Sri Lanka has perhaps the highest density of state officials when compared with the size of its population. We also have perhaps the largest number of people holding political office for a country of its size and with the most number of cabinet of ministers in all the world. It is not necessarily a bad thing to have a sizeable state bureaucracy, so long as the functionaries in state institutions provide their services and perform their functions efficiently and effectively. Yet, the presence of a plethora of public institutions and a large body of state functionaries is meaningless unless they have the skills and other means necessary to provide a useful service to the general public.
"As is well known, there is a clear popular disenchantment with the political institutions in the country ranging from national through provincial to local government"
Sri Lankan’s achievements in social development as exemplified by relatively high life expectancy, low infant and maternal mortality, high rates of literacy, etc are largely attributable to the effectiveness of certain public institutions. Primary healthcare institutions have contributed immensely to the positive health indicators mentioned above. Yet, when we look at the range of social, environmental and economic issues faced by the wider public today, it is obvious that many state institutions entrusted with the responsibility of dealing with theseissues have failed miserably. On the other hand, given the wide ranging functions that state institutions are expected to perform, it is natural for any modern society to rely on them not just to maintain public order but also to address numerous issues faced by its members. In this short essay, an attempt is made to look at the range of functions state institutions are generally expected to perform, identify the reasons as why they fail to live up to expectations and finally to explore how they could be revamped to make sure that they contribute to public welfare and socio-economic progress.
As mentioned before, state institutions are diverse and perform such wide-ranging functions as legislative, executive, judicial, administrative, law enforcement, welfare, educational and developmental. It is not difficult to understand the significance of these functions for the smooth working of any modern society. On the other hand, certain factors can hamper the effective functioning of state institutions, making them even dysfunctional.
Modern institutions are generally established and managed on a legal-rational basis. Those who hold office in these organisations are appointed on merit and are expected to carry out their tasks in keeping with universal values such as equality, objectivity, impartiality, and professionalism. The principle of merit is critical because it is the capabilities of the office holders that enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of organizations. So, it is natural for organizations to degenerate when the officials are appointed on a basis other than of merit. When this happens, it is those who are served by the institution that suffer. This is true for all state institutions.
What is also noteworthy is the fact that there is a high degree of interdependence among state institutions. This interdependence can have a positive or negative impact on each other, depending on whether diverse institutions function in concert and complement each other or not.
It is against the above background that the nature and the quality of the institutional landscape of a country become critically important. For instance, poorly managed, inefficient, corrupt and ineffective institutions can become counterproductive from a development and welfare perspective. Instead of improving the quality of life of the general public, such institutions can become a public liability. This is true for almost all types of institutions ranging from political through law enforcement to social welfare.
As is well known, there is a clear popular disenchantment with the political institutions in the country ranging from national through provincial to local government. The two most important reasons for this disenchantment are: a) the widely held perception that many people who hold political office are not suitable for their positions, and b) that political leaders serve themselves and their retinue rather than the wider public. Yet, the voters seem to be incapable of changing this situation and continue to suffer as a result.
It is in view of the above that periodic institutional appraisals are required to make an objective assessment in terms of their inputs and outcomes. Simple financial audits that are usually carried out are grossly inadequate with regard to the above. Besides detailed performance reviews, it is necessary to conduct social audits to make institutions accountable to their clients in particular and the wider public in general. This way it is possible to find out whether the institutions perform the functions assigned to them effectively and to the satisfaction of the people. If not, state institutions can carry on regardless without being compelled to demonstrate that they are actually performing important societal functions mentioned earlier.
How do we enhance the role of state institutions? There is no magic wand that can get the state institutions out of their present predicament. In general, it is necessary to establish and accept one fundamental principle, namely, the need for rationalisation.
As far as Sri Lanka’s state institutions are concerned, rationalisation can mean several things. They are knowledge management, de-politicisation,professionalisation, outreach and social accountability.
No modern institution can function today without knowledge management. This simply means the use of knowledge and information to facilitate the carrying out of key functions of the institution. The relevant knowledge can be developed from within or derived from external sources. For instance, a university could derive its knowledge base from within and without. Research carried out by the academics can add to the knowledge base but it is necessary to derive knowledge also from numerous external resources. A university devoid of a vibrant knowledge base and its effective use can hardly flourish and perform its primary functions effectively.
"What is also noteworthy is the fact that there is a high degree of interdependence among state institutions."
The same applies to almost all other institutions. Most institutions in modern societies are generally considered non-political. They are headed or managed by persons appointed on the basis of their professional qualifications. They are either professional or administrative officers who take decisions on the basis of legal-rational principles. They are usually guided by long established rules and regulations, ethical principles and professional expertise. If the officials are appointed on the basis of political loyalty, they are likely to be inclined to take decisions on the basis of political considerations, ignoring legal or professional imperatives. Such a tendency can undermine the institution itself leading to organisational decay.
So, professionalisation of institutions is a critical requirement for enhancing organisational performance. Given the fact that professional knowledge in any field keeps growing, professional expertise and continuing refresher training can keep diverse functionaries up to date thereby continually improving their performance. Different forms of sanctions and incentives can be used to encourage officials to acquire and use professional expertise.
Outreach is an integral part of many state institutions. For instance, institutions providing social welfare services to individuals, families and communities have no choice but reach out to their clients through field level officers or mobile services. Yet, today due to various constraints, many field officers do not visit needy families in rural areas. The lack of adequate resources and training prevent many field level officers from delivering professional services to needy persons, be they children, the elderly or the marginalised. The same is true for many other state institutions but no attempt has been made to find out why and take remedial action.