When the late D.B.I.P.S. Siriwardene, an eminent civil servant, was the Public Administration Secretary in the late 1970s, he was immaculately dressed in crisp, white short sleeved shirt and white trousers. He was also competent and efficient, without a single file on his desk – all being disposed of as fast as the next one [...]

Business Times

Efficiency in the public sector


When the late D.B.I.P.S. Siriwardene, an eminent civil servant, was the Public Administration Secretary in the late 1970s, he was immaculately dressed in crisp, white short sleeved shirt and white trousers. He was also competent and efficient, without a single file on his desk – all being disposed of as fast as the next one that came along.

In the private sector during the same era, one of the stand-out executives was the inimitable D.S. Jayasundera, chairman of the giant Hayleys Group. His dress of a light coloured suit and tie was matched by his competency, leaving no file untouched on his desk.

That was the era of excellence and efficiency in both sectors matched by an immaculate dress sense.

Does a dress code measure the efficiency of an official? To some extent ……yes, as perceptions matter when the public accesses services.

The public service dress code has been shirts and trousers for males and for females, saree or any appropriate dress. In the private sector, for male executives the unwritten dress code or appropriate attire is generally shirt and tie, while for females its skirts, trousers or sarees. Currently IT companies also encourage staff to wear casual dress like t-shirts.

A Public Administration Ministry circular of June 26, 2019 on the ‘Attire of Public Officers’ declared that: “When public officers arrive at their office premises during the office hours, male officers should be dressed in trouser and shirt or national dress whilst female officers should be dressed in saree, Kandian saree (Osari) or any other appropriate and modest attire so as to preserve the dignity of the public service. An officer should always be dressed in a manner which exposes the full face (except ears) and causes no hindrance to the provisions made with regard to public security.”

That code was slightly altered last week, but has greater significance.

According to Public Administration Ministry officials, public sector employees will be allowed to wear any suitable attire in addition to what has been deemed necessary in the appropriate dress code. It means that in addition to the saree or “any other appropriate dress”, trousers would also be permitted for females.

Officials reportedly said that this decision followed after considering the hike in the prices of sarees. So trousers, generally considered a western dress, are being allowed for women – another victory for women’s liberation and the right to dress in whatever is considered appropriate. Some workers who were happy with the change in the dress code said it was often difficult to get into a bus wearing a saree.

And that was the topic of conversation when ‘Shifty” Silva, the always-inquisitive IT expert, called me this Thursday morning.

“I heard that there is some talk of the dress code changing in the public sector,” he said.

“That’s right, now women can also wear trousers,” I said.

“Will that improve competencies and efficiency?” he asked, adding however: “That remains to be seen but based on my recent experiences of walking into public offices, there are some offices where officials are efficient. The problem, however, is that they are under pressure from the public overcrowding at these offices which have limited space.”

“I too had the same experience recently at a divisional secretary’s office where there were long queues and only a few officials to serve them. Furthermore, the office is small and cannot cope with the demand,” I said.

While there are numerous examples of inefficiency in the bloated public sector, there are also efficiencies as displayed, to some extent, at the Passport Office where the staff handles thousands of applications per day. According to one report, more than 1 million people have sought new passports this year until mid-September, which would mean this number has gone abroad presumably in search of greener pastures… another reflection of the mass exodus of people from Sri Lanka due to multiple economic crises. The use of technology can also improve public services.

Sri Lanka’s public service has more than 1.5 million workers, a number which has doubled in the past two decades. The public sector is overcrowded, with too many political appointees who are incompetent, who often don’t have any role and also often fail to report to work. On the other hand, there are also competent officials particularly at the district and village level and it’s unfair to paint everyone with the same brush of incompetence.

The problem however would be one of a disproportionate public sector where some areas are overcrowded with workers (often the cronies of politicians given jobs after each election cycle), while other sectors which have bigger public access, face a shortage of workers. In some offices like divisional secretariats, work is not streamlined and for this reason, the public is sent from pillar to post to get a job done.

So will the new dress code improve efficiencies in the public sector? It may but remains to be seen.

Our trio, however, wasn’t discussing the dress code. Their topic of conversation was this week’s reduction in petrol prices, when Aldoris, the choon-paan karaya, arrived with ‘maalu paans’ and ‘kimbula banis’.

“Den indana wala mila adu karala thiyena nisa, oyath oyage kaema wala mila adu karanna oney (Now with petrol prices being reduced, you should also reduce your food prices),” exhorted Kussi Amma Sera.

“Aney Miss, mae viyaparaye wenath adika mila ganan thiyenawa-ne. Paan piti mila ihala gihin. Weda karana ayata gevana gaanath wedi wela thiyenne (Aney Miss, there are other high costs involved. Flour prices are high and labour costs are also high),” he said in response.

“Meka thama lankawe prashne. Mila ihala gihama, okkama badu wala mila wedi wenwa. Eth mila adu wunama weladun mokak hari kiyala badu-mila adu karanne nae (This is the problem in this country. When prices go up, everything goes up. But when prices come down, traders have some excuse not to reduce the cost of their goods),” grumbled Serapina.

“Egollo asadarana wenna puluwan, eth aanduwen dana baddath wedi wenawane. Eka ithin paribogikayata-ne dara ganna wela thiyenne. Indana badu-miley eka kotasak witharai-ne. Wenath wiyadam thiyanawane (Maybe they are unfair but taxes are also increasing and that is eventually passed on to the consumer. Fuel is just one segment of the cost; there are other costs too),” noted Mabel Rasthiyadu.

While the conversation then moved on to other issues, Kussi Amma Sera went into the kitchen and bringing me my second mug of tea, looked at the grey clouds and said: “Wessoth hondai (It’s good if it rains).”

I nodded in acknowledgement and hoped for a public sector where the new dress code would improve efficiencies, productivity and, at the same time, ensure that offices with a greater degree of public access – particularly district secretariats and passport office are sufficiently staffed with larger and airy spaces.

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