A strong and efficient public service crucial for a success story In the run-up to the last Presidential election, public sector institutions were a focal point of criticism of politicians, who claimed they were riddled with corruption, waste and inefficiency. Surprisingly, the same politicians after being in power for two years, raise the same issues [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka



A strong and efficient public service crucial for a success story

In the run-up to the last Presidential election, public sector institutions were a focal point of criticism of politicians, who claimed they were riddled with corruption, waste and inefficiency. Surprisingly, the same politicians after being in power for two years, raise the same issues now and blame the public servants citing the same reasons, confirming the situation remains unchanged. When the people come out and protest on public roads, politicians again find fault with public servants.

The government should realise the urgent need for public service reforms to change this situation. In today’s competitive world, a strong and efficient public service is critical for the country’s success. Its role in implementing government’s development programmes is crucial to their successful conclusion. Public servants need to be free of interference and have freedom and independence to implement their mandates. In this context public service reforms is a priority, without which it is futile to hope for good governance and proper implementation of development projects and programmes of the government.

The government has not taken any meaningful measures to effectively manage the public service. The expectation of the people from the public service is, greater efficiency and better service. Successive governments’ action for short-term political gain only reduced the public sector institutions to mere loss making entities riddled with inefficiency, waste and corruption. The people’s mandate to the government is to change it.

Governments in the past attempted to make the public service efficient, and all initiatives started with this goal ended doing the opposite. The perennial expectation that the public sector will be a source of jobs, absence of political will and commitment, stiff resistance to change by the employees of all ranks from the top to bottom of the public service and opposition from public sector Trade Unions stifled them and contributed to their failure.

One can appreciate the euphoria felt by the people with the change of government. However changing the government will not change the ways the public servants were used to. The malaise confronting their institutions runs deep and needs to be addressed to ensure quality public service.

A change in government can, however open a window to addressing fundamental questions about organizing government. The government is already late, but not too late, to use this window positively to make meaningful and effective reforms in the public service.

Public servants should enter this process. They should, however, stay away from partisanship, even the appearance of partisanship. The only thing that gives the public service strength, credibility and standing with the people of this country, is its non-partisan status and the ability to serve all politicians without fear or favour.

The public service is where the best are underpaid and the worst overpaid, where rules and regulations are multiplying, where non-performers are left to linger, where too many management layers are suffocating changed, where departments are increasingly being saddled with confusing mandates, and where distrust of government institutions is pushing many to look to the courts for solutions.

The governments have created an abundance of oversight bodies, management constraint measures and vapid performance and evaluation reports. It has only made the machinery of government thicker, more risk averse and created a veritable army of public servants kept busy turning a crank not attached to anything. We have created a big whale that can’t swim.

This is what the government is doing and tried to do, thinking that you can simply pile on responsibilities to the existing machinery and somehow emulate private sector management practices, while retaining the command and control approach to operations where things went off the rails.

Controls are fine as long as they are the right controls. But the biggest obstruction to change in public sector today are the excessive controls, reporting requirements and limitations on authority that prevents managers from focusing on excellence and innovative ways in how they do their jobs.

Not only have we overloaded the machinery, we have also misdiagnosed the patient. The thinking that we could somehow make the public sector as efficient as the private sector was misguided. The thinking conveniently overlooks the fact that the public and the private sectors are different in many ways. The blame game plays very differently in both sectors and the private sector has an unrelenting bottom line, while the public sector has none. In the private sector managers learn to delegate down. In the public sector, managers learn to delegate up.

The private sector doesn’t have what you call Parliament. It doesn’t have a Presidential Secretariat, Prime Minister’s office, Cabinet of Ministers or a Ministry. In the private sector you don’t manage blame, you get things done. It you don’t get things done you’re out of business. In government, you never go out of business.

The whole public service employment model is outmoded in every respect. In today’s competitive world and fast changing technology a high performing public service is critical to the success of the government’s development effort. Today’s public servants need to be accustomed to electronic tools, used to new technologies and continuously performing at peak productivity and looking to use their talents to serve the people better. The red tape, barriers to innovation, desire to avoid responsible risks and to protecting status quo need to be changed.

Modern technologies have entered our lives. People want government e-services to be available in the same way as the services in the private sector they use in other activities of their lives. They need services accessed and delivered electronically. The public service must keep up. Modern technology is a means to dramatically improve services as well as reduce cost.

Public servants must be empowered and encouraged to serve as responsible risk takers, fostering a spirit of innovation and responsible risk-taking throughout the public service. Being innovative means trying new things that may not always work out successfully. Only if managers and employees feel comfortable in innovating to do their jobs better and more efficiently, will the government get the results it is expecting from a 21st century public service.

Just as much as the expectations of public servants today are different than what they were fifty years ago, so too are the expectations of the people. The people expect the government to be effective and responsive. Not surprisingly, what they want from the government is both greater efficiency and better service. The challenge facing the senior leadership of the public service today is to deliver on these expectations of the people.

The country wants a public service that:

Is able to take risks

Is accountable and adaptable

Enhances productivity and removes barriers to efficiency and innovation

Spends prudently and with restraint

Maintains an effective working relation relationship with elected officials and citizens

Is able to attract develop and retain knowledgeable employees

Raja Wickramasinghe
Via email


 More suggestions on solar power for senior citizens and others

Being a senior citizen, I read the letter sent by retired Major General Sooriyabandara (the Sunday Times of  February 5) regarding solar power and I fully agree with his suggestion to the government to provide assistance to senior citizen householders to obtain solar power to their homes.

Considering the present and future demands and shortages of electricity  that we are going to experience in the country I would suggest the following.

We have an abundance of sunshine throughout the year in most parts of the country. It seems rational for the government to assist the general middle class in the country to obtain solar power to their homes. Presently the cost charged by companies (over Rs.700,000  – 800,000) to supply and instal a solar power system is too high for  the average household to afford. But the government can subsidise this amount and recover part of the amount from the householder from the amount he is presently paying  as his current monthly electricity bill  (say for example approx Rs.3000) per month.

In the case of senior citizen householders it is suggested that the entire cost be subsidised by the government as a grant, or as suggested by the retired Major General pay for units to cover the fixed deposit interest.

The above will help towards the Soorya Bala Sangramaya proposed by the Government and ease the burden on government finances as well as the general public.

I am sure we senior citizens, will be happy to discuss this matter further with the authorities.

Via email

Travails of travelling in a rattling, noisy and stinking Yal Devi

Yal Devi on its inaugural run to Jaffna in October 2014 after the service was restored

Once upon a time the ‘Yal Devi’ was considered the fastest train in Sri Lanka covering a distance of approximately 250 miles (400 km) from Colombo Fort Railway Station to Jaffna Railway Station in about seven hours with limited stops.  The travel was reasonably comfortable.

However, today, it takes about nine hours, with stops at almost all stations from the Fort to Jaffna. Invariably, it is delayed and seldom reaches its destination as per schedule. My grouse is not about the delays, but about the condition of the compartments and the toilets. In addition, the shake, rattle, and loud noise, experienced by the passengers, while on the move, to say the least, is most unacceptable. It appears that the compartments have not been washed and cleaned for ages.

Unfortunately, my reserved 2nd class seat was close to the toilet and the smell from the toilet was unbearable. The toilet itself was filthy and the colour of the commode was brown, as if it had been painted with un-flushed toilet water.  There were no lights inside the toilet, thus resulting in my having to keep the door partially open to let some light in.

I would kindly urge the Minister of Transport to travel by Yal Devi, at least from Colombo Fort to Polgahawela and experience the trials and tribulations the passengers undergo.

Incidentally, my father was a station master and could recollect the comfort with which we travelled in the good old days, though not at today’s speed.

Via email


 Well done Ranjan and thank you Don Manu

I thank the Don Manu column of the Sunday Times of February 5, for analyzing and alerting us to Ranjan’s actions on the blatant corruption and the lethargic attitude of our high government officials who merely  want to pass the buck.

I have admired Ranjan’s fight for justice in the case of the housemaids toiling in West Asia.

In this case he has complained to the Divisional Secretary of a massive fraud taking place under her very  nose. When this matter was brought to her notice she merely passed the buck by taking refuge in pointing out that it  did not come under her purview.

Ranjan who was genuinely upset had called her and asked her whether she was a mere ‘mail box’.

Of course, he lost his cool and told her a few things. This had prompted the government servants to act by calling the staff to go on strike. Whether this was done or sanity prevailed, I’m not aware of.

When the authorities investigated Ranjan’s complaint, it  was justified- a  fraud had taken place. What action has been taken or will be taken I don’t know.

I would like to know is there any justice in this  country?

Well done Ranjan! We need more like you!

Darrell Perera
Via email

Uncle, Aunty, Aiya and Malli: These expressions are now part of our cultural fabric

Permit me to add my thinking on the subject debated over the past few weeks in the Sunday Times – whether it is appropriate to address a person as ‘Uncle’ if he is not related to you.  Most of the views expressed on the matter have confined themselves to the affluent living in Colombo’s urban and suburban areas.Over seventy percent of the people in Sri Lanka live below the poverty line and are not so educated as their conterparts in urban areas.

What the majority of the people do becomes culture tomorrow. Therefore the type of expressions in addressing people specially unknown folk using the words, Uncle, Aunty, Aiya and Malli are too entrenched to be reversed.

The acceptability depends on how we look at it.Recently  I visited a state bank and observed a female officer addressing a colleague as ‘Aiya’. Being a senior citizen it looked a bit odd to me but I have observed this in foreign banks too. Loooking at this through a different angle if the good Doctor who wrote this letter was addressed as uncle by a student of an international school would he have reacted in a different manner? Most definitely.

There is a huge difference between a student of a girls school in Colombo addressing a lady Doctor as ‘Aunty’ and  the same Dr. being addressed as ‘Anty’ by a student of a village school . Therefore these expressions should be assimilated under the given circumstances. We should have empathy with  those less educated. Albert Einstein said that a person who boasts about his education is not educated enough. Anyway a person on the street will not know the social standing or the profession of a stranger to address him in an appropriate manner unless the stranger wears an identification tag in bold letters.

A.G. Weerasinghe
Via email

Strategies to curb use of plastic bags have failed  

The use of plastic bags in Sri Lanka is not a new topic. However, no matter what strategies the government has come up with, they have not resulted in any significant reduction in the usage of plastic bags or change in habits of those who continue to use them with little concern for the environment.

Only a very few shoppers carry a bag when visiting a grocery store nowadays.

Something which has worked in certain countries is the imposing of an environment and  recycling tax on ALL plastic bags at the point of purchase. This has seen significant reduction of usage. Having to pay even a small amount for something one would eventually dispose of  has an impact on the shopper. It also makes one think twice of the number of bags they really need at the time.

The intention of this email is to start a dialogue and hopefully draw attention of like-minded environmentally-conscious citizens to this topic.

Via email


Mrs. Jeremias Dias never went as Selestina Jeremias Dias

It is laudable indeed that the commemorative coin celebrating the Visakha Vidyalaya Centenary features the portrait of its founder Mrs. Jeremias Dias. Probably Mrs. Jeremias Dias is the only female other than a Head of State to be so honoured.

However it was disheartening to see her name incorrectly stated on that coin as Selestina Jeremias Dias. The founder of Visakha was born as Paththinihennadige Warnadipthya Kurukulasuriya Selestina Rodrigo and she became Mrs. Jeremias Dias upon her marriage to Ponnahennadige Jeremias Dias, her first cousin. In that bygone era, women hardly had an identity of their own, and married ladies were known by their husbands’ names. However, she signed her name in Sinhalese, as ‘Selestina Rodrigo’ as seen in documents in the possession of the family. She was never referred to as ‘Selestina Jeremias Dias’.

When she became famous for her munificence in later years, she was known as Mrs. Jeremias Dias.

Erandinie Mallika Rodrigo de Silva

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