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Public services demanding more and better for less

19 April 2013 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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By Lionel Wijesiri

For decades, the woeful performance of Sri Lankan public service was subject to fiery debate. Even Senior Minister Dr. Sarath Amunugama commented a few months back that the quality of the public service has not increased in line with the increase in the number of public servants.

Today, we have over 1.3 million employees, including the security services. Over 30% of public expenditures (about 7% of GDP) are on public sector emoluments. As a senior corporate executive, I often wonder whether such a large number of public servants are really required to run this service. The basic management theory teaches us that bigger the numbers, the greater the constraints on improving performance. And, of course, bigger the salary and perks bill!

" Improving public sector performance has benefits beyond addressing the short-term spending pressures. Particularly, in a country like Sri Lanka, where we have a large public sector that continues to grow without achieving the productivity gains seen in the wider economy would inevitably find its public sector is a serious drag on overall growth "

Until such time the Government gets saner and wiser and adjusts the equilibrium between the demand and supply of its workforce, there should be an honest attempt to utilize the services of current employees in the most productive way. A fresh look at the needs and demands for public employees from all public institutions might provide a better understanding for the more efficient allocation of these human resources in the public sector.

We should understand that the context within which public services are delivered in Sri Lanka is changing rapidly. In light of the economic downturn, pressures on public expenditure are likely to increase. At the same time citizens’ expectations of public services - their accessibility, efficiency and responsiveness – will continue to grow. This is why performance management should become an integral part of the Government’s Public Sector reform policy. There is a continual demand to deliver more, and better, for less – resulting in growing emphasis on measuring outcomes as well as inputs; and a growing focus on understanding and addressing the needs of the people.

Against this background, this writer believes that the Government will need to address some or all of the following key priorities for the next 3 years:
  • Mobilize the significant investment in ICT infrastructure done over recent years to provide more responsive and accessible services;
  • Re-design and re-engineering of public sector processes to focus on the needs and expectations of citizens and deliver better value for money;
  • mplement highly transparent procurement systems to underpin the drive for greater efficiency and more citizen – centered services;
  • Give new focus to the efficient management of assets and the capital to support improvements and the radical redesign of services around the citizen.
A note of caution needs to be added here. Underpinning all of these changes is the need for right political leadership. Unfortunately, politics has become a dirty word in our country. For example, if you ask 10 ordinary people what has really gone wrong in the public sector, it is a safe bet at least 7 out of them would say “politics.” Politics has become bad as that!



On the other hand, recent events in the political scene raised questions about possible threats to the continuing viability of a professionally neutral public service.  The observers believe that even the Public Services Commission is moving from a professional Westminster model towards a politicised one. Politicisation of the Public Service, in the sense of appointments to suit the preferences of the government of the day has been gradually increasing over recent decades. Who holds the top jobs in the Public Service is not the only aspect of the politicisation debate – the increasing number and assertiveness of special advisers in some departments is another source of dispute.

Experience tells us that the present Government generally addresses its fiscal deficits with “top-down” measures, including tax increases and reductions in transfer payments. That is nothing wrong in it. They are relatively straightforward in concept, which often make them the default solutions. However, improving the performance of the public sector, by applying proven best practices to cut costs while improving service delivery, offers policymakers a better option. The performance improvement can relieve the financial pressure of shrinking budgets while better serving communities and citizens.

Improving public sector performance has benefits beyond addressing the short-term spending pressures. Particularly, in a country like Sri Lanka, where we have a large public sector that continues to grow without achieving the productivity gains seen in the wider economy would inevitably find its public sector is a serious drag on overall growth.

Unlike in the private sector, where profit and share price provide handy metrics of performance, in the public sector gauging performance is complex.  For example, in the health sector, the top administrators need to understand in the right perspective, the inputs (such as budgets and headcount), the outputs (such as number and quality of surgeries performed), and outcomes (such as improvements in public health). Unfortunately, our public policy outcomes—the eventual impact on society of government activity—are particularly difficult to quantify and are affected by multiple factors, some of them beyond government control.
Nevertheless, it is possible to identify appropriate measures to track every element of public sector performance: inputs, outputs and outcomes. Systematically collecting and adapting performance measures can enable rapid improvements in public service performance.

" Qualitative metrics such as the perception of the workforce are also important indicators of performance. For example, dimensions, such as motivation, fulfilment of mission, and the strength of a performance culture, are critical to informing where to prioritise efforts to change ways of working and how to enhance the organisational culture of public sector organisations "

Qualitative metrics such as the perception of the workforce are also important indicators of performance. For example, dimensions, such as motivation, fulfilment of mission, and the strength of a performance culture, are critical to informing where to prioritise efforts to change ways of working and how to enhance the organisational culture of public sector organisations.

It is widely assumed that lower public spending inevitably leads to lower-quality public services. However, research suggests this need not be the case. The comparisons of public sector functions in other developing countries show striking variations in outcomes achieved for a given level of expenditure. In some services, notably education, there is no clear correlation. In others, such as health care, greater spending can lead to better outcomes but not always: in these areas, there are pronounced outliers, suggesting that spending more does not guarantee superior public service outcomes, or vice versa.

Information Technology is also a critical enabler of public sector productivity—but can be a productivity drain if applied or managed incorrectly. Studies have proved that IT will enable productivity growth— but only when accompanied with proper managerial process. Moreover, those related managerial and process innovations often need to be made in advance of focused technology investment to reap the maximum performance benefits.

In an increasingly competitive world, performance improvement (whether in public or private sector) is not optional; it is essential for enhancing effectiveness and competitiveness. In the era of globalisation and the borderless economy, competency and performance of public sector employees need substantial improvement. So naturally, having performance management and performance appraisal programmes seems to be a good idea. However, the well-articulated system design based on in-depth understanding of complex human nature and effective management of such programmes is a key to success. Having a good idea is not enough.
We simply cannot afford our Public Service sector to continue to run the same way as it did during past many decades if it is to deliver the services demanded by the public. Business as usual is not an option.
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