At this year’s Independence Day celebrations in February, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had a word of advice for the country’s public service. While reiterating that the public service is a ‘powerful’ tool, he said he had observed weaknesses at every level of the decision-making process. “Even on very simple institutional matters, I have observed that officials [...]

Business Times

Circulars and verbal directives


At this year’s Independence Day celebrations in February, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had a word of advice for the country’s public service.

While reiterating that the public service is a ‘powerful’ tool, he said he had observed weaknesses at every level of the decision-making process. “Even on very simple institutional matters, I have observed that officials avoid making decisions and refer them to the Cabinet of Ministers. They expect advice from circulars for every activity,” he said.

A few months earlier, during a village discussion he expressed the view that officials should rely on his ‘word’ to proceed with development work and not wait for circulars which get delayed. This drew a chorus of opposition on whether a public servant can make important decisions based on verbal directives. Who becomes accountable if such verbal orders are contrary to laid down administrative guidelines and open to challenge in the future?

One can understand the President’s frustrations in speeding up development work and the process being slow, but it is through circulars that good governance and transparency are ensured. Just imagine if all the ministers also give verbal orders and not written-down directives? Where is the proof or evidence then for a public servant that he had received an order, if such an order is not in line with the time-tested Administrative Regulations (ARs) and Financial Regulations (FRs) of public accountability and good governance?

It is understandable that politicians are annoyed when they want their decisions to be implemented speedily but such decisions, rightly or wrongly, need to be adequately covered by public sector governance mechanisms.

This came to my mind when I was discussing the public servant with ‘Human resource’ pundit H.R. Perera, popularly known as HR, on Wednesday morning.

“Do you know that the public servant is scared out of his wits to proceed with decisions by ministers which are not in keeping with laid-down public sector rules and regulations?” he asked.

“Yes……the public servant, particularly at the level of Secretary of a ministry and immediately below him or her, like assistant secretaries and directors of departments, sometimes have difficult decisions to make. In most cases they oblige rather than be demoted or lose their job and with that the prospects of a retirement pension,” I said.

“This is all because governments and their leaders are in a hurry to leave their imprint in the short five to six years that they are in power,” he said.

He added: “I must say that, because of the time-tested rules and regulations and the efficiency of the public sector the health system in the country has been able to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. There may be flaws but in a crisis of this nature, some hiccups are understandable.”

I didn’t want to argue with HR on the issues in the management of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in the vaccination process which saw some political interference but agreed with him, saying: “Yes, the health front-liners have done a wonderful job.”

As I wound up my call with HR, I could hear the conversation of the trio this Wednesday morning. They were under the margosa tree for the first time in three weeks due to the prolonged lockdown which was lifted on Monday and re-imposed on Wednesday night.

“Me davas-wala parlimenthuwe wena deval dekkahama mata mathak wenne den avurudu keepayakata issara-wela rupavahiniye thibba hina-gassana ‘Vinoda Samaya’. Deshapalagnayan hasirenne digatama yana haasya janaka kathawak wage (The parliamentary proceedings these days remind me of that comedy series on local television some years ago called ‘Vinoda Samaya’. It’s a never-ending comedy on the way politicians behave),” said Mabel Rasthiyadu.

“Mokada-manda egollo eka-ekkenata ke-gahanne, wedagath vidihata katha karanne nethuwa (I don’t know why they keep shouting at each other when they can speak in a decent manner),” noted Serapina.

“Kohomada eka karanne. Egollange hasireema anavaranaya karanne egollo koi wage pavul walinda enna kiyala, koi wage adyapanayak-da thiyenne kiyala. Egolla hasirenna wena vidihak danne ne (How can they? Their behaviour exposes their background and education and they know of no other way to behave),” said Kussi Amma Sera, adding that even local government politicians behave in an uncouth manner.

The public service has gone through trying times over the past three to four decades due to politicisation creeping into decision-making, and under this regime, forcing at least three senior officials to resign since February this year. Gone are the days when for instance public servants in the 1970s and early 1980s would stand up to politicians and refuse to take decisions that violate public service regulations.

The first person to resign was Retired Major-General Sumedha Perera in February 2021 from his post of Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Mahaweli, Rural Development and Irrigation. He gave personal reasons for his decision to quit, but it was clear that he didn’t see eye-to-eye with Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage. In June, his successor as Secretary, Rohana Pushpakumara also quit ostensibly for personal reasons but again due to differences of opinion with the Minister.

Then last week, the Secretary to the Ministry of Industries Anusha Palpita quit apparently due to problems with Industries Minister Wimal Weerawansa.

Palpita, in particular, would have been conscious of his conviction during the previous regime where he, as a public servant (Director-General of the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission) and Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga were convicted by the High Court for the ‘political’ decision of distributing ‘sil’ cloth to temples islandwide at a cost of Rs. 600 million in 2010-2015. The convictions were overturned by the Appeal Court in November 2020.

Given the number of cases filed by the former regime against public servants and directors of state-owned companies for ‘improper’ decision-making, many officials go by the ‘book’ acutely aware that they must have proper authorisation through a written-down directive from the political hierarchy or risk being penalised in a future government for taking ‘political’ decisions.

These examples of governments’ taking action against officials for decisions often forced on them by their political masters have triggered trepidation among officials when asked to execute an order which is contrary to rules and regulations governing the public service. In the case of the Secretary of a ministry, he or she is the chief accounting officer and answerable to the public and liable for prosecution when a wrong decision is made, while the responsible politicians escape such scrutiny.

It is in this context that it is urged that the governing political hierarchy make sure that verbal orders are followed by a written directive to ensure a public official was following a legal order and not something that cannot be accounted for – at a later stage.

Just as Kussi Amma Sera brought me a second mug of tea, I was completing the column with the cherished hope that political decisions are backed by written confirmation to protect officials who are doing their jobs and by no means are political ‘yes men’ in the decision-making process.

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