By C. Narayanasuwami –
It is recognised that a well-functioning public administration is a prerequisite for transparent and democratic governance. An effective public administration determines a government’s ability to provide public services and foster the country’s development agenda and competitiveness at both central and provincial levels.
In today’s context, the barriers to a more effective and efficient public service are many. Firstly, even though there is awareness of the need to reform the public sector, there is a fear psychosis operating about public sector reforms. On several occasions in the past, efforts were made to document impediments to improved public service and make recommendations for restructuring and reorienting it. More often than not such recommendations were ignored or shelved because of negative feedback from public service associations or interference from vested interests. The last attempt was made during the government of Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2001-2004. A committee was appointed to make recommendations for reform of the public sector. Unfortunately, due to the premature dissolution of Parliament the process was not followed through. The Nineteenth Amendment and the new government that assumed power after 17th August 2015 could provide an impetus to renew efforts at public sector reform. It is understood that the government is currently thinking of establishing a committee to review public sector structures, salaries and cadres and make recommendations for reforms. Essentially, the reform process should examine the following with a view to making public administration in Sri Lanka dynamic and forward looking:
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 reemphasised 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 could 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.
Rigorous performance appraisals, which until recently were considered necessary components of a reformed public sector because of the inherent advantages that the system offers to evaluate strengths and weaknesses of staff, are now increasingly giving way to a dynamic and interactive process of continuing assessment of performance by superiors through assessment of outputs against targets set at the beginning of a year. The objective is to work together with staff in a cooperative manner to achieve targets and make them realise that interactive processes of performance assessment would replace annual performance appraisals.
Adoption of a systematic approach to provision of training to the different levels of staff based on priority needs identified through an agency’s long term objectives, and apparent weaknesses in performance observed through interactive processes. In particular, training needs have arisen in the areas of (i) project preparation and planning, (ii) project implementation and management, (iii) project monitoring and evaluation, and (iv) results-based management concepts. Public sector organisations should be held accountable for results and this would be possible only if public servants are fully conversant with results-based management concepts and accountability issues.
Provision of incentives/rewards to high performers among the public sector staff would help 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 should be based on judgments that reflect the integrity and impartiality of decision-makers.
The Role of Provincial Councils
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 programmes 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, particularly the Provincial Councils.
The Provincial Councils should not only have access to funding resources but should also have the capacity to assess needs, prepare programmes 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 and provide leadership training to implement specialised action programmes formulated in accordance with each provincial council’s development priorities. The private sector’s role in this regard also needs to be redefined in the context of the on-going emphasis given to greater private sector participation.
With regard to funding resources for provincial development initiatives, in addition to allowing collection of local taxes and subsidising through central government allocations, the key intervention should be to permit external assistance without conditions as long as the central government is privy to such arrangements. The Northern and Eastern Provincial Councils particularly, because of the significant damages both to property and lives caused by the thirty-year civil conflict, should be able to seek and obtain such funding externally with the concurrence of the central government. In order to ensure that there is legitimacy in the acquisition and use of such assistance, an action plan detailing investment priorities should be drawn up by the Provincial Councils.
The Need for Supplementary Management Techniques
It is difficult to transform overnight a public sector that became heavily dependent on political patronage to adopt systems and processes that are transparent, democratic, and results oriented. The key change should be to adopt a ‘can do’ approach to achieve intended objectives of the organisations the public servants work for. While efforts are made to change behavioural patterns and administrative methods and practices for transacting government businesses, simultaneous attention needs to be paid to create a body of independent, trained, and professionally competent people, who could act as a ‘think tank’ to (i) improve strategic planning methodologies, (ii) review and modify, if required, development proposals, and (iii) provide conceptual and advisory support for enhancing implementation, monitoring and evaluation processes for more effective realisation of outputs and outcomes envisaged during project or programme preparation. This raises the need to include both, ‘generalists’ and ‘specialists’ in the ‘think tank’; the generalists to understand and interpret issues from many sides, and the specialists to look at specific technical issues of central relevance to key departments and ministries.
The fundamental principle behind the creation of an additional team of ‘thinkers’ and ‘doers’ should be to recommend action plans based on the concept of doing things in the ‘public interest’. In doing things in the public interest it is inevitable that flexibility may be exercised and the principle of impartiality and independence may be compromised at least in part, as it happened in the UK during the last government under David Cameron. Previously, senior civil servants under the Labour government were under pressure to observe the principle of ‘duty to deliver’, which meant critiquing and analysing the merits and demerits of issues were of secondary importance. Such interpretations and flexibilities in decision-making and delivery of services are bound to occur in any democracy that is accountable to the people. But the major difference in all these interpretations is that there are no overt attempts to create a political culture of interference but isolated instances of administrative adjustments to cope with the needs of governance.
Another aspect that deserves consideration in the reform of public administration is the need to provide for checks and balances in the management of the public service. The concept of ‘Ombudsman’ adopted in many public sector institutions is considered appropriate in this regard because of the need to provide access to a redress mechanism for those who transact business with government institutions in the event of unfair and improper administrative decisions. As part of the reform process, reactivation of the institution of Ombudsman with more powers should be considered to ensure that the principles of fairness, impartiality, and integrity are integral to decision-making in the public service. The concept of Ombudsman is widely adopted in many developed countries, particularly the Nordic countries and countries such as Australia and New Zealand.
The Nineteenth Amendment cannot be considered a panacea for resolving the multitude of complex managerial issues that hampered good public administration over almost four decades, although it has reopened the doors for revitalising the spirit of good governance. The mechanisms of the Constitutional Council, the PSC, and the overall oversight by Parliament have all built into the system a semblance of fair play and justice in the recruitment, transfer, and disciplinary control of the public servants. But the extent to which the implementation of these mechanisms will prevent infringement of the principles of good governance will depend on the commitment and integrity of the Cabinet of Ministers and the President to uphold accepted norms and procedures of good management. The ultimate success in ensuring a depoliticised and transparent public service will depend on the manner in which the Constitutional Council exercises its powers in selecting and recommending Commissioners of proven integrity to the President. A question arises as to whether the role of the Constitutional Council should be further buttressed and safeguarded through a statutory provision requiring it to submit quarterly reports to the Parliament.
The lead given by the current government in conducting free and fair elections devoid of violence as well as the procedures adopted to investigate maladministration and abuses so far give credence to the belief that the principles of good governance are already in place and that the country could expect a more independent and impartial public administration. A recent editorial in The Sunday Observer (9th August 2015) summed up the current situation as follows, “It is the 19th amendment that restored power and administrative autonomy to the Elections Commissioner and his Department to a degree that he can notify the President – once the all-powerful office – and the President moves promptly to transfer a Ministry Secretary … Civil society groups must take note of all these little upsurges in good governance and civilized politics so creative inputs could be given to ensure that these are not momentary flashes but will become entrenched in institutions and ways of political life. Both politicians and government officials will need to absorb these ‘best practices’ as normal functions and not exceptional behaviour.” It is with such hope that the future of public administration should be viewed, especially because there is recognition that an efficient public service would be the key driver of good governance. It is expected that the constitution itself may undergo more changes emphasising further the principles of good governance. This may include checks and balances being restored to the management of public institutions and strengthening the powers of the PSC to withstand political pressures.
*C. Narayanasuwami – Member of the Former Ceylon Civil Service and retired Senior Professional of the Asian Development Bank, Manila , Philippines