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.
for example the 'Sinhala only policy' of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike.
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.
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.
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.
Global Compact launched in Sri Lanka
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.
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.
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.
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.