The March of Folly The urgent need of an independent public service

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By 2017-07-18

Rajiva Wijesinha

The National Human Resources Development Council has recently set up a Committee to look at new ways of working in the Public Sector. I have been appointed to chair this, which makes sense because I have been writing for some time now about the need for radical reform in this field, and suggesting ways in which things should change. This is essential if the country is not to continue to decline irrevocably. But I am obviously not the only person who senses a deep malaise in the country as a whole.

Recent comments by Prof. Siri Hettige, who had been appointed to chair the Police Commission, after the passing of the 19th Amendment, are depressing to read, for he thinks that 'The government seems to have lost direction' and that 'We have run out of viable political options'.

There is little doubt that this government is on its last legs but, as he suggests, a reversion to what we had before will not help matters. The recent catastrophe with regard to Uma Oya, and revelations about the manner in which a disastrous project was thrust upon the nation, make clear that the last Government also allowed corruption to inflict irreparable damage upon us. We knew this and that was why, even though it had achieved a great success with regard to the gravest problem facing the country, it was rejected at the polls. But given that this government has proved even more corrupt, and wasteful, and 'is not making any headway', as Prof. Hettige puts it, with regard to development, clearly many people are beginning to feel that those in charge previously would do a better job than those making decisions now.

I think so too and, as I put it two years ago, even though I think Maithripala Sirisena was the right choice for the Presidency, a government under him led by Mahinda Rajapaksa was a better option than one led by Ranil Wickremesinghe. The President too, seemed to think this was the case, when he gave Mahinda Rajapaksa nomination, but then panic set in. The problem was that those around Maithripala, who had failed to support him at a time of difficulty, poisoned his mind about Mahinda, while those around Mahinda kept declaring that Maithri would be got rid of, which exacerbated the latter's fears. So, we ended up with Ranil, even though he is disliked intensely by a majority of the people in the country, and indeed several leading lights in the UNP who see him as a Pied Piper, leading them into disaster for the third time.

While I find Ranil's hypocrisy and incompetence, combined with a serene belief in his own capacities, quite abhorrent, I think however, that we must look beyond individuals to the structural changes that the country needs. The last government made several commitments in this regard in its manifesto, but nothing has been done about these save a few cosmetic changes through the 19th Amendment.

I have noted previously that the failure to change the electoral system was perhaps the worst blunder the government made. The President has declared recently that it breeds corruption, so it is sad that he did not abide by his commitment to ensure that it was changed before the last general election.

It is still not too late for him to ensure change in this regard, but he must realize that nothing will be done if he continues with Ranil as Prime Minister.

But there are other matters too, of vital importance which have been ignored. The commitment to ensurean independent public service for instance was undermined at its heart when government failed to change the provision that ensures that Permanent Secretaries give up office when there is a change of government. That provision, leaving Secretarial appointments in the hands of the President alone, in effect allows new ministers to bring in people they like instead of sticking with those with experience.

A crying example of this is what happened with regard to Rehabilitation and Resettlement, where the hopelessly incompetent Swaminathan got rid of his able Secretary, Sivagnanasothy. Recently Sugathadasa, who had been Secretary previously of Resettlement, but been removed when Swaminathan became minister, was also suddenly changed. He had been rehabilitated as it were by being made Secretary of Tourism, but has now been moved to health.

This may benefit health, but it leaves tourism, another area that needs a good Secretary, once again in the lurch.

Why we need good and experienced Secretaries is precisely because so many ministers are incompetent, and have little interest in a professional approach to the subjects entrusted to them. I suppose that is a problem in other dispensations too, that follow the Westminster system, but nowhere else are those who will lead governments prevented from picking able people to be elected as Members of Parliament.

Only here does a perverse electoral system privilege many without intellectual ability or administrative talent, provided only that they can gather large numbers of preference votes – a target achieved by spending vast amounts of money and gaining name recognition through publicity wholly unrelated to ability.

And even in countries where parties can select able people to constituencies, given that there will be some not soable people elected, there are capable officials entrenched in position. They are able then to guide those endowed with powers in a sector they know nothing about, and without much or even any administrative experience or capacity.

In the think piece I have prepared then for our Committee, I have given priority to developing suggestions that will promote continuity, on the grounds that 'At present policies and plans and projects are adversely affected by changes of personnel, notably when Ministries change, but also simply when those in charge change jobs. Possible improvements are – Mechanisms to make Ministry Secretaries Permanent. This should not preclude changes for good reason, but there should be reasons adduced. For this, a special committee of the PSC should have responsibility. Requesting reasons even for changes lower down would be useful.

Ensuring proper handover procedures when personnel do change. It is also desirable to make sure that all senior ministry personnel are kept abreast of ministry activity. At present not all ministries have regular senior staff meetings to share information about programmes and also understand how they are inter-related.

Regulations with regard to advisory bodies to ensure again that there are no sudden changes, and that even when changes occur there is a critical mass of experience so that new personnel are well briefed.'

I suspect that ministers however, will be against strengthening the position of Secretaries now, since they seem to hold powers of life and death over them, they find it easier to bend them to their will. And sadly even those ministers who are not intrinsically corrupt find it convenient to have, as Chief Accounting Officers of their ministries, individuals they can intimidate.

The incident happened in the time of President Kumaratunga, another of whose favourites, Duminda Dissanayake, has it seems allowed millions to be squandered now on hiring a building for his ministry and then not using it. But we know that similar excesses occurred too, in the time of the last government, and that there is little to choose between them with regard to either corruption or culpable extravagance.

Instead of trading accusations then, we should be working on systems that prevent or at least limit such abuse. I know this will not stop such plundering at once but, given that those who are responsible in theory for public money, the Secretaries to Ministries, have no job security, restoring this would be at least a step in the right direction.

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