Financial Times

Lalith W wants the Public Service to be courteous

By Dinesh Weerakkody

Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga addressing a powerful group of private sector people recently at the Colombo Club said the public service was no longer courteous like the good old days and had lost its professional edge.

This is very true. We often hear many public officials who happily cross the official line on a regular basis to serve their political masters to make them happy and feel good to secure their positions and perks.
All this has come about because successive governments have politicized the public service and made public servants dependent on them for their promotions and development. Also the failure, lack of competence and omission on the part of the relevant minister to keep close observations into the affairs of the institutions which come within their purview of their duties and obligations have led to the deterioration of the public service,

Today in the public service there is a dearth of professionals because the salaries do not attract competent people, As a result we have very few competent public officials to tell us how to utilize the funds the government collects from the taxpayers and the aid we get from our donors to develop our country. Going from past records our utilization of donor funds has been very poor Therefore, a sense of urgency and determination is required from our politicians and public officials more than ever to utilize the aid that the government is able to mobilize each year.

The people in the North and East need to get on with their lives and any delay in facilitating that will only put more pressure on President Mahinda Rajapakasa. Also investors will not come into this country unless we have good infrastructure and transparent procedures. Therefore the public service needs to simplify and streamline some of the procedures while ensuring transparency if we are to experience rapid development in all sectors.

The seemingly miraculous growth of Singapore in the ‘80s was directly attributed to the high quality of its institutions and the competence of its civil service. These civil servants were highly skilled, dynamic people, who were forward looking, took a broad view of the development process and found the best possible way to achieve the wishes of the people. As a result Singapore developed a civil service that was proud of its record as an independent service and public servants capable of working with the private sector rather against it. Whereas in Sri Lanka over the years the public service lost its professional edge and became the servant of the politicians rather than of the people and a public service that prefers to tell why things cannot be done rather than offer solutions to achieve the wishes of the people.

Therefore a highly motivated public service will be a key element to our future success. What Sri Lanka needs, like in Singapore, is a powerful, competent and dynamic – technocratic bureaucracy, shielded from political pressure to devise and implement well-honed interventions. While we need authoritarian leaders, they also must be willing to grant a voice and genuine authority to a competent technocratic elite and key elements in the private sector. Our leaders must realize that economic development is impossible without the cooperation of the private sector. Because, if business prospers, then more money comes into the government coffers. That means better salaries for the public servants. Therefore, the government needs to create a culture where everyone has an interest in seeing progress and a public service that works with the private sector rather than against it. To tackle these complex problems, the Mahinda administration needs institutions and mechanisms to reassure competing groups that each would benefit from growth.

Competent bureaucracy
Therefore, the first step that the government and Mr Weeratunga should do is to build a competent, dynamic, honest and relatively young technocratic cadre and insulate them from political interference. If not, there is no way that the government can convince and win the cooperation of the business elite to share the benefits of growth with the middle class and the poor class. In fact, in many NICs, competent technocrats have helped their leaders to devise a credible economic strategy and thereby win the economic war. Therefore, in order to foster an effective bureaucracy, the Mahinda administration, in addition to tapping the traditionally accorded public service practices in the current administrative service, would also have to employ numerous other mechanisms to increase the appeal of a public service career, thereby heightening competition and improving the pool of applicants. Getting retired people will add value to the government only in the short term.

The government therefore needs to have a system to attract young talent and ensure that only the best get accelerated promotions. The overall principle, long term, should be to pay salaries competitive with the private sector, recruitment and promotion should be merit based and those who make it to the top on merit should be amply rewarded. In government, as in nearly everything else, you get what you pay for.

An effective public service will enable the government to establish legal and regulatory structures that are generally hospitable to private investment and public servants who consider their primary role is to help the private sector to thrive. In the final analysis now that Mr Weeratunga has the political muscle to make things happen he could start by offering very attractive working conditions for the best talent in the country to join the service and spend some quality time in putting together some skills training to at least ensure the top public servants demonstrate the basic hygiene skills they need to have to be effective in their current roles.

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