Can bureaucrats say no to politicians? The jury is out…

21 September 2017 12:00 am - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


The forthrightness that is usually forthcoming from the old guard of our civil servants may have disappeared for good

I wonder how many of our Secretaries today understand the meaning behind the title Chief Accounting Officer (CAO)

During the past ten to fifteen years, the petty bourgeoisie was visibly impatient

The case against Lalith Weeratunga and Anusha Palpita has now been  closed, at least until the appeal is taken up by a higher judicial  court. 

“Dictators, unlike Democrats, depend on a small coterie to sustain their power. These backers, generally drawn from the military, the senior civil service and family or clan members, have a synergistic relationship with their dictator. The dictator delivers opportunities for them to become rich, and they protect him from being overthrown”.
 ~Bruce Bueno de Mesquita  

This column is a sequel to my last column which went under the headline ‘Politicians beware! No bureaucrat will carry out your illegal orders…’ In response to that column, a highly respected former civil servant, whom for our convenience, I will call Mr. X, exchanged emails with me and he even gave me his consent, if I desired so, to quote him. His remarks are quite enlightening and at the same time depressing given the institutionalized hazards present in today’s Government machinery. In the context of two significant Government servants, one, former Secretary to President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the other Director General of Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC), being found guilty by Colombo High Court and sentenced to 3 years rigorous imprisonment and a collective fine of 106 million rupees, the comments and observations rendered by an honest and efficient civil servant are indeed fitting and striking.  

This civil servant’s insight into the intricate issues associated with expanding Government structures and political decisions taken during the last two decades to include unessential functions is laudable. He also pointed out that the system was bereft of the required administrative, professional, academic know-how and capacity. He also touched on the increasing influence of Government servants on the daily lives of citizenry. According to this source, he along with some of his close associates, who held significant offices in years gone by in the same Ministries, submitted a detailed communiqué to the highest in the land.  But their attempts didn’t bear fruit as they were believed to have gone over the heads of those who were responsible in making such groundbreaking decisions. Truly worthwhile input from those who produced extraordinary results during their time in the eighties, (‘80s) went abegging!  

That is to digress from the central theme. The case against Lalith Weeratunga and Anusha Palpita has now been closed, at least until the appeal is taken up by a higher judicial court. However, the forthrightness that is usually forthcoming from the old guard of our civil servants may have disappeared for good. That indeed is a sad and tragic spectacle. Yet to lay the blame solely on our civil servants might not be right. Nevertheless, both Lalith Weeratunga and Anusha Palpita are absolutely guilty as sin is beyond question. If one would remember the television and radio interviews Lalith Weeratunga readily participated in during his heyday, one would have certainly detected a tone of unusual loyalty towards his Master. This unusual loyalty bordering on meek subservience is an insult to the high office of Secretary to President.  

Secretary to any Ministry isn’t merely a yes-man’s job. The ex-civil servant told this writer,  “Ministry Secretaries are required under the Constitution to serve under the ‘direction of the Minister’; but this is very vague; the boundaries are not defined. The public perception is and even officials think that if the Minister gives an order ‘in writing’ the officer must carry it out. That is not so and I have never asked my Ministers for orders in writing just to safeguard myself because I felt the responsibility is mine. I recall there was a case where late Tissa Abeysekera, a talented artiste, as Chairman of the Film Corporation carried out a written directive from the Minister and had to pay back out of his poor pocket as the directive itself was illegal or irregular. The strength and independence of a Ministry Secretary rests not so much in the Constitutional appointment, but his position as Chief Accounting Officer which the Minister can’t meddle with. This is why there is often room for tension between the Minister and the Secretary.”

I wonder how many of our Secretaries today understand the meaning behind the title Chief Accounting Officer (CAO). As a matter of fact, that is the most vital function that a Secretary performs in his capacity as Secretary- Chief Accounting Officer. Politicians come and politicians go. But the civil service and its bearers remain and they are part of the ‘permanent Government’, the ones who implement the policies so decided by the politicians. In that exercise of power, that of being Chief Accounting Officer, Secretaries are totally independent and they are the ones who have to answer to their official masters and Public Service Commission. If and when their political heads give illegal, Irregular or unlawful orders, whether orally or in writing, the bureaucracy should exhibit some sense of independence; they must show some sense of guts and spine to say no. There is an enormous amount of character and spirit embedded in the word ‘no’. As much as a pretty damsel says ‘no’ to a rapist, as much as a battered wife says ‘no’ to a lunatic husband and as much as belittled junior worker says ‘no’ to the harassment of a senior manager, the civil servant who holds immense power and influence over the disbursement of government finances must display that grain of character to say ‘no’ to his political head’s illegal, immoral and irregular orders and instructions. In that simple word ‘no’, he is carrying the weight and burden of his office; in that word he is communicating to his superiors that there are boundaries to power, boundaries beyond which no person, whether an ordinary parliamentarian, Minister, Prime Minister or President dare step in to.  

This fundamental principle of official decorum, this basic element of bureaucratic norm must be maintained at all costs, even at the risk of his position. Mr. X, the civil servant who communicated with me, further said: “We are aware of many instances when senior public officers have stood up to Ministers and have had to leave their positions. Unfortunately, though there are others willing to fill the vacuum; this is probably why many administrative positions are now filled by academics and scientists who can perform a more useful service in their own fields. The Sil Redi judgment is a land mark judgment since it highlights all these issues and is now turned into a political and public issue unfortunately”.

He reiterates his argument further: “When the current administration started investigating serious financial frauds and crimes, I always held the view that the investigators must first take on the public officials who carried out the illegal orders; then only if they speak the truth that one could go after the masters, for the masters in due course will always put the blame on the Chief Accounting Officer (AO)/Accounting Officers (AO) as has happened in several cases. The Sil Redi case is only the first of such massive frauds committed on the poor of this country who will eventually bear the cross”. Words of wisdom!  

In the mad rush to make a ‘fast buck’, our politicos have tended to gain control over the country’s finances; this has resulted in an expansion of Government involvement in varied fields in which the necessary professional know-how and capacities are woefully lacking. When one couples that uncontrolled pursuit of Government expenditure with lack of knowledge and professional prowess, one invariably ends up with corruption at the highest levels of office. Both politicians and officialdom have fallen prey to this vicious process.  
Commenting on civil servants of yesteryear and the necessary self-imposed confines within which the old bureaucrats conducted their business, Mr. X said: “The performance and behaviour of officers of my generation were indeed a reflection of the value systems and discipline that we had inherited from about the 1960s. Now that has changed beyond recognition. The response of the Joint Opposition (JO), a section of the Sangha and of former President Mahinda Rajapakse to the court decision itself, unfortunately, is symptomatic of that change and reflects their mindset and attitudes”. 

During the past ten to fifteen years, the petty bourgeoisie was visibly impatient. The middle and senior level managers in all institutions were eagerly awaiting a rise in the political thermometer. Predator against predator was trying to establish his own jealously guarded-territory. The temple of decency was violated. Government coffers were used as an ATM machine for quick cash. It was this conundrum of corruption within which our bureaucracy had to perform its tasks.   

Withstanding pressures stemming from political masters is a hard task for any Government servant. But our own history abounds in instances where such expressions of self-confidence and forthrightness have been amply demonstrated by ordinary-sounding Government servants, leave alone top-tiered Ministry Secretaries, Government Agents and Departmental heads. History also highlights instances when politicians chose to withdraw their requests. And when they were enlightened of the difficulties, as explained by those gutty civil servants, they had to recede. That was in the past.   
The writer can be contacted at

  Comments - 1

  • Booru-Crat Thursday, 21 September 2017 08:00 AM

    Well, Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya did! The crooks will aid and abet, not the others!!!

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