t the time of independence in 1948, Ceylon (British Colonial name until 1971), was one of the most prosperous countries in the Commonwealth. During that period, we had a well developed infrastructure, and an independent, cost effective, efficient public administration network and judiciary, and a democratic Westminster-type political system. It must also be mentioned that around the first decade of the 20th century, there were a little more than 200 British officials satisfactorily governing a population of around 3 million. In addition, there were significant achievements in health, education and other sectors together with a prospering plantation economy, with the only drawback being extremely poor industrialization schemes. The Sri Lankan rupee value had been so strong then, it stood at Rs. 1.50 against the British pound.
It is interesting to find out how the lack of political vision, the overloaded and inefficient bureaucracy, the short-sighted welfare oriented public policies aimed at winning elections and poor governance contributed to the negative growth of the country. Both UNP and SLFP have been in power since independence alternatively. It appears that both these parties, when in power, have taken steps to set up reform arrangements and had also voiced the need for such reforms without any meaningful follow-up actions.
The public sector; no doubt at present, is heavily overstaffed and mismanaged. The entire public sector which includes national, provincial, local government, corporation, and other government-owned undertakings etc., has employed approximately a 1.5 million work force to serve closely 2.1 million people in the country.
Despite these shortcomings, Sri Lanka has been fortunate to maintain a fairly high literacy rate and a satisfactory life expectancy level over the years compared to many other developing countries. This is the reason why we need to look into these shortcomings so that we could even achieve sustainable development and economic growth if we carefully study why we have failed. It is heartening that all these have been possible having faced two insurgencies, protracted, expensive and devastating war and natural disasters such as the tsunami, etc., in addition to corruption and fraud in the public sector.
"We are well aware of the former government - even after winning the war - maintaining a large Cabinet of Ministers, which was considered to be the largest in the world. Nearly half the composition of 225 members of Parliament held Ministerial and other posts in the government"
Our economy was liberalized when our neighbours were not ready for it and it was presumed that we could go far ahead of other neighbours in the region. As a step towards public sector reforms - according to the government policy, on the recommendation of the World Bank - steps were taken to privatize numerous Boards and Corporations. The Supreme Court, however, years later had ruled privatization was a farce and a total failure. It had been accordingly revealed that the government had lost billions and billions through these corrupt deals.
It is my firm conclusion that the politicians since independence have ruined this country. The public service became utterly corrupt and totally mismanaged. I recall the then government sought the assistance of UNDP and ADB in the 1990s for public sector reforms and for the purpose of improving efficiency and effectiveness. The experts forwarded a detailed report, which cost the government US $ 1.3 million at the time, and the government took steps to set-up the Restructuring Management Unit under the Ministry of Policy Planning and Implementation. The then government intended to reorganize the public administration structure, rationalization of the public sector cadres, introduction of results-based management systems and procedures, training of staff, service delivery etc., and the relevant unit lasted only a few years.
The Ministry of Public Administration thereafter in 1996 or so, issued a circular for performance appraisal and the need for this circular was to rationalize the important decisions on individual employees for granting promotions, training and annual increments. I presume if this could have been implemented as desired, it would have definitely given a sense of direction to employees as the promotions were given purely on seniority and not on merit in the public sector. The question is whether these circulars are implemented to the letter in the Public Sector now. We need to create conditions as well to observe rules, regulations etc., like our predecessors without fail.
Despite these efforts, we could observe these shortcomings even at this late stage. The new government should, therefore, take meaningful steps without fail or any delay, if you need to take the country forward. In addition, the successive governments failed to take action against those who failed to minimize losses and caused irreparable damage when certain institutions incurred heavy losses annually. There have been several reports presented by the COPE and PAC where it had been revealed losses owing to corruption, mismanagement and abuse of power, and without any meaningful action against perpetrators.
It is, therefore, obvious the governments in the past have not effectively tackled the never-ending problem. What we could now see is an isolated and adhoc salary review and nothing more than that. This too is for winning elections. We should, without fail, undertake a comprehensive review and take steps to evaluate the entire public administrative machinery and service delivery as a whole.
We are well aware of the former government - even after winning the war - maintaining a large Cabinet of Ministers, which was considered to be the largest in the world. Nearly half the composition of 225 members of Parliament held Ministerial and other posts in the government. Owing to these, a considerable amount of tax payers’ money was wasted and this gave the undue privilege of abusing the scarce resources for personal benefit and gain for those in power. It is extremely important to mention that when these privileges are enjoyed by a few, the vast majority of the general public suffer without medicine, schools, etc., being unable to meet their basic amenities.
In order to prove my point, I quote “every government that comes into power creates new ministries without any rationale in order to satisfy the ruling party politicians, and changes are made to the administrative set up” (Interview, 9.11.2007: S. Wanasinghe, Chairman, Administrative Reforms Committee).
The new government, we believe, will not accordingly pave the way for misuse of public funds and property, abuse of power and bad governance. We can be happy that having approved the 19th Amendment, various Commissions, including the CIABOC and the Presidential Commission of Inquiry against Serious Frauds, Corruption, Abuse of Power etc., (PRECIFAC) which was appointed by the incumbent President would play a major role in combating corruption in the public sector.
"The public sector; no doubt at present, is heavily overstaffed and mismanaged. The entire public sector which includes national, provincial, local government, corporation, and other government-owned undertakings etc., has employed approximately a 1.5 million work force to serve closely 2.1 million people in the country."
It is no doubt we need to totally prevent political interference in the public sector. It may be noteworthy that the Public Administration Circular No. 15 of 1990 was a major step taken by the then UNP government with the blessings of the late President Premadasa. This stipulated the recruitment procedure without political patronage purely on merit. It is sad that this particular circular has been simply ignored and swept under the carpet. This was a recommendation by the Parliamentary Committee that was set-up to look in to the grievances of the youth after the 1989 insurrection. These successive governments have acted in an irresponsible manner and these are the reasons why the country had to face two insurgencies and a devastating war that lasted 30 years. I do not think we should face a similar youth unrest which may sometimes come as a political tsunami again. We need to be cautious not to allow the repetition of the same disasters by committing same insane omissions.
The government servants, may I say a large majority, as there is an excess cadre in every single department read news papers, do their shopping, sleep while on duty and many more without any consideration for the salary they draw at the expense of the poor general public. This is broad day-light robbery, according to the teachings of the Buddha.
The public service which had been politicized no doubt is overloaded due to political patronage, and hence became inefficient and utterly corrupt - from the politico down to the lowest employee. Inefficiency, delays, excess cadre in the public sector are no doubt a wastage of the precious and scarce resources of this country.
One can never forget that this country has gone through emergency rule (in 1958, again from 1971 to 1976, and finally from 1983 to 1993) for a considerable number of years after independence. No doubt there could have been numerous flaws and now the country should rid itself from these sins because these conflicts arose due to fundamental inadequacies of our democratic order. I must also mention that permitting these faulty democratic and other irregularities to remain, without taking meaningful steps for reform could lead to other unnecessary social developments similar to what the country experienced in the past.