By Sanjeewa Jayaweera –
Andrew Fidel Fernando in his book titled “Upon a Sleepless Isle” writes as follows “Even if you had the financial means to inspire a government worker out of apathy, incompetence would form a second barrier. Many Sri Lankan bureaucrats are unable to handle more than one piece of information at a time, forget more than one task. And they are incapable of acting with speed. Dressed in her gorgeous sari the women occasionally rose to fetch files from a wooden drawer in the opposite corner of the room, but she might have lost a foot race to a millipede. The man by the entrance had one form to stamp but spent an enterprising five minutes looking for the ink pad, which he eventually discovered under a file about a foot from his face. In a way, it is a good thing these people were born in modern-day Sri Lanka, for what other job in human history would have tolerated them?”.
In another paragraph, he states “It is as if Sri Lanka’s bureaucrats followed an alternate course of evolution. Having come to life in a primordial soup of bribes, backhanders, and political favours, these folks have, over billions of years, become perfectly adapted to raising the blood pressure of their patrons”.
Fernando has in his inimitable style captured the feeling we all have about Sri Lanka’s bureaucrats. Only a minuscule of public servants who currently serve this country can be compared to those who served this country with dedication, honesty, and competence until about fifty years ago.
It is estimated that currently there are approximately 1,500,000 public sector employees when the need is for only around 800,000. As per the Central Bank Annual Report 2018 Expenditure analysis, a sum of Rs. 626 Billion was incurred as payment of Salaries and Wages to public sector employees whilst an additional sum of Rs. 194 Billion was the cost of pension payments to 622,508 pensioners. Government servant salaries and wages and pensions account for nearly 43% of the total revenue of the government.
Presently several state sector employees from Railway workers to Medical Doctors to Teachers to Executive Grade public servants and many others are engaged in industrial action demanding further increments whilst causing immense hardship to the very people who are paying taxes to employ them!. The proposed salary increase is estimated to cost an additional Rs. 200 Billion: money that the country cannot afford.
It is totally unacceptable that Railway employees are engaged in strike action when drivers and guards are reported to be earning a monthly salary inclusive of various allowances in excess of Rs. 250,000/-. I recently met a 24-year-old technician presently employed in Railways who had resigned from the private sector job he had in order to enhance his technical knowledge. Given that he had previously worked in the Middle East, Bangladesh and Myanmar, I can vouch for the fact that he is not a shirker. He lamented about his decision to join the Railways as he stated that no knowledge enhancement takes place as there are nearly 4 people for each job position, courtesy of various politicians granting jobs in excess of the requirement. He said that there is absolute lethargy with many engaged in either playing cards or sleeping during work hours. In addition, most of them stop work at 3 p.m. to have a shower before heading home despite the fact that they are supposed to work till 4.30 p.m.
The medical profession is no better. Despite receiving high salaries inclusive of allowances, the ability to engage in private practice and beneficiaries of tax-free vehicle imports every 5 years they deem that strike action causing immense suffering and hardship to those who are sick is justifiable. This is despite their university education having been funded by the very same taxpayers whom they are inconveniencing.
Those who are employed at institutions such as Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, Ceylon Electricity Board and Customs all of which are critical to the daily functioning of the country are not too reluctant to flex their muscles either in terms of industrial action when necessary to obtain salary increments.
We have had successive governments lacking in courage and will, caving into these unreasonable demands time and again. If this country is to dig ourselves out of the hole we have created then we need to have a President and a Government with the courage and the will to decree that no industrial action whatsoever will be permitted by state sector employees as all such are “essential services”. In the event of any industrial action all such employees are deemed to have vacated post and will lose their jobs as well as their pension rights. In the interim the armed forces of the country need to be trained to take over these functions other than as medical doctors. I am quite confident that no strikes will take place if the government is to pass the necessary legislation and thereafter implement those rules.
Whilst we bemoan of the lack of capability and integrity amongst our Politicians there is no doubt that there is a compelling need for a complete overhaul of the public sector too. I recently watched a video on YouTube of the questioning of the senior management of the People’s Bank by the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE). A significant portion of the video related to questions being asked as to why despite previous instructions by COPE, the former General Manager (GM) of the Bank had been granted a service extension of six months resulting in an additional salary cost of Rs. 15 million and as to why the retiring GM was allowed to take 2 vehicles home when it should have been only 1.
The responses received from the Chairman of the Board of Directors of People’s Bank and the former Chairman of the Bank who incidentally was also the Defense Secretary on 21st April 2019 and the current General Manager of the Bank was shocking and hilarious. Having worked in the private sector for over 25 years, I can guarantee that even a junior executive of a private company would not have given such responses. To say that they were idiotic would be charitable. When asked by the COPE Chairman Sunil Handunneththi as to why two vehicles were given to be taken away, the new GM stated that “We have not informed him officially that he is entitled to take away two vehicles”. The COPE Chairman then retorted back saying “In that case why did you allow him to take away two vehicles?”. The response from the GM was “We will try to get back one of the vehicles”.
When COPE Chairman questioned as to why the digitization project of the bank has exceeded the original budget of Rs. 750 million to a current figure of Rs. 2 billion the former Chairman of the Bank, Mr. Hemasiri Fernando stated that no one at the Bank at a senior level including at Board level had any knowledge about Information Technology and that they depended on the Chief Information Officer (CIO), who now stands accused of fraud, to authorize all payments. It was unfortunate as to why the COPE members did not pose a follow-up question as to why the Board of Directors were not aware that the total cost incurred had exceeded Rs, 2 Billion when the original budget was only Rs. 750 million. In the company I worked at every Board meeting the CEO and CFO would need to submit a board paper indicating the actual cost incurred against the budget along with a project update. If that simple discipline was followed the Chairman and the Board would have been aware when the budgeted amount was exceeded and taken appropriate action to prevent further losses.
It was patently clear to me as a viewer of the video that based on the responses given by the senior management staff of People’s Bank including the Chairman, Director and GM that there is a significant shortfall/gap in areas of key managerial skills and competencies required to be in charge of a bank in which ordinary citizens have deposited their hard-earned monies. For the record as of 31 December 2018 as per the Annual Report of People’s Bank the total deposits from customers amounted to nearly Rs.1.5 trillion.
Whilst watching this incompetent performance by People’s Bank Officials, I recalled in 2003 when working as the Chief Financial Officer of several companies in the John Keells Group, we decided to train several unemployed graduates for a period of 12 months under a programme called “Tharuna Aruna”. This programme was mooted by the Government in power to give private-sector training and exposure to approximately 2,000 unemployed graduates. I supported the initiative despite misgivings from my staff. The three graduates who were assigned to me found it extremely hard to integrate themselves into the work culture that required timely attendance, accuracy of work and meeting deadlines. At the end of the 12-month internship, we were told to absorb all competent trainees under this scheme as permanent employees. I decided to offer one of the graduates a permanent job and I thought he would be filled with joy to join the largest business conglomerate in Sri Lanka. To my utter shock I was told “Sir, are you crazy, I can’t work under this pressure. I have already applied and got a job as a teacher in a school in Mahiyangana where there will be no work pressure and also I will be entitled to a pension!”.
I believe that just about sums up the problem we face with Sri Lankan Bureaucrats!