The discussed the oft said allegation that today’s public service was inefficient, lethargic and under-productive with the former top public official Lionel Fernando, who has served as a Government Agent, Ministry Secretary, the Governor of the North, and Ambassador of Sri Lanka in France
and UNESO.Excerpts from the interview:
Q As a senior, veteran former public servant, how do you view what is stated by some that Sri Lanka’s public service was inefficient and underproductive?
A:You mean to say that the public service is inefficient and underproductive. But has anyone made a statistical assessment of the public service as having been inefficient or underproductive in the recent past? Probably I am right in using term “in the recent past” because you imagine that this happened either after Independence in 1948 or due to constant regime change.
Q I have heard many people talk about ‘good old days’ of the public service. They used to say that under the British in the colonial Ceylon, the public service was one of the best in Asia in terms of discipline, efficiency and prestige. Your comments?
I would like to make this initial statement in the backdrop of a thinking pattern amongst a lot of citizens of the country that public service had been better during the British period. But then we have also to understand that the needs have got to be considered in relation to the service delivery of the Sri Lankan public service.
Q Since when has the so called deterioration set in, in the public Service?
When you say the rot has set in the public service and also there is decay, then the question of responsibility for administration and accountability regarding State finances comes up. Let me recall the period after nationalization and establishment of State corporations, Boards and such. It was taken for granted these State nationlised organizations were for packing politicians’ vote bank. This happened way back in the early 1960s. Then the following regimes started doing better in bringing in their flock from the respective constituencies.
Let me cite a couple of examples. The Ceylon Transport Board after Anil Moonasinghe began to be a mess. There were workers far bigger in numbers than the number of buses. Simply put the former was in mathematical progression to arithmetic progression of the latter. So, the others, the Port and even in Gunny Bag Corporation (Goni Sansthawa).
By this time the famous or infamous employment exchange of the government housed at Lotus Road was done away with. By 1970 I do recollect that employment into the public service was done with the help of computerization. And that was also a job bank. All these were having their own deficiencies until 1977, when that was abandoned and the new Government set up what you call their own job bank. What is the moral of this?
Q It is a known fact that politicians and body politic in Sri Lanka are heavily responsible for this decay in the public service. Do you agree?
The politicians directly started recruiting large numbers of their loyalists from their constituencies into the service. And letters were issued by the political representatives of the Government where the government had its own elected members. Where there were Opposition members of Parliament, the electorate organizer of the governing party in power was directed to issue such letters for recruitment.
When I was in the Ceylon Shipping Corporation, a Minister after the late Lalith Athulathmudali sent a circular to the Shipping Corporation stating that all those seeking jobs in the CSC must bring a letter of recommendation. Did the Minister not know that more than two thirds of the total staff was sea-going and must be technically proven? I sent the circular where it deserved to go.
I do remember a very senior SLAS official bringing a letter to my Minister with signatures of the members of Parliament of the new Government recommending him for the Government Agency of Matale. I put an adverse stand. Now does not all this go for non-efficiency and lowering of the prestige of the organization? And the basic quality of discipline at the very outset has set in.
Life was simple, education had no insoluble demands and the unemployed at the time were contented in joining the government after their higher education or taking to business with hardly any imported goods for sale. In the background of this how could you assess comparatively that it was the good old days and the public service had efficiency and prestige?
Let me take your perception of efficiency and prestige. Civil servants prior to 1963 May, were brought into the public service less than ten in number annually. That was the policy of the government and the advisers on administration to the Government believed that was just enough to run the public service and the requirements of the government in the delivery to the public.
QDoes making Sinhala the Official Language have any bearing on the so called unsatisfactory situation in the public service in Sri Lanka?
After the Sinhala language was made the official language, let me go back to 1967, Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact agreeing to adopt the Tamil language in the Northern regions to discharge judicial matters.
I would like to ask myself, have we got enough Sinhala-Tamil interpreters, translators and enough public servants who can discharge their public duties in the language of Tamil citizens of the country?
To that extent have we not failed in our duty in either accentuate the language policy or failing to implement bureaucratically the tacit and correct implementation of governmental policy. To that extent with what you say I do agree. It is a minimum percentage of the public services amongst the Sinhalese who can work in Tamil it is still a lesser percentage who can work in English in both the communities.
So, therefore could we be satisfied. I remember when I was in the Salaries and Cardres Commission, a Tamil medical officer and the wife of a former Tamil diplomat, received two letters on the same day to their personal addresses regarding their pension matters in the Sinhala language.
We say we hold with dignity the rights of the others. Does not the public service come under that expectation of the non-Sinhalese community?
Tamil and English came into the statutes – forty years far too late. Let me answer your question with a reference to our closest neighbour India with a 1.3 billion population. On the threshold of independence to India the leaders at the time, coming from various communities, nationalities, religions, social classes, varied hue and colour, immediately addressed with singleness of purpose handling the language problem in order to avoid divisionism and found with magnanimity and in unanimity the most binding factor. That was in 1947 when English language against which many sacrifices were made in the British India. That was naturally forgotten for the sake of national unity in Maha Bharath.
Q Another charge is that a majority of our public servants are backward, IT inept and do not stay in line with the fast changing world. Your comments?
When you refer the public service and its negative interpretations do you anyway imagine that the private sector is far superior or efficient with all other superlatives you have attached to it?
Basically the private sector runs on the basis of more income, more profits. Thereby it has intense training for its new recruits. And therefore an individual personality buildup, as well as all persons are competing with each other, to bring in more income to the organization.
This conclusion too may be one of comparisons in your mind. Let me explain. Since 1948 our population has been appreciably expanding in quality of life, better education services, health, infrastructure, and in many other spheres. And with the beginning of the central schools and free education parents had a dream come true by admitting their children to such selected schools. Right now we have over 25 universities, locally built and there is freedom to study in international schools as well as foreign campuses in Sri Lanka.
Now, I am not going to bisect or dissect the class system of those students who attend these schools.
I believe in a level education system in whatever the school the 4.5 million students who are coming out into society.
Now, the plantation industry economy, which the Dutch and British setup and maintained in our country cannot be compared to the type of expansion in the economy and all the services I have mentioned including the public services. A large number of students takes their degrees in arts science, economics, mathematics.
Have we got the facilities to give a finishing school touch to such young scholars, who are newly recruited to the public service? So, naturally with no peers to emulate and follow they are in a world of their own. They read less shy away from indulging in the best of the arts circles, seeing good films and associating with somewhat academically elite company.
Honestly, I have observed even in the high class banks and other commercial institutions, how the public and the staff members interact. There is hardly any courtesy, politeness amongst those who serve the public.
Backwardness arises out of an individual inclination to emulate those peers, who don their uniform to enhance their own personality and the lack of communication in the national languages.
Q Do you think the Establishment Code, Administrative and Financial Regulations are sufficient to prevent corruption, financial irregularities and mismanagement in the public sector?
Please let me say this. Any service is a collection of individuals. What is our education for? Is it to sell our souls for a mere pottage as Sir Thomas More said as far back as 1500 in Great Britain? It is an individualistic choice. Without a change of heart corrupt practices can never be eradicated.
All that could be done is to take preventive measures. Sandun you mentioned several Codes of the Govt. for punitive action. Most of these codes have their beginnings in 1832 from Colebrook–Cameron Administrative Reforms. However, quite a number of advisory notes have been issued by heads of department, the General Treasury beseeching the public sector employees regarding fiscal discipline and financial propriety.
One such authority issued, if I remember right, in the year 1967 by Mr. Jinadasa Samarakkody, the Secretary to the General Treasury-a very astute and highly competent senior public officer is a case in point.
Let me recount the gist of his thoughts on financial priority of Ministry Secretaries and senior heads of the service.
In the area of procurement, calling of tenders and such other more responsible decision making it is always good to carry out the rules and regulations as given the Financial Regulations. However, one could always go for the greater good of the many and in good faith one could deviate, of course giving reasons for such deviation.
QWhat are the remedial measures you suggest?
Ships are secure when in anchor, but are ships made for that? So, then with prevarication of immediate solutions for the development of the public service since 1948 the negative aspects are being continued.
Even now it’s not too late to put the act together by embodying such edifying resolutions into the new Constitution being be drafted.
There are several retired senior public service personnel with maturity and still with basic intelligence intact, who are ready to serve the government if a brain storming team could be appointed with a view to administrative reforms that could be formulated to help resolve these issues.