I write this article, not as a scholar but as one who has spent his working life in government ‘service’ and hopes that his insights may be thought provoking. My firm conviction is that there never was, and never can there ever be, an independent public service in Sri Lanka. This panacea of ‘independence’ is [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Myth of an independent public service


I write this article, not as a scholar but as one who has spent his working life in government ‘service’ and hopes that his insights may be thought provoking. My firm conviction is that there never was, and never can there ever be, an independent public service in Sri Lanka. This panacea of ‘independence’ is often touted by well-meaning “liberals”, far removed from the sticky mud of our political scene, as the cure to all our country’s administrative ills. My contrary views are based on my over 30-odd years of government service. I deliberately avoid the euphemism ‘public service’ as it is quite clear that my colleagues and I served the government and not the public – who, at best, could be described as collateral beneficiaries of our actions.

Colonial Period
Let me begin with a brief overview of the administrative scene in late Colonial Ceylon.
Within the broad parameters of British Colonial policy, the country was run by a cadre of executives, both English and Ceylonese, of the Ceylon Civil Service [CCS] selected by competitive exam. The few Ceylonese in this service were drawn from elite famiies who had more in common with English values and ‘mores’ (in language, religion and behaviour) than with their more humble countrymen. Below them was a cadre of clerical officers, also selected by exam, who kept the wheels of administration turning. The situation in the provinces was rather different. The CCS Government Agent governed Divisions headed by senior local officials from leading families who, in turn, administered villages run by Headmen, often hereditary. All administration and records were in English – as the Colony was run for its English rulers. The concept of running the country for its people just did not exist. There was a rudimentary legislature, elected on a very limited franchise, which had no authority at all over government administration. Here, maybe, we see the seed of the ‘independent public service’ – a cadre of government servants who were not subject to direction by, and thus ‘independent’ of, politicians of the local legislature. They were, however, not at all ‘independent’ of their Colonial masters and their duty was to carry out their directives.

Self Government
The Donoughmore Constitution of 1931 introduced universal suffrage and an elected State Council with wide ranging powers of self government. Authority over all government servants was yet vested in the Colonial Governor who acted on the advice of the new institution of the Public Service Commission (PSC) of three “eminent persons” chaired by the Chief Secretary, the Head of the CCS. The Executive Committee system of the State Council now provided the first loophole of authority for legislators to influence government servants. Each elected Member was assigned to a particular ExCo entrusted with a specific portfolio of subjects. Members soon realized that this meant the creation of posts in the Departments fell within their jurisdiction. While the PSC ensured that the proper criteria were followed in recruitment (e.g. objective examinations) it was the ExCo Members who interviewed the ‘short list’. This provided an opportunity for discreet horse trading and the selection of candidates representing specific interest groups or ‘block votes’.

Political Independence
Soon after the British granted Ceylon political Independence in 1948 the Soulbury Constitution was adopted and a new Parliament, in the Westminster model, was elected. At this stage it is important to record some important features in Ceylon’s body politic which have a bearing on my ‘thesis’. Our population was about one third of today’s. National politicians and the higher echelons of government service were almost a “gentleman’s club” of men educated in English at the bigger schools in Colombo and district capitals. The new Public Service Commission of ‘eminent’ men became a sinecure and an ‘ambalama’ for senior politicians (e.g. E.A. Nugawela, Hector Kobbekaduwa). In this ‘way of life’ the exercise of political influence, however, was never obvious – just a whisper in the year to a fellow member of that “gentleman’s club”. Thus, there was no difficulty in shoe-horning a Minister’s son into the CCS or, some years later, increasing the number of vacancies originally advertised in order to rope in another Minister’s nephew.

Before long Ministers and constituency elected MPs grew dissatisfied with their inability to control/direct government servants who yet harboured the illusion of an ‘independence’ protected by the PSC. Gradually, though never openly acknowledged, a ‘modus vivendi’ developed with Departmental Heads falling in line with Ministers’ “requests” and Government Agents in districts paying heed to the concerns expressed by local MPs of the governing political party. This cosy state of affairs carried on for the next eight years under the paternalistic and conservative UNP government.

1956 and after
All this changed drastically with the watershed election of 1956. The man in the street and village now felt that old ruling class (elitist politicians and their unresponsive bureaucrats) had to be swept out. More Sinhala-speaking sons of the soil, many beneficiaries of free education, now manned the Cabinet and wielded the levers of power. They eschewed the cautious advice of old school bureaucrats and, instead, gave them orders to implement policies and activities deemed to be people friendly – as this claimed to be the People’s Government.

Political directives to government servants gradually became the norm. No longer was this ‘interference’ (as claimed by senior officials) restricted to Ministries and Departments in Colombo. Before long they percolated down to the districts which handled grass root services and directly impacted on rural peasantry. This long suppressed populace began demanding that the MP whom they elected respond to their local needs. The MP, in turn, began to express these requests as ‘orders’ to local officials – whether Village Headman, Police Officer, Divisional Revenue Officer, Govt. Agent. Irrigation Engineer, School Principal, etc. If and when the MP’s order was not carried out, the officer in question was deemed uncooperative and “not one of US”. It did not take long for the MP to move at a higher level and get the offending officer moved out. As time went on, villages, Police Stations, Revenue Divisions and districts all came to be staffed by “our” officers, appointed after obtaining the MP’s approval and, therefore, subservient to his directives. Officials soon realised that there was no longer any point appealing to the ‘independent’ PSC packed with government appointees. To all practical purposes the ‘independence’ of government service was now in suspended animation.

The Two Republican Constitutions and Political Control
The mythical ‘independence of the Public Service’ was finally laid to rest by  the Republican Constitution of 1972 which abolished the PSC and vested all its powers (appointment, transfer, punishment, dismissal) in the Cabinet of Ministers. This was an honest acceptance of the ‘status quo’. The Second Republican Constitution of 1978 made the cosmetic re-introduction of a Public Service Commission which, however, had no jurisdiction over the highest posts in government service. We yet labour under this Constitution though it has been tampered with in significant ways.

‘Independence’ of Elections
Soon after Independence the Commissioner of Elections was the Head of a Department under the Minister of Home Affairs and subject to his directives. After 1956 this Department was placed under the authority of Parliament and, as such, beyond the reach of any Minister. Under a Commissioner of legendary integrity, general and local elections came to be held with honest efficiency. He ensured that all elected legislators vacated their offices and surrendered all official entitlements (bungalows, cars, chauffeurs, etc) to the Heads of their Departments. This led to the proud claim of government servants of that period that it was they who ran the country from the dissolution of the legislature till a new administration was elected. And this was true from the GA, who was the Returning Officer, to the ordinary clerks who manned the polling booths and the policemen who provided security. They enjoyed an ‘Indian summer’ of freedom from political pressures.

This state of affairs did not last too long. It had rested on the foundation of ‘gentlemen legislators’ who played by the rules. With the new powers granted to them over government servants, MPs were only too ready to bend the rules. While the Elections Commissioner himself was beyond their power, every other government servant was under their thumb. In short, this meant that ruling party MPs and Ministers, to this day, no longer surrender their perks of office but blatantly use every resource at their command for election work. They know full well that no Head of Department will have the guts to assert his authority and insist on the return of government property thus misused. The Commissioner General of Elections, the MPs know, is but a toothless tiger issuing pious warnings and circulars which have no effect. Government servants turn a blind eye to all these transgressions as they know how they were appointed and who can kick them out. Technically speaking our elections were largely ‘free and fair’, but subservience of government officers to political authority has weakened beyond repair the once strong framework of the electoral process.

District Political Authorities
In the mid-1970s the government in power made a bold attempt to seize direct political control over District Administration by appointing a local MP as  ‘District Political Authority’ (DPA) for each district. He was to have the same ‘status’ as the GA and wield administrative authority over all “development oriented” government servants in the district. This was an ill thought of scheme. It was the GA who yet exercised all statutory authority while the DPA had only political muscle. Tension was inevitable between administrative limitations and political compulsions. District Administration thus limped along with these dual centres of authority, and government servants found themselves in the middle of a tug-of-war. This confusion undermined the efficient running of districts. So much so that this scheme disappeared without a whimper when the Government, that rashly implemented it, was unseated at the General Election of 1977. However, the GA was never again to have the authority and stature he wielded earlier. Henceforth all District Coordinating Committee meetings (as well as other district level bodies) were headed by the senior-most government party MP – no longer by the GA.

Im-Permanent Secretaries and  Diplomats
That interesting appointment, originally designated ‘Permanent Secretary’ under the Soulbury Constitution, has had a chequered history. These officers were appointed by the Governor General (later President) over and above the jurisdiction of the PSC. Their function was to interpret and ensure the implementation of Ministry policy by the Departments of the Ministry as its administrative Head. The first cadre was drawn from the senior-most officers of the CCS. As time went on, Ministers grew increasingly impatient with, what they felt was, the excessively regulation-oriented approach of these officials. Their first move was to do away with the criterion of seniority and appoint ‘bright young sparks’ from cadres other than the CCS, as well.

It became increasingly clear that what Ministers required were Secretaries who shared their political orientation and were ready, if and when necessary, to bend rules to achieve these ends. Later on, as at present, the search for ‘cooperative’ talent has been widened and these Secretaries are no longer drawn from government service but from an amazing variety of backgrounds – e.g business, banks, universities and political families. Failing to fall in line with his Minister meant the abrupt removal of the Secretary, quite often without the courtesy of notice – hence the excision of the original description of ‘Permanent’ from their designation. Any illusion these officers may have harboured of their administrative objectivity was rudely dispelled when one of our Presidents brusquely ordered them all to attend the annual sessions of his political party. No longer was there any question of their being other than political henchmen.

Our Foreign Service, with its postings to glamorous cities, was a much sought after plum in government service. Recruitment to its cadre was by a stiff examination. However, the post of Ambassador was never the preserve of senior career officers. All governments retained the right to appoint ‘outsiders’. Originally these were a small number of ‘eminent’ retired politicians, university dons and business leaders. As time went on, the demand for these plums from family members and political ‘godfathers’ could not be resisted so that today, career diplomats seem to be outnumbered by these amateurs. It should also be noted that there has long been a practice for spouses, offspring and siblings of politicians also to be accommodated in low profile non-executive positions (including typists, peons, cooks and chauffeurs) in our embassies. It can no longer be claimed that our Foreign Service is independent of political meddling.

Political Trade Unions
Soon after the watershed General Election of 1956, trade unions in the non-executive government sector were legalized. The first such TUs restricted their activities to matters concerning their employment, and steered clear of national political parties. But this ‘idyllic’ state of affairs did not last long. Political parties vied with each other to tap into the ‘block votes’ that TUs could muster. Gradually the ‘monolithic’ apolitical TUs splintered into more than one, each a satellite of a major political party. The leaders of these splinter TUs became kingmakers whenever ‘their’ party secured Parliamentary power. They had the ear of Ministers, won sinecures and foreign junkets for themselves. Their favoured colleagues were also “looked after” and loyalists of rival TUs were harassed and hounded (only to bide their time till tables were turned at the next election).

Political TUs thus tore away the last shreds of the ‘independence’ of the government service.
Patronage, Sycophancy and Impunity
In the early days of post-Colonial administration, Ministers did not flaunt the power they had over government servants.

The wheels of administration turned smoothly without a Minister having to boast he was in the driving seat. Government servants received their letters of appointment and transfer through the post. Land permits were handed over to peasants by the GA or his assistant. All this changed after the Republican Constitutions. Ministers felt they had to assert and exhibit their authority by personally handing over permits to groveling peasants. The appearance of impersonal objectivity in all this activity has disappeared for ever. Fast forward to the practice today where the President personally hands over Letters of Appointment, and Land Deeds, to thousands of employees and peasants in serried ranks (a la North Korea). Make no mistake; these recipients know from whom all blessings flow! This ‘culture’ of sycophancy is on public display in the naming of public structures (airports, ports, sports stadia, theatres, etc) after VVIPs who seem to lack modesty, humility or shame in this boot-licking display.

The regularisation of political authority over government servants made it clear to the latter that they had to be duly humble and helpful (in every possible way) to their MP and Minister. This fact of life led to the culture of sycophancy now deeply rooted in the psyche of government servants. It is seen in the fawning terms of address when political VIPs are addressed and the servile demeanour in their presence. This plague has spread to all sectors and it is heart-breaking to see school children nowadays grovelling at the feet of those adults who hand them awards – whereas a few years earlier they only bowed with hands clasped in salutation. As an old pensioner, from a more civilized era, I am thoroughly sickened to see GAs and Heads of Departments grovelling in gratitude to accept their Letters of Appointment from a Minister. This total lack of self-respect is a ghastly precedent to all government servants.

The ‘culture’ of impunity of politicians is an inevitable by-product of this sycophancy. There have been innumerable instances of elected politicians abusing and assaulting government servants in the presence of Police Officers. But no action has ever been taken, or will ever be taken, against them. These helpless officers, both victims and witnesses, turn a blind eye to these foul activities knowing  full well that they owe their appointments, and the Damoclean sword of punitive action, to Ministers and MPs. Thus, their impunity is inevitable as it is essential for the self preservation of government servants.

To sum up, an “independent public service” is a well-worn myth. Unless/Until our political masters let go their stranglehold on government servants, such independence will remain nothing but a distant mirage.

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