President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in his policy statement affirmed he would ensure that his government will remove all inefficiencies and make the public sector responsive to the people’s and country’s needs.
On the same line of thought, addressing top public servants recently, he also highlighted the importance of efficiency, productivity and transparency in every state entity with a direct linkage to the day to day public life. He added, ““Unnecessary Ordinances and regulations should be amended immediately in order to transform the public service. The process of providing services by the state sector should be simple and conducted in a manner that would not impose an unnecessary burden on the public.”
To fulfil these promises, the President will require a Herculean effort to address the challenges of a sick and decaying public sector. He will be faced with the challenge of reforming and fine-tuning a 300,000-strong human resource capacity to provide with a dedicated public service in the country.
Only plus point is, unlike the predecessors, being a technocratic leader, he has a better chance of setting a new course for reform which will eventually result in a streamlined and strengthened public service.
There is a general feeling that our traditional public service values and approaches are under siege. When I was in late teens, my father who served in the Government sector during both pre and post-independence periods, maintained that during the good old days, the public service was totally made up of men and women who possessed a high degree of professionalism. They had the ability to assist the country’s leadership to set standards in managing human, financial and material resources to achieve effective good governance.
His preserved set of dairies, with entries, notes and comments were ample proof of his point. Maybe, times have changed. Unlike my father’s service period, today our public servants have to navigate in an increasingly dynamic and complex global and local environment. Technological advances, compressed decision-making time frames, politicisation, globalization, and social media have an increasingly significant impact on the way they live and work. These factors are also shaping and re-shaping the expectations the Government and public have of the public service.
Unfortunately, the prevailing paradigms, through which our public sector is operating today, are designed to remain static and do not fully encompass the significance or implications of the modern expectations of the public.
Why do the common citizens expect from public service? Without properly understanding what the public want and value, and how they relate to today’s services, it will be impossible to design revised services for tomorrow that fit the lives they live, and develop the capabilities they need to fulfil their aspirations.
I believe the public’s key priorities are related to two aspects – quality service and fairness. The quality service relates to quick delivery, timeliness, information provision, professionalism and staff attitude. All of these are equally important. At the same time, public services should be provided in a way that is fair.The fairness does not preclude greater help being available for those more in need. The third expectation is accountability. This is also another important principle in both in its positive and negative senses (whether about ensuring that outcomes reflect public priorities or about ensuring that public services deal effectively with situations where things have gone wrong). Sri Lankan public service is weak in all these areas and, therefore, it may be worth some serious exploration to find out how it can be revived.
According to Global Centre for Public Service excellence, unit under UNDP, there are three approaches to public sector reform: Public Administration (PA-statist and bureaucratic), New Public Management (NPM-competitive and minimalist) and New Public Governance (NPG-plural and pluralist).
The first model - public administration system -is what Sri Lanka is continuing. It has been drawn on a model of bureaucracy based on hierarchy and meritocracy. We find few inherent features in this model. It is “command and control” approach which was introduced in most Commonwealth countries, including in Sri Lanka where the pre-independence political leadership built a high quality and efficient civil service. However, the quality lasted just a decade or so after independence. With inefficiency and heavy political interference, the system began to get corrupted day by day.
New Public Management
This model has few modern elements. The model incorporates lessons from private-sector management. It emphasises growth of hands-on “management” and of “arm’s length” organizations where policy implementation is distanced from the politicians. The main focus of the model is on entrepreneurial leadership (like business enterprises) and emphasis on input/output control, evaluation, performance management and audit.
Some aspects of this model have been criticized, particularly the idea that its success is dependent on top officials and its singular emphasis on private sector principles. Opponents argue that it weakens the democratic accountability of the political masters.
New Public Governance
New Public Governance (NPG) model argues that the focus of public management should be citizens, community and civil society, and the primary role of public servants is to help citizens articulate and meet shared interests. This approach has four elements: (1) Build collaborative relationships with citizens and groups; (2) Encourage shared responsibilities; (3) Disseminate information to elevate public discourse; and (4) Seek opportunities to involve citizens in government activities.
This model believes in the “motivation of public officials” approach. Here are few key elements in explaining motivation and dedication. Brazil, for example, identified three key elements in explaining motivation and dedication. (1) Dedication and civic duty are appreciated by communities; (2) Recognition by rewards and public information campaigns is effective; (3) Officials exhibit voluntarism and willingness to carry out a larger range of tasks
There is no hard-and-fast rule that a country should adapt one of these specific models. On a mix-and-match technique, a country can take principles of one or more models and create their own unique model.
Take for example, Singapore. The Singapore model of public management is based on meritocratic principles. Success derives from four policies: comprehensive reform of the Singapore Public Service; strong and enforceable anti-corruption measures; decentralisation of the Public Service Commission; and payment of competitive salaries to attract and retain the best candidates.
Singapore selectively introduced NPM reforms by adopting market-based principles in creating arms-length public corporations, and adopting new management models and e-government techniques. The government established “Public Service for the 21st Century” to nurture public service excellence and promoted “whole-of-government” thinking on key strategic challenges. The model is not without its challenges but Singapore government is finding solutions professionally by a practice of continuous innovation and leadership by example.
What we need today is a comprehensive reform of our Public Service. We need a corrupt-free public service to provide stability and surety, to promote the well-being of all Sri Lankan citizens, and to support future governments in navigating challenges.
Our new public service must have a strong foundation of trust if it is to serve the country and its people. Integrity is, and should remain, the key determinant of trust – indeed, it has been remarked that in public service, if you have integrity, nothing else matters; if you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.
But we know such a change cannot happen in isolation. There is so much the new public service can do to chart its own destiny and improve service performance, but strong support and active championing from outside the service is essential to deliver lasting, transformative change. There is a critical role for government in this context, but also for the Parliament and NGOs, interested associations and the Sri Lankan public.
I suggest as an initial step, the government should appoint a group of professionals to work out a comprehensive study to learn what changes and innovations are needed to build a modern public service that is fit for the future. That will be the beginning of a long journey.