The fiat was in the name of Presidential Secretary P.B. Jayasundera. But there was little doubt where it came from. The tone and tenor of the order said it all.  Who it ‘covered’ seemed to matter little. It applied to all, across the bureaucratic board. How many actually read this story that appeared in the [...]


Cracking whip to tame interfering officials


The fiat was in the name of Presidential Secretary P.B. Jayasundera. But there was little doubt where it came from. The tone and tenor of the order said it all.  Who it ‘covered’ seemed to matter little. It applied to all, across the bureaucratic board.

How many actually read this story that appeared in the news columns last week is hard to say. Had a swathe of a concerned public absorbed it, they would have raised a loud cheer.

Forest officer Devani Jayathilaka fighting to save mangroves

Personally, I could barely suppress a smile when I came across it. While some others issuing a similar order might have tried to water it down with ‘ifs’ and ’buts’ and whatever else seemed sanitising at the time. But this was what they used to call a “straight left”. It came straight from the shoulder.

“The President’s Office has prohibited Co-ordinating Secretaries, Private Secretaries or any other members of the personal staff of the Prime Minister, Ministers and State Ministers from intervening in official matters either in writing or via telephone,” the report said.

The word intervening might well have been substituted with interfering for the sake of accuracy after years of experiencing the activities of some of these self-opinionated individuals drawn into an unaccustomed service often for reasons better left unsaid. But let that pass for the moment.

The report went on to say that a directive was sent by Presidential Secretary Dr. P.B. Jayasundera (now where had we heard of him before?) to the secretary to the Prime Minister and the secretaries of all ministers and state ministers.

So, henceforth all official communications on behalf of the prime minister, ministers and state ministers regarding government business, including details of on-going projects etc should only be done by the secretaries to the relevant institutions and not by any other officials.

It is not quite clear whether the “etc” is an addition by the newspaper or was contained in the original directive. My own experience over the decades tells me that this “etc” could hide many a sin.

Having spent a few years in Bangkok on official business and attending sessions of ESCAP-the UN’s biggest arm outside New York covering 52 states from the Pacific to the Persian/Arabian Gulf and Central Asia, one tends to be rather wary of etcs here and there.

Nor could one forget the ‘exceteras’ that Yul Brynner rattled off in “King and I” when he played the Thai King in that entertaining film years ago.

Still, such a directive has been a long time coming. One is constantly reminded of how relatives of ministers and other lesser politicians were bundled along with a spate of other mediocrities into previously non-existent posts created simply to accommodate such individuals of little use to public life but allowed to live off the public purse for dubious reasons.

They were quite happy to play the arrogant, overbearing and self-important officer such as a Gauleiter in Hitler’s Germany.

There surely are members of the public aware of cases where these so-called coordinating secretaries or those with hastily created titles have dashed off communications on ministry letterheads to give the impression of authority to departments and institutions under the ministry or even outside it to get favours done for relatives and friends.

Normally public officers in earlier eras not scared by the unauthorised communications of official minions would have ignored them or addressed them with curt replies.

But then that was before our public administration was browbeaten into submission or politicised by craven public officials running after politicians to feather their own nests and attaching themselves to political bandwagons.

This politicisation has had diverse ill-effects on the country’s administration from top to bottom. It is not only provincial and pradeshiya sabha areas that are affected by this political overlordship but also at the centre where subservience is evident.

In the midst of this came the encouraging news of District Forest Officer Devani Jayathilaka who resolutely defended her patch against an over-zealous State Minister of Inland Fisheries Industry Sanath Nishantha Perera who seemed unacquainted with the relevant law with regard to the issue and equally ignorant of the importance of mangroves in the preservation of the ecosystem at a time when global warming and climate change are threatening both big and small countries.

Since the State Minister is involved in whatever he is doing with regard to inland fisheries he might do some reading on the need to preserve plant and animal life that contribute to sustaining the ecosystem and not pursue projects that would partly or wholly damage it in the Negombo lagoon area where he wants to have a playing field for schoolchildren.

The District Forest Officer’s unrelenting stand probably saved the future of mangroves in this particular area of the lagoon. But having been downsized, if one might call it that, before the public and perhaps some of his supporters State Minister Perera is not likely to easily forget the incident.

If there were more upright public officials like the one referred to above who would have the support of those in power rather than be berated by politicians and saffron-robed individuals who insult the religion they claim to represent, these so-called coordinating secretaries and other busy-bodies would have been put in their place years ago.

Unfortunately the public service has become an employment agency for unemployable relatives of politicians and other mediocre hangers-on or village thugs.

Perhaps the presidency should take another step forward and place a ceiling on the number of such persons who could be employed by each ministry, the number determined by the importance and the role of the particular ministry.

One other point needs to be emphasised. The ministries have often been turned into family gatherings by ministers employing their spouses, sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, in-laws and outlaws.

If the presidency is determined to clean up the ministries and administration and make certain that they run efficiently, is lean and fit for purpose, it would surely need to get rid of the excess fat.

It would not be a bad idea if the presidential secretariat undertakes a survey of the inner staff of ministers, the personal staff that serves them and detail who they are and their connections to the ministers concerned.

That should reveal a lot that is perhaps not known even to the Secretariat. If nepotism is to be eliminated or at least cut to the bone, then it might be best to start here.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor, Diplomatic Editor and Political Columnist of the Hong Kong Standard before moving to London and working for the Gemini News Service. Later he was
Sri Lanka’s Deputy High Commissioner in London before returning to journalism.)


Share This Post


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked.
Comments should be within 80 words. *


Post Comment

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.