Ministry Secretaries should be appointed on Best interest of Public not Minister Lethargy blocking change
By Rathindra Kuruwita
The public sector, in Sri Lanka, is often being criticized for its inefficiency and lethargy. Recently, the National Human Resources Development Council came up with a Report on improving public sector efficiency. Ceylon Today spoke to Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha who was on the team that prepared the recommendations Report.
The National Human Resources Development Council, recently, prepared a Report on Improving Ways of Working in the Public Sector. You headed the committee that prepared the Report. Can you tell me a bit about the Council and its objectives?
A: The Council comes under the purview of the Prime Minister and he appointed Dinesh Weerakkody as its head. But as Chairman of the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission I serve ex officio on the Council, and Dinesh I think realized that I can get things done. So, I was asked to head a Committee on Improving Ways of Working in the Public Sector.
What are the main areas addressed in this Report and why?
A: The main purpose was to improve the capacity of the public sector services. To achieve this, the most important change is that public servants should not feel they are there to serve politicians. So we looked first at issues of independence and continuity.
We also realized that fundamental structural changes are needed to ensure that public servants understand and can function coherently in the space they are given. That is why we urge the President to fulfil the important commitments in his manifesto, namely to have a smaller and scientifically constituted Cabinet. There is far too much overlapping in responsibilities, which means that in the end no one is responsible, and both planning and delivery become very difficult.
And we are very strong about the need for good records, and improving institutional memory. Very often now those who take on authority in any place, as Minister or Secretary or Department Head, do not bother to check on what went before, and understand earlier initiatives and build on those. We believe that handover systems must be made mandatory – along with better training on the maintenance of files (including weeding files of, no longer relevant, papers) so that information is readily accessible.
One of the main allegations levelled against the public sector is that it is inefficient. Is this a valid allegation and what steps have you recommended to address this?
A: There is much inefficiency, and there is certainly room for better training of public servants. But the main difficulties are structural, along with complete abandonment of ensuring continuity, and what is part of this, is the failure to demand professionalism.
Instead we now have cronyism, sometimes with regard to appointments, sometimes with regard to contracts, sometimes even with regard to policies as with the Prime Minister's dastardly change of the system of placing bonds. We have therefore strongly recommended the entrenchment of rationales for decisions, including appointments. The public is entitled to know why the policy makers place people in positions of authority, and why they change policies and practices.
One of your recommendations is that 'The Constitution should be Amended to state a specific number of Ministries, and the Government Departments be attached to these Ministries through a schedule, without being shifted about between Ministries.
However, will this not make the process too rigid, and prevent Government from forming separate institutions to address/take advantage of a trend?
A: There should always be flexibility, and there will be nothing to prevent Government creating a separate institution if there is a need. But as anyone looking at the present collection of Government agencies will find, the problem is too many agencies, with overlapping functions, and no clear system of coordination, not least, because sometimes agencies working in the same area are in different ministries.
For instance we find that, for no good reason except perhaps sentiment, the National Youth Services Council and the Youth Corps are in the Ministry of National Policies and Economic Affairs. Their officials have to come to the Ministry of Skills Development and Vocational Training with regard to much of their work, but we cannot plan training programmes and linear development coherently because they work to a different agenda.
The problem is not just of flexibility but of entrenched incoherence became clear when Lotteries went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But even absurdities such as separate Ministries of Public Administration and of Home Affairs prevent the type of coordination that is essential for effective service delivery.
Another proposal is 'Secretaries to Ministries should be appointed, and therefore transferred, or removed if necessary, by the Constitutional Council.' But don't you feel that it is necessary for the Minister and the Ministry Secretary to be on the same wave length, to be compatible?
A: We said that appointments should be by the Public Service Commission, not the Constitutional Council. But of course a process of consultation would make sense, provided it was serious and transparent. Assuming ministers are indeed on a productive wavelength, which is not always the case, they can make recommendations, in writing and with reasons.
When I proposed this, way back in 2015, the Prime Minister said that there had always been exceptions, and cited Ananda Tissa de Alwis and H. A. de S Gunasekara. But that was the point, that these were exceptions, for which there were good reasons, given the background of the two individuals cited. One would expect the PSC to be flexible, but it should be convinced that it is acting in the best interests of the public, not of the Minister.
Another problem with the public sector is that it does not seem to be attracting the best and the brigh test. The main reason for this is the inadequate remuneration. Shouldn't this aspect be addressed immediately?
A: I would argue that there are still bright people in the public sector, but the problem is that there is no scope to work to the best of their ability. Given our education system which, as a recent ILO Report put it, does not develop cognitive skills. There is an urgent need for better training, with exercises to ensure the capacity to plan and prioritize, and to monitor results effectively, not just in terms of numbers as is now the case.
We also need better coordination within ministries, with regular meetings that check on results and ensure remedial action when particular areas are lagging behind. This should contribute to a system of merit based promotion, with selections to higher positions based on performance as well as vision statements.
It is clear that blanket increase of salaries does not really produce good results, as we have seen in the university sector. Salaries there are really very high, now, but there has been no improvement in work norms in general. There, as in the public sector, we need better managers and administrators at the top, as well as score cards that register the quality of the service given to students in the one case and the public in the other.
What is your opinion on private public partnerships? Do you think that will improve the Government sector?
A: There is much room for such partnerships, but they have to be planned carefully and should not lead to the rent seeking that sometimes characterizes Government's relations with the private sector. Again the problem is that many things are done in terms of the private predilections of ministers, without due attention to evaluating the targeted benefits to the country. And it is also important to ensure that the public servants monitoring such initiatives have the capacity to deal firmly with aberrations while also swiftly solving problems that arise.
A look at your website, http://nhrdc.gov.lk/web/index.php, shows that you have a number of initiatives to train public sector employees. How has the response been to these initiatives?
A: Those are NHRDC initiatives, and one of my criticisms, which perhaps led Dinesh to appoint our Committee, was that there was no system to evaluate the outcomes of these initiatives. I found the same problem in what is termed the Skills Sector Development Programme of the Ministry of Vocational Education and Skills Development, when the so-called Human Resources Specialist had no idea what I was talking about when I asked what were the outcomes of the training programmes that had been undertaken. All she knew was that so many people had been sent to so many places for training, and the evaluation forms indicated they were all very satisfied. What changes had resulted from this training was something she had not even thought to consider.
NHRDC programmes were reported to us in the same way at the initial meetings I attended, and no one seemed concerned with what difference they had made. Sadly the practice in this country is generally to measure how much money has been spent and, if that is an appropriate proportion of the budget, everyone is very happy and does not bother about checking how the system has benefitted.
You are also the Chairman of the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission. There is a consensus that there is a skills mismatch in the country which has led to labour shortages in some sectors. Have you identified these areas and what have you done to fill these gaps?
A: Yes, of course, beginning with the reason Mahinda Samarasinghe asked me to take up the position, which was the lack of soft skills including English communication skills in those trained through the Ministry. We moved rapidly on those matters, and there are now compulsory modules in these areas on all courses. We have also got teachers for these, whereas, when I took over one agency had only a dozen or so permanent English teachers for 245 centres – the tradition had been to have visitors, often chosen because of personal contacts, rather in the way Ministers pick individuals for important positions in agencies under their control.
I should add that we have now begun teacher training, to increase the pool of potential trainers for us as well as the country at large. I am happy that the Ministry of Education is also now trying to popularize the novel teacher training methods we devised, that will ensure more active learning.
But we are slow on change, as is needed, schemes of recruitment, which privilege experience rather than capacity, without checking on whether the experience is of old fashioned methods, that students find useless (as with the appalling teacher who made them write lists of difficult words they should use, 'atrocious' instead of 'very bad' and so on: no wonder the students were learning nothing, and could hardly speak).
But there are other problems, which the Minister also thrust on me, in ensuring that the TVEC got involved in the Sector Skills Councils. These were intended to ensure that training was in accordance with the needs of employers, not the existing knowledge of those doing the training, some of whom had not really kept up with workplace needs. We are trying to change all that, beginning with a section on Trainer Training in the Operations Manual we updated last year, the first time that this very serious requirement had been addressed.
But it is very difficult to ensure change, and we have still not entrenched mandatory workplace familiarization for staff. And there is resistance in some places to the new curricula, and they continue with long outdated courses that have very few students and many dropouts. Information on all this is lacking, but we have started demanding student figures in all reports, and we are making a start on promoting greater accountability.
To achieve this, as in the public sector, we need better leadership. We have developed a Centre Manager Course which is essential if we are to ensure better quality in the centres. But it is a wearisome task to get decision makers to understand the need for such changes.
One distinguished public servant, who helped us prepare the report, said that only I could get the changes needed. He may be correct, but I sometimes feel the lethargy is so great that even I will not succeed.
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