Plus - Letter to the editor

Attitude problems beset the public service

This letter refers to Dinesh Weerakkody's article (Sunday Times, August 30), titled "Lalith W wants the Public Service to be courteous". It was with appreciation and relish that I read the comments made by a top public servant who attended a leading public school, where his teachers were true public servants.

Mr. L. W.'s comments are most appropriate at a time when the country has to project its image as a sensible nation, based on our identity as a friendly people with a sense of values. The key players in this process are the public servants.

The malady we face in the country today is not so much the result of a dearth of professionals but rather the largely arrogant, high-minded attitude of certain public servants whose job it is to be in close touch with the public. A lack of understanding of the true "role" of a public servant, coupled with wrong attitude, will tarnish the good name of the public service and the image of our country.

This prevailing discourtesy in the public service has its roots in the name change from "public servant" to "public official". The role and responsibility of a "Permanent Secretary" changed with the name change to "Secretary to a Ministry". The focus shifted to action rather than accountability (there are others above to make the decisions).

A newcomer to the post had to resort to the "official status" to get things moving. His priority was to get things done at any cost, rather than maintain the "value system" of the public service. This change at the top resulted in a deterioration of the service, which went down the line from "Secretary" to "Grama Niladahari" (the former Grama Sevaka). Cherished values such as courtesy and kindness to the public vanished from the service, only to be replaced by official arrogance.

By definition, an officer in the public service serves the government and is a servant to the public, performing a service to the people. He should possess the necessary "soft skills" and "appropriate attitude" to serve the public effectively and efficiently.

How can a higher officer who has not had a training in the necessary skills and experience in turn train his subordinates? This trend has over the years given rise to a discourteous public service, among other things.

In the past, the public service maintained its dignity, while being a servant to the people. Public servants served with humility and treated the general public as their wards. They acted as guardians of the public trust. This is clearly seen in a letter written in Sinhala in November 1957 by the then Principal of Royal College. It is addressed to a parent and ends with the words, "Your obedient servant", reflecting the attitude of courtesy adopted by senior public servants in those days.

If we are to be more courteous, we have to fall back on our values. Continuous political change, especially with the introduction of a politically biased Constitution, has caused a deterioration in our value system. Unless and until the Sri Lanka people agree to abide by a value system unique to our country, our environment and our people, and enshrine this value system in a political Constitution, discourtesy, associated irregularities and social violence will continue.

Srinath Fernando, Via e mail

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