President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been stressing the need to improve the efficiency in the public sector from the day he was sworn in his office in November last year, while even paying unannounced visits to public institutions to see for himself the situation. However, going by the same advice and sharp rebukes by him to the public offices for the past ten months, point that the state machinery is not moving as he, and, in fact the country would have wanted to.
Six weeks into his Presidency - on December 26 - the President paid such a visit to the office of the Department of Motor Traffic which is commonly known as RMV (Registrar of Motor Vehicles) in Werahera in order to inspect the efficiency of the institution and he had to criticize the officials in the presence of the public, after having noticed the appalling situation there.
Again on December 31, the President, during a discussion with the officials of the Ministry of Public Transport held at the Presidential Secretariat stressed that inefficiency in the state sector which has resulted in creating displeasure among the public towards every previous governments, should come to an end during the tenure of the present government. He even warned that he had instructed the intelligence services and the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to look into irregularities in the State sector and apprehend those who are responsible.
During a meeting on the future plans of the Rural Housing and Construction State Ministry at the President’s Secretariat on September 17, he had to reiterate the point saying that his understanding was that the main problem in this country was that nobody carries out his or her duty properly. And he underscored a major shift in attitudes of the people, without which a developmental revolution would not be a reality.
He again on September 25 at the first “Discussion with villagers” forum at Velanwita village in Haldummulla in the Badulla District told the officials of the public sector that the State institutions had taken long time to address people’s issues. He assured that he would always stand by the officials who make the right and unwavering decisions on behalf of the people, while advising them to consciously comprehend the problems of the people and provide solutions.
The lethargy in the public sector is not a new phenomenon. In 2016, even a trade union leader in the very sector unprecedentedly stood against his colleagues’ sluggishness during office hours. In a letter to President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, General Secretary of the Government and Provincial Council Public Service Trade Union Federation Ajith. K. Thilakarathne had told that 60% of the 1.5 million public servants were engaged in browsing internet, social media and other entertainment sites using the office computers and their own smart phones for more than two hours of their daily eight-hour duty. This amounts to 40 hours of their working time being spent on these hobbies for a month and the total man hours robbed from the public sector runs into 1.8 million a day!
In a casual Google search, we find the leaders of successive governments having pointed out this issue for decades and having been lauded by the people for standing by them. However, despite these shower of praises, lack of seriousness in those morale boosting statements would be exposed very soon, as they too would forget it within days. And thus, no government has shown a genuine interest to eliminate this situation thus far.
President Rajapaksa unprecedentedly goes to the field and meets people and officials where both groups meet. State media said that the President was to visit all villages in the country under the “Discussion with Villagers” programme, which seems to be impossible, as there are over 14,000 Grama Niladhai divisions in the country.
Even if he visited all the villages, advice and reprimands alone would not activate the bureaucracy and the State machinery in Sri Lanka. Lethargy coupled with corruption is deeply entrenched malady in the public sector. The arrest of several people for taking bribe from the clients at the RMV just two days after the President’s visit to the site speaks volumes.
This is a problem of the system and not an issue pertaining to virtues of individuals. Without a strong monitoring mechanism that would apply latest technology, in order to record the movements of files and personnel in public sector offices, realisation of good intentions is very difficult, unless impossible.