Financial Times

Challenge of public administration in new development paradigm

By Mohan Mendis

In a free and open economy the premiss “customer is king” has long remained unchallenged as a fundamental principle of the marketplace. Adherence to this axiom has a direct bearing on profits.
Likewise, in the new development paradigm which Sri Lanka strives to make a reality, recognizing and espousing the truth of the “sovereignty of the people” as enshrined in the constitution is of supreme importance. A shift of mindset is critically necessary as a pre-requisite to meet the great challenge of reforming the public administration.

It must be transformed to serve those in whose name it was created. We presently see the master having to wait upon the servant to get his work done with little or no accountability, or transparency while footing the bill for what this monstrosity entails.

The “King” is the unfortunate victim in the marketplace as well. Unregulated market systems with the freedom of the wild ass, has left all the people of the world poorer. In our own country, absence of supervision in unregulated financial markets has left thousands of victims, impoverished at the hands of unscrupulous operators. So, the second great challenge of the public administration in the new phase of development would be to discharge the responsibility vested in it by the sovereign people, to protect their interests in a free market economy.

True democracy means that one man’s freedom ends where the other’s begins. Wherever there is a risk there is a corresponding responsibility. In the endangered world we live in at present, both in the economic sense and even more importantly, in terms of the threat to our planet no one can be left with the freedom to mind his own business at the expense of others.

Transforming the public service
An immediate measure, of our sincerity of purpose to transform and call the public administration to a spirit of service would be to make a bold statement of the fact that the people are indeed sovereign. This message should be widely displayed as a constant reminder to both master and servant of the new paradigm that people are employed and paid by the people for the people. Simultaneously the replacement of portraits of elected leaders which now adorn places of public work will signal the dramatic change symbolically. Intentions of elected leaders to de-politicize this sector are an essential requirement for success.

Due state to all three languages
The change in attitude should be characterized by making it widely known that there would be no discrimination based on race, language, caste, economic status, scholarship, age or sex. Every government institution must prepare to work in all three languages. A Tamil speaking citizen in the south, or a Burgher/Malay resident in the East must have the privilege to have his business done in the language of his choice while a Sinhalese should have an equal right to do business in Sinhalese in the North or East if he so desires.

Websites of Ministries and Departments must be revised to communicate clearly the services offered. It would be possible by means that are now available to reach a wider cross-section of the public in all three languages, which is a sine qua non to live up to the new paradigm of service to the people.

Right to information
Neighbouring India since mid 2005 has a law in force guaranteeing the rights of a citizen to information. The outcomes of this measure have been most encouraging and beneficial to the ordinary citizen. The level of transparency and accountability has been greatly enhanced. The introduction of the new law has also had a positive effect on curbing corruption, fraud and nepotism. The introduction of a similar piece of legislation in Sri Lanka is now timely and would greatly facilitate the overall efforts to create a citizens gateway to government.

Public servants must deliver
The overall dividends from the proposed transformation will take time to yield. People are rarely transformed overnight. Intensive skills based training will be necessary specially to achieve the attitudinal change that is so necessary. The poor state of our administration and our institutions whether public or private can be directly attributed to ad hoc changes made to the system of education in our country. Most people are in agreement that we have seen over the last five decades, a degradation of social values and a tearing down of the moral fabric once so richly interwoven in the social tapestry which adorned this land.

A public servant in the fifties was a man respected and looked up to in society. Public duty was discharged with a sense of responsibility, pride and commitment. It was not too long ago that a job even in the government clerical service was a position prized by society. A country is first made in the home and then in the classroom. We are paying the price for devaluing the noble profession of teaching and would do well to get back to the drawing boards to re-shape the systems of secondary, tertiary and higher education for upcoming generations, who need to be supremely multilingual, if we seriously aspire to make the new vision for our people a reality. Education and skills based training deserves the highest priority in terms of public investment and the closest attention of the reformers.

Using technology effectively
To fast-track the process of reformation and transformation in public administration we now have access to technology. One of the brighter spots in the area of development has been the vast improvements in telecommunications in the country. Fortuitously,the Sri Lankan worker of today is also computer savvy and youth have taken to information technology like ducks to water to make up in some measure for the lack of multi-lingual and other skills. Statistics reveal that one in two persons in Sri Lanka is in possession of a hand-held telephone.

They are affordable and work efficiently. The vast potential of technological advances is yet to be unleashed and drawbacks even in the case of simultaneous translation could be cared for by exploiting what is already available to maximum advantage. Technology can also serve as an invaluable tool to give meaning to sovereignty. There is simultaneously a solution to the speed and accuracy of transacting. One does not have to wait six years to feel the pulse of what people think concerning important national issues. Consultation with people can be a continuous process for evaluation of decisions made on their behalf.

Decentralisation, devolution and process re-engineering
A citizen should be able to transact business with the state at a location convenient to him and in places close to his residence. Citizens should also have the choice of transacting electronically remotely, saving resources and the cost and time of commuting. This would necessarily mean decentralization of the administration coupled with the proposed devolution package now being re-visited. Simultaneously, work processes, rules and regulations have to be re-designed and reformulated to meet the new challenge of speedier and efficient services through electronic means.

Downsizing, trimming to fit the need
Another key outcome of the new development paradigm must be the savings to be derived from a strategic allocation of resources. The national budget is burdened with the excessive load of a hugely overstaffed public service with no measurement of the returns from the massive public investment made in this sector. The output of each branch of the administration must be co-related to the inputs in terms of funds and other resources.

These measurable outcomes must be published for the people to judge whether the cost of the output is worth it. Public servants must be ever conscious of their performance and goal oriented. They must be rewarded accordingly. It would be more productive for the economy if redundant personnel are released to other areas of development in the new paradigm with an attractive VRS coupled with assistance to start up private self sustaining ventures more profitable both to themselves and the country.

Being the change we want to see
It was Mahatma Gandhi who said “you must be the change you wish to see in the world”.
The people themselves must be the engineers of change and take ownership for the transformation. No lasting change is a success when imposed from outside. Public servants must be fully involved in the changes we all want for ourselves. It must be a common goal towards which we must traverse together.
The examples already seen as success stories such as the Passport Office and the Registrar of Motor Vehicles is worth examining as working models for other public service centres to copy. There appears to be a difference now in the approach to work in these places once notorious for delays and bribery. What indeed is the secret for effective change? We need to find out.

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