The national development of any country, if to be successful, requires three essential elements: First, honest, knowledgeable and committed political leaders. Second, a robust or thriving private sector and third, efficient and dedicated public service system. In addition to these three critical elements, we also need a vigilant civil society who can contribute in making politicians, businesses and public sector accountable for the country.
Civil society including non-governmental organisations, community groups, trade unions and informal groups is a powerful concept. The power of civil society in Sri Lanka showed itself in a significant way in 2015 by bringing the present government into power. This achievement gives us a glimpse of how civil society can break new grounds when they push their boundaries just a little further.
"Civil society including NGOs, community groups, trade unions and informal groups is a powerful concept"
This piece of writing will examine the third element – efficient public service. Some believe that the Public Service sector in Sri Lanka is slowly dying. There are justifiable reasons for that assumption. The deterioration of the public service has been happening for a long time and sadly, very little has been done by successive governments to arrest the trend. Once the very model of honesty and integrity, the Sri Lanka Administrative Service (SLAS) has been corrupted to the rock bottom.
It has become so bad that even the President’s Chief of Staff was caught red-handed recently accepting a bribe. And then, there was this recent news item referring to 70 odd senior public servants, have been caught for illegal activities ranging from issuing sand-mining permits to sexual assaults.
So, is our public service sector beyond redemption? To find an answer, let us get down to the brass tacks. Sri Lankans agree that the government is broken, and the public service system is also broken. I think the two are inextricably linked. It is not possible to fix government without remaking public service, and vice-versa. However, what is missing in both is a framework that honours human responsibility.
Making practical choices in public service sector, as in any life activity, requires that officers be free to roll up their sleeves and make sense of the situation before them. Similarly, attracting high quality people to public service is impossible unless they feel they can make a difference. No one who is any good wants to be a paper-pusher. The decline of good quality human factor is the common thread of our broken government and our broken public service.
If we put it in simple terms - not much in public service sector will work sensibly when no officer is free to make it work.
"Sri Lankans agree that the government and the public service system are broken"
Today, for example, even a moderate infrastructure permitting might take upwards of five years because no official has authority to decide how much environmental review is enough, or to resolve disagreements among competing agencies. The bureaucratic process spins on, year after year, until a decision finally drops out from the politician with a vested interest.
The grey culture of public service administration reflects the reality that taking initiative in work is not encouraged. A quick yet sensible decision taken by an officer might end up as an “unlawful” one because the framework has been designed only for rote compliance. Getting the job done is irrelevant. Indeed, even rote compliance is irrelevant; no one is accountable for job performance. It just has to be in line with a circular or AR/FR regulations.
It doesn’t mean that bureaucracy needs to be suffocated. No, it is not. The issue is the thousand-page Administrative Regulations (AR) and Financial Regulations (FR) rule books. And also, the added thousands of circulars. The mortar that keeps this system in place is distrust - specifically, distrust of human judgment.
New regulatory framework
It’s time the Government think of creating a new regulatory framework for the public service to reflect the design of a modern democratic State. Amendments or plastering patches would not serve the desired purpose.
The reformed version should provide simple frameworks of goals, guiding principles, and lines of accountability. The new laws should encourage human judgment. Law should not become an instruction manual, not only telling public service officers what to do, but telling them exactly how to do it. Officers must be given controlled liberties to make their own judgements but be totally accountable for their decisions. This is how private sector thrives.
"Even the President’s Chief of Staff was caught red-handed recently accepting a bribe"
Our public service sector beyond redemption?
A public service run by detailed dictates has all kinds of unintended costs – both time and money. They divert officers to mindless compliance, instead of getting the job done. They get what is known as ‘cognitive overload’ – too much rules, too many tasks – resulting minimum achievement. In the quest to avoid failure of human judgment, we built a giant bureaucratic megalith that guarantees public failure and alienation.
Even though the developed countries have managed to make their public services environments to display exceptional professionalism, Sri Lanka has low international rankings in governance and competitiveness. The Global Competitiveness Ranking of 2017/18 shows that Sri Lanka ranking 85 out of 137 countries. According to the World Bank, Sri Lanka ranks 111 among 190 countries in the ‘ease of doing business’ index. According to Transparency International, Sri Lanka ranks 91 out of 180 countries in terms of corruption perception.
These figures clearly show us that poor governance and ineffective government have caused the dismal situation of the country today. It has also contributed to the lull economic growth.
What is the way forward?
First, public service sector must be transformed into a professional outfit. There are a number of countries who have done it successfully. We can learn from them. The label “professional” can only come from specialised training in and experience of how to make the bureaucracy function as effectively as possible.
Secondly, the recruitment must be from among the best, and not on “chits.” Once the service is perceived as professional, the young men and young women who are top of their classes in colleges and universities will be tempted to join Public service. Just like good old days!
Thirdly, quality working environment should be provided. It means comfortable and decent physical environment with IT facilities. Physical atmosphere and technology must be top of the range to enable efficiency to be an obvious part of the culture of the public Service.
Fourthly, public officers must earn decent remuneration. This does not mean they should have pay and conditions of service in par with the private sector. But there should be attractive working conditions such as flexibility in working time, healthy pension scheme, service recognition, quality facilities and opportunities for professional development.
So finally, what hope do we have to make to make our public sector function more effectively? Is this just a futile effort altogether? Whether you believe or not, the new Global Report, “Improving Public Sector Performance Through Innovation and Inter-Agency Coordination”, argues that positive change is possible in many low and middle-income countries. The report has collected 15 inspiring country cases of such reforms and shows that such change does not necessarily require huge financial investment or complex IT systems. What seems to be required, instead, are five interconnected drivers of success:
(a) Political leadership is needed because few, if any, of the innovations are a purely technocratic exercise. Leaders need to find ways to collaborate with a wide range of internal and external stakeholders to overcome inherent opposition.
(b) Institutional capacity building of existing bodies is a common element across many of the 15 cases. For reforms to endure, one ultimately needs to create sustainable institutions.
(c) Incentives matter, both at the institutional level (e.g., through government-wide policy, creating systems and structures that shape institutional objectives, and program monitoring systems) as well as at the level of senior public servants (e.g., through performance targets and reward systems).
(d) Increased transparency can help deliver change in public sector performance by breaking down government silos and ensuring inter-agency information-sharing, and publishing or disseminating performance information. Transparency can also be a powerful driver for changing incentives.
(e) Technology, while not a panacea, is present in two-thirds of the featured cases. The reformers applied relevant, even basic, IT tools and know-how to their specific functional requirements and did not over-design their efforts. Furthermore, the technology application is rarely a stand-alone solution; rather, it is accompanied by policies and procedures to change behaviour.
All these ideas are encapsulated in the well-known Chinese saying, “crossing the river by feeling the stones.” This means that each experiment that worked for some governments can be considered a stepping stone for others, but it needs to be tried out, and possibly adjusted to the specific context at hand.