Colombo Telegraph

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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