Independent public service

By Dinesh Weerakkody
A respected American law school professor once asked me how politically sensitive is your public service? My answer was, the question should never be raised even. After all, the public service is presumed to be a non-political, neutrally organized, ipso facto, being called upon to serve the elected government of the day regardless of its political complexion. However, while some argue the public service is an extension of the party in power, the others argue that the public service is a neutral setup carrying out the orders of the political leadership within the rule of law. An interesting example is when the late D.S. Senanayake directed a then civil servant to hand over a file of an opposition member. His reply was, "I cannot give you the file in private, but if the cabinet orders me to do so I will table the file." The Prime Minister then said, "Then I will not ask for it". In this instance, both Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake and the civil servant demonstrated admirable qualities, which are unfortunately not often demonstrated today. The Prime Minister respected the integrity of his Secretary while the Secretary respected the integrity of the laws he had sworn to uphold. As is well known, these high traditions became seriously eroded for the first time during the United Front government's period in office 1970 - 1977. Since then, the respect for persons and the respect for law have steadily deteriorated. In this context, much hope revolves around the independent public service commission the UNF government promised to set up before the end of the year.

A Prime Minister of an Asian country once told his Administrative Service, that civil servants must be politically sensitive. Some eyebrows, it seem, were raised among those who saw it as an indication of the service drawing closer to the government, and the line between public servants and the political masters becoming blurred even more. Those who say the public service should be politically sensitive fail to understand how the public service operates. Theoretically speaking, yes, public servants are politically neutral when they cast their votes during election time. However, once the government is formed they have to put aside their political allegiances and serve the government of the day. That means carrying out the government's programme efficiently and effectively, as well as formulating and refining policies. Realistically speaking, if they have happened to have also personally voted for the victorious party, well and good, if not, they must be professional enough to put aside their differences and disappointments and do the job they have been paid to do by the taxpayers. And if they cannot bring themselves to do so, then they ought to look for other jobs outside the service. However, there are also those who would argue that there is a very clear line dividing the job of public servants and their political masters. Cross the line, they say, and you compromise the integrity of the civil service, making it an extension of the party in power. However, in reality such a fine line rarely exists. Public policies are not neatly packaged into little compartments, some meant for politicians, others for civil servants. For example, in Singapore when the government decided on a quota scheme to control the car population, civil servants must have been as closely involved as the political leaders in devising the various intricacies of the scheme. Part of the work was to make the scheme more acceptable to the public, such as giving existing owners of cars more than 10 years old, a two-year grace period. In short, make the scheme politically more palatable to the people. Should public servants refrain from even thinking about these so-called political matters? Now, I do not know who first thought of that two-year grace period. However, I am positive a politically sensitive public servant would have been just as proud to lay claim to it as his minister. So, is there any real difference in the work of ministers and senior public servants? There is at least one, and it is that ministers are likely to spend a great deal more time thinking about what they want to achieve, while public servants devote greater attention to predicting the outcome of various alternative policies and perhaps support some of his ministers political activities. Take health policies for example. Ministers must settle basic questions such as, how much of the cost of health care ought to be subsidized by the state. Needless to say, this involves fundamental questions about "values" - whether a heavily subsidized system such as that in welfare states is preferable to one, which is largely financed by the private sector. Realistically speaking, public servants rarely think about these matters, taking them as given and set by the politicians. They would ideally devote their attention to calculating what different subsidy levels might cost the government and how each of these levels would affect health cost for the public. Now when ministers discuss questions of value, they invariably have to think about what sort of society they want, taking into account the existing values of the population.

If there is broad agreement or consensus among the population on basic values that affect a particular policy, then ministers know they will have a relatively easy time selling them. Of course, this does not mean there will be no disagreement because those who even agree on basic values may differ over how these values get translated into, objectives and ultimately, programmes. However, the really tricky problems arise when there is no such consensus on fundamental issues. The population is divided and the government is stymied into bargaining to sell these policies to the people. Perhaps now, what are the policies that commonly fall into this category? Here is how I would classify some of the more controversial issues in a democratic country. Viz - those involved in a clash of fundamental values.

Language: Like for example the 'Sinhala only policy' of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike.

Culture: Question whether the different races/ethnic groups should go out of their way to develop their own cultures or submerge them in an attempt to develop a common Sri Lankan identity.

Religion: The need to maintain religious harmony, there is still a sharp disagreement over how forceful religious groups ought to be when reacting to pressing socio-economic issues of the day.

Of course, these are also the main problems, which have proved to be insoluble for the past three or more decades. It is a very unfortunate fact that people who have been trying without success to solve these problems count among them the very persons who were partners in creating the problems in the first place. Others who are trying to solve those problems are persons who, for a long time, have tried and failed to solve those problems. They should admit their failure and fade out of the scene for good. "Old Soldiers never die, they just fade away". People, of maturity and dynamism, without a long track record of failure, and with a vision for the future should now be given the chance. In addition, the government should recruit a competent, commercially oriented technocratic cadre, and insulate it from day to day-political interference to devise a credible economic strategy and to establish a business friendly environment. That is the way to the future.

UN Global Compact launched in Sri Lanka

The prestigious international business programme, The United Nations Global Compact, was launched in Sri Lanka last week with the support of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce.

Thilak de Zoysa, chairman of the chamber, said that they were very grateful to the US business delegation for deciding to come to Sri Lanka despite the prevailing situation in the Middle East and the outbreak of SARS in the Asian Region.

He said the visit was timely because, during the past 15 months of peace after nearly two decades of conflict, Sri Lanka is now on the correct path. "The ceasefire has held for over 14 months and during this period the exchange rate has stabilized, inflation is down to a single digit level, the interest rates have come down by nearly 6 to 7% and the all share price index has increased by 31% which reflects a turnaround in the business confidence."

De Zoysa said this year's GDP growth rate would be around 5% and thereafter it is projected to exceed 8%, which is achievable as Sri Lanka has averaged a 5% growth even during the period of conflict. Bradman Weerakoon, secretary to the Prime Minister, was the chief guest.

A spokesman for the visiting US delegation said that US businesses were taking notice of the resurgence in Sri Lanka and are upbeat about prospects for investment and trade.

"US businesses are watching with great interest the positive developments in this beautiful country. We see an environment of growing stability and the US businesses have taken note of future benefits of its involvement in Sri Lanka," John Clark, co-chairman of the US Task Force for Sri Lankan Investment and Development, said.

Clark, a former US public official and now in the private sector was heading a top delegation of nearly 20 US businessmen to explore opportunities both in the commercial area as well as in the reconstruction of North and East.

Miguel Bermeo, UNDP Representative in Sri Lanka also spoke at the meeting. Several leading companies in Sri Lanka have already received membership of the UN Global Compact. These include Aitken Spence and Co. Ltd, Ceylon Oxygen Co. Ltd, Cortex Ltd, Commercial bank of Ceylon Ltd, Forbes and Walkers Ltd, John Keells Holdings Ltd, and John Ward Ceylon Pvt. Ltd.


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