at AIR CEYLON. Staff didnt have a favourable opinion about his capabilities.

    • 0

      But, you had an old ruckus on him is pretty sure to yourself.

  • 1


    Yes, the destruction of our excellent Civil Service & it’s successor Administrative service has been a tragedy. I was happy to read about the tie-up with a leading University in Singapore to train the people required by the Finance Ministry & the Central Bank.

    Independent Commissions mentioned in the 17th Amendment need to re-introduced in a workable manner, before investing in training & development of others.

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