opinion

Disappearing culture of truth-telling in Public Service

10 July 2018 - 65   - 0

The common perception is that the Public Service is slow, inefficient and costly. One can righty argue that the public service is a broken organization. In fact, though far from perfect, in many ways, the Public Service is an outstanding organization. Its role in implementing the government’s development programmes is crucial to the country’s success. It provides certain services to the community without the objective of monetary profit. When people are facing a crisis situation the Public Service is always there to assist. It requires investing resources in the interest of society without paying attention to cost or making profit.

 

But there is a serious issue confronting the Public Service. Among others, the Public Service has a serious problem of “Truth-Telling”. It is right to say its ability to convey hard truth has eroded, as has the willingness of the Ministers and the senior officials to hear hard truth. This culture has caused incomprehensible failure in the Public Service.

 

The problem of “Truth-Telling” is In fact, a problem in every organizations; public or private sector for obvious reasons.

 

The “Elected Officials – the Politicians at the top are human. They have an inevitable tendency to surround themselves with people who agree with them, support their ideas and directions and tell them what they want to hear. They have this temptation.

 

Public Service employees; Ministry Secretaries, heads of departments and all other employees are also human. They want to succeed, to be rewarded and promoted. And they know their “Boss” controls these rewards. So, inevitably, they seek to enjoy their “Boss’s” favour, which often means telling them what they want to hear, rather than what the employee really thinks. Often employees of all levels succumb to this temptation.

 

These are facts of life in every organization, public or private. But they are even more powerful in public bureaucracies because of their democratic mission. Their primary role is to serve “Elected Officials” at the top. So the tendency to “manage up” is even more pronounced in the public sector than in the private sector.

 

However, the Public Service’s performance and success ultimately depend on the organizational truths – nevertheless be told. There is the obvious need to cultivate truth in the Public Service. The problem is just that the public service has cultivated the practice of protecting status-co. And has sometimes instituted or protected practices that make it worse.

 

The climate of support for honest discussion and dialogue within the public service has deteriorated. The climate of “fear” in the public service, driven by the career ambitions of public servants, a climate of self-censorship at odds with one of the core values of the “independent, politically neutral public service”; deem ability to give fearless advice –called “speaking truth to power. ”

 

This same climate of fear and self-censorship has turned Public-administration in to centralization of power in the government. This has produced a culture in which officials often conduct them seeking preferment rather than as truth-tellers. Its failings were partly rooted in a public-service culture that does not reward “speaking truth to power.”

 

A self censoring public service, unable to speak truth even to itself, cannot provide good advice to Ministers, or even to its own superiors, nor implement decisions effectively. When candour about professional judgment is “discouraged or inhibited,” good government suffers.

 

Under the 1947 Soulbury constitution the Permanent Secretaries were appointed and going by the British convention, “Accounting Officer” was adopted. In the subsequently adopted constitutions in 1972 and 1978               several changes were made in the appointment and disciplinary control of the Secretaries of Ministries and the Heads of departments.

 

 Nonetheless the “Accounting Officer” name was retained, but none of its British content. Despite given the title, “Chief Accounting Officer” and “Accounting Officer,” Secretaries and Heads of departments have neither the obligation nor the tools to draw a line between political and public service accountability.

 

The criterion of success for a public service is trust: the trust of all the actors in the political process, the trust of its own employees and the trust of all the citizens, regardless of political persuasion. The public service holds a public trust – it is a trustee of good, honest and impartial public administration – and it has to constantly earn that trust. A public service where honest expression of professional judgment is inhibited cannot earn – or deserve – the trust of its various stakeholders.

 

”Perhaps the most overlooked reasons of the core problems of the public service – and some core solutions, starts at the top, and in the relationships of Secretaries with their Ministers. To fix the tone at the top, the Secretaries of Ministries and the Heads of departments need to be given both the obligation and the tools to draw the line, when needed between public service and political accountability.

 

It is commonplace that one of the most powerful forces shaping the culture of any organization is the tone at the top. The behaviour of top radiates down through the whole organization. So, if the public service wishes to make progress in addressing the cultural problem among others, it needs to start at the top to reform the culture at the top. It is essential to establish and strengthen the independence of the Secretaries and Heads of departments and their ability to “speak truth to power” – the Ministers.

 

Thus remove a key obstacle to “Truth-Telling” at the top of the public service. Together with fundamental reform of the obligations and tools of Secretaries and Heads of departments will help reshape the public service “Truth – telling” culture.

 

The public service is a national institution, part of the essential framework of our parliamentary democracy. Enhancing and protecting its capacity for “Truth – telling” should be a high priority.

 

- RAJA  WICKRAMASINGHE

 

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