National Human Resources Development Council of Sri Lanka Chairman Dinesh Weerakkody (left) moderating a panel on productivity of state sector employees in the presence of (second from left) Baurs Sri Lanka CEO Rolf Blaser, SLIDA Director General Wasantha Perera, McKinsey Senior Partner Seelan Singham, AHRP President Pradeep Kakulawala, Public Service Commission Member D. Ranugge, SLIDA Director General Wasantha Perera and CA Sri Lanka Public Sector Wing Kanagasabapathy
Governments grapple with the issue of having in place appropriate sets of human resource practices to push public servants to perform and for an emerging island nation such as Sri Lanka, the battle remains a hard one, where victory seems to be farfetched.
Productivity in the area of human resources has been recognized as an important factor that needs to be addressed, especially in the public sector. However, despite the interventions at different levels, progress in this area continues to be grim. Poor performing and loss-making state departments and enterprises are evidence to this very real national problem.
The Agriculture and Agrarian Insurance Board, Ceylon Electricity Board, Sri Lanka Ports Authority, National Water Supply and Drainage Board and SriLankan Airlines are just five on the long list of loss-making enterprises, according to the Finance Ministry Fiscal Management Report 2017, that continue to gravely tax the country to ensure its sustenance, despite the poor performance recorded year after year.
State of public sector
The public sector is aspiring to do great things. However, it keeps stumbling in its journey towards greatness, mostly due to the resistance to change. A recently held forum that served as a platform to bring out strategies to foster a culture of engagement and boost employee productivity in the local state scene, threw light on the issues faced by the state and the consequences that follow.
The forum that was facilitated by the National Human Resources Development Council of Sri Lanka, Institute of Chartered Accountants of Sri Lanka, Association of Human Resource Professionals and International Chamber of Commerce Sri Lanka stressed that three elements are essentially aggravating the issue.
The first is ineffective boards governing these enterprises. The second is the appointment of senior positions often carried out to fulfil political agendas and thirdly, the senior officers of the enterprises being incompetent, thus enabling to realize the goals according to their respective mandate.
It is no news that the public sector is overstaffed and according to Public Service Commission Member S. Ranugge, most of the time, the state employees are without sufficient work and often idle. It was stressed that while priority must be on the productive management of human resources, the outputs and outcomes of the workforce must justify the expense incurred as well.
An attempt to boost productivity
The poor productivity in the state sector, taxing the country in numerous ways over the years, eventually led to the formulation of a ‘Public Sector Productivity Policy’. A document by the Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration states that the said policy was conceptualized keeping five guiding principles at the core, which are customer-based production for value, continuous improvement of quality as core work value, results-driven organisations, decentralization, decent work and employee involvement and proactive management. However, its active implementation remains yet to be seen.
Furthermore, the government is also said to have done its part in allocating funds and diverting resources to the state enterprises to uplift its efficiency. In addition to the 2018 budget having extended over Rs.10 billion for vocational training, it is learnt that the Treasury has spent an average of Rs.12 billion to date on human resource development.
Where is the problem?
On the face of it, all it seems the government has done its bit to help address the diminishing productivity amongst its workforce but according to human resource experts, the efforts have hardly produced any positive outcome and it is clear enough for the public to witness as well.
A number of reasons include that although a substantial amount is spent, it is not done so in a meaningful manner. No doubt workshops, seminars, forums and other events are held but the audiences are observed to be participating for the sake of attendance and are not fully engaged. Trainings are carried out but the question remains as to how much is put into practice.
Noting that the employees cannot always be blamed, HR experts stress that the structure in which the development programmes to boost productivity are designed, need to change. The Skill Development and Vocational Training Ministry too acknowledges there is a need to modernize the techniques and bring in digital components into the programme, which would allow the state workforce to engage with newer technologies and eventually be open to change.
Secondly, meritocracy is hardly known or acknowledged in the state sector, which leads awards and recognition of a particular employee to stem from mere the years served and not from realizing the key performance indicators.
The HR professionals at the forum opined that while the public sector is “fantastic”, have competent people who are “academically very sound”, they are unfortunately headed by ‘incompetent and uneducated’ policymakers who don’t have an iota of meritocracy in their minds. Pointed out was also the absence of a systematic approach for measuring the performance of those employed in the public sector. The current system is more about the years spent in the organisations, over performance and reaching of targets, which leads to unjust promotions and rewards.
The challenges faced are no doubt many but a good majority of it is opined to be almost impossible to tackle, unless the change comes from the highest level itself.
A key challenge acknowledged in tackling the productivity issue is political appointments at the top level, where unfit leaders are left to handle and revive the already loss-making public enterprise. The panel of HR experts stressed that this move not just hampers the results due to the inability of the leader to formulate and align the performance strategies to national goals but also disrupts the working system to a great extent, as the decisions will be taken for the fulfilment of political agendas.
And finally, the single biggest challenge that leaves no room for improvement of any sort is the absence of an HR policy. It was reiterated that the existing so-called HR policies are not made on a national basis and there is no purpose. Noted is also zero consistency in policymaking at the highest level, with regard to any HR aspect.
Furthermore, while there being no dedicated function to look at HR ‘development’ and engagement, expecting the existing traditional department to handle that aspect will lead to “no positive outcome”, according to the expert panel.
All talk no action
Vocational Training and Skills Development Minister Dr. Sarath Amunugama acknowledged there is hardly any meaningful implement in the HR development space. He openly admitted that there is a “big gap between policymaking and their implementation at Cabinet level”.
The minister pointed out that while every week the Cabinet comes up with “good” ideas, such as leave in winter, paternity leave and so on, the Cabinet agrees to the proposals made merely for the sake of “pleasing” the minister of the enterprise.
“Every week the Cabinet is loaded with lots of good ideas, piling up like a heap of leaves but how many of them are actually implemented?
This is what we have to look into. Every minister thinks he has to contribute to the modern knowledge but how much of it can be implemented within the timelines, within certain financial parameters?” questioned the minister.
The challenge of increasing the productivity in Sri Lanka’s public sector has no easy answers, given the way it has been managed for years, if not decades. Nevertheless, it has been established by HR experts and professionals that strong and continuous engagement is the key to bringing out the productive potential of the public sector workforce that continues to be challenged at every juncture.
There being no ‘silver bullet’ to boosting this critical element, it is stressed that focus on making jobs more engaging is a place to start the change process.