Public administration has played a pivotal role in moulding the destinies of developing countries in the decolonised world because the concept of a welfare state, good governance, and democratisation of power-sharing have accentuated the need for increased state activity and intervention in all spheres of public life. The traditional concepts of public administration, including the classical Weberian type of bureaucracy popular in the 20th century, has given way to development-oriented administration that concentrates on good governance and results orientation. Ordinarily, a good public administration is said to include components such as managerial competence, organisational capacity, reliability and integrity, predictability, transparency and accountability, and financial sustainability. The characteristics of good public administration are determined by historical and political trajectories. Good governance as enunciated by the current government encapsulates the importance of transparency, predictability, accountability, the rule of law, anti-corruption, the independence of the judiciary, and active people’s participation in decision-making. A relook at the public sector in Sri Lanka is necessary to understand the existing framework for public administration, its strengths and weaknesses, and the way forward in the context of the Nineteenth Amendment.
The genesis of the Nineteenth Amendment has to be traced to the constitution-making saga of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. Both the 1972 and 1978 republican constitutions did not provide for an independent public service, as the Cabinet of Ministers was held responsible for matters relating to the public service. The need for reform in this regard resulted in some modifications to the 1978 Constitution through the Seventeenth Amendment, which sought to guarantee a degree of independence to the public service. The promulgation of the Eighteenth Amendment virtually nullified the improvements made under the Seventeenth Amendment. It gave unfettered powers to the President over all key public service appointments and had virtually removed the semblance of independence granted to public service under the Seventeenth Amendment. The Eighteenth Amendment replaced the Constitutional Council of the Seventeenth Amendment with a weaker mechanism designated as the Parliamentary Council. Substantial arbitrary powers vested in the Cabinet of Ministers and the President opened the doors for maladministration and negation of the rule of law concepts. This in turn altered the character of public sector management, specifically the development of an impartial, independent, and creative public sector that would cater to the emerging demands of a growing middle-income country.
The change in government following the presidential election in January 2015 and the priority accorded to good governance resulted in early action being taken to address blatant violations of the rule of law, restoration of media freedom, strengthened transparency, the maintenance of law and order, and effective administration of the principles of natural justice. This gave hope of a return to democratic principles of good governance and removal of the culture of impunity, which was pervasive before the new government came into office. Confirming the interest in the fundamental values upheld in the Seventeenth Amendment, the new government introduced the Nineteenth Amendment, which was passed in parliament with several not so encouraging modifications. The thrust of the Nineteenth Amendment was the reestablishment of the principles of good governance which included the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment and establishment of independent commissions, including the public service commission, that would ensure the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the public service and the judiciary. This chapter examines the extent to which the changes introduced under the Nineteenth Amendment provide support to the concept of an impartial and independent public administration.
A Brief Historical Perspective of the Public Service in Sri Lanka
The origins of the modern public sector in Sri Lanka date back to the British period. The administration of the country then was in the hands of a small hierarchy of British officials assisted by the local elite educated through the English medium. It was not until constitutional change got under way after the first World War that Ceylonese in any numbers entered the higher civil service. The higher civil servants were recruited through the medium of a competitive examination held simultaneously in London and Colombo. The lower civil servants, the clerks, were recruited locally mainly through competitive examination. With the grant of independence in 1948, Ceylon continued to recruit civil servants at higher and lower levels through competitive examinations. Recruitment to the higher civil service was governed by the Civil Service Minute, which was revoked in 1963 when the Ceylon Civil Service (CCS) was abolished, and a Ceylon Administrative Service was established.
The public service remained largely independent till the early 1960s. The Soulbury Constitution, in operation from 1947 to 1972, ensured that the public service maintained its independence largely free of political interferences. The Public Service Commission (PSC) established under the constitution was responsible for recruitment, transfers, promotions and disciplinary control, and supervision. This situation changed with the introduction of the first republican constitution in 1972, which brought the public service under political control by providing that the Cabinet of Ministers ‘shall be responsible for the appointment, transfer, dismissal and disciplinary control of state officers.’ This position was further reiterated in the 1978 Constitution. The compelling reasons for this change and the consequences of this change will be discussed in what follows. Suffice for us to state that the chain of events that followed thereafter took away some of the best elements of public service characteristics that overwhelmingly determined the scope and direction of public administration.
The Role and Character of the Public Sector Today
The public sector today is largely focussed on broad-based development administration with substantial importance attached to the planning and implementation of projects. Over the past thirty years about 40 per cent of development projects failed to achieve their intended objectives within the stipulated timeframes or within the expected budgetary allocations, for lack of capacity to plan, implement and deliver in a coordinated and integrated manner. Some of the major factors that have impeded more effective public sector performance, including utilisation of foreign aid, could be summarised as follows:
- Government organisations at central level did not adhere to a results-oriented management system, thereby lacking clear objectives and understanding of the scope of inputs required and the level of outputs and outcomes expected.
- The rigidity of policy and implementation structures did not lend themselves to change in line with emerging needs.
- Plurality of institutions and overlapping roles made decision-making difficult.
The factors that contributed to decline in capacity levels included politicisation of the public service, lack of an enabling environment for improving performance, inadequate punitive strategies, lack of consistent standards of recruitment to the public services, inadequacies in the compensation and benefit packages, disproportionate expansion of the public sector, and ethnic conflict and its debilitating impact on public sector morale.
The politicisation of the public sector initially arose out of a felt need, largely driven by the desire to transform a highly elitist pro-western bureaucracy to meet growing demands of a nation that had emerged from the shackles of colonialism. However, when public servants made use of this opportunity to seek favours and ignore tradition-bound value systems and ethical conduct, a service that had built its reputation on its ability to withstand political pressures, maintain impartiality, objectivity and transparency in its dealings since the time of the British rule, began to crumble. Loyalty was linked to political parties and individuals rather than to institutions and programmes. Capacities were determined not on the basis of performance appraisals but on the basis of a public servant’s political affiliations and beliefs.
Inasmuch as there were no reward systems based on performance there had also been no systematised approaches to adopting punitive measures against those who underperformed. Except when issues became complex, and serious irregularities were reported, public servants got away with indiscipline and poor performance, largely unnoticed or ignored. The inadequacies in the disciplinary framework seriously impaired the efficient functioning of the public sector. Punctuality, discipline, and commitment to work became rare commodities, partly because public servants did not have the opportunity to look up to any improvements in their career prospects. Irregularities in promotions and transfer, including political patronage in these areas, brought about some level of demoralisation and frustration among those who had hoped to build a career within their service.
The varying standards applied to recruitment to public sector positions also contributed to some quality deterioration. Consequent to the replacement of the Ceylon Civil Service with the Ceylon Administrative Service in 1963, for example, large-scale recruitment took place for higher level positions, albeit with relatively less onerous requirements, ostensibly on the premise that larger numbers were required to fill in vacancies that had multiplied consequent to increased public sector involvement in diverse activities, including statutory undertakings. While the quality of most public servants that entered the workforce was not in any way inferior to those who were admitted earlier, the level of admission requirements and the kind of in-house training provided before they were posted to responsible positions were reported to be less intensive and inadequate to meet the levels of leadership required for discharging their functions. In-house training before substantive postings became less and less emphasised also because of the compelling need to fill public sector vacancies expeditiously in government institutions. Although the situation has shown signs of improvement in recent years, the backlog of qualitative deficiencies added to declining performance levels.
Inadequate salaries and poor working conditions have also had deleterious effects on productivity. Poor salaries could have been compensated by appropriate reward and incentive systems, but lack of such systems resulted in weakened morale and reduced commitment to perform. It is noteworthy that the new government, under President Sirisena, as one of its first initiatives increased the salaries of public servants in January 2015, thereby signifying the need for revamping the morale and efficiency of the public sector.
About three decades of ethnic conflict further added to the woes of the public service. The war situation caused anxiety, depression, and helplessness among a substantial part of the workforce, resulting in lost working hours and weakened moral strength to withstand fear syndromes caused by suicide attacks and similar war-related incidents.
The factors outlined above serve to highlight the malaise that set in over a period of over forty years, gradually eroding the commitment, dedication, and loyalty of the public servants. It should not be assumed that the situation was all-pervasive or that there were no qualitative differences. As in all situations, there were core groups among all categories of staff that continued to serve with dignity, dedication, and commitment. This loyal coterie of public servants, in fact, contributed to saving the country from falling into deeper mires such as what occurred in countries like Indonesia, Myanmar, and some of the South American countries.
Nineteenth Amendment and Scope for Changes in the Public Service
One of the major changes brought about by the Nineteenth Amendment is the concept of good governance envisaged through the appointment of independent commissions to oversee appointments, transfers, and promotions and disciplinary control of the public service, the judiciary, and other arms of government administration. The overt intention to uphold press freedom, observe the rule of law, and non-interference in judicial proceedings augurs well for the future and demonstrates that the country is moving towards a new political culture and governance. The remarkable independence and integrity shown by the Elections Commissioner in the conduct of the 2015 elections illustrates the success and merits of good governance. Viewed in this light the role of the public service under the new government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is likely to undergo significant transformation.
Of the major factors outlined earlier, the principal issue of politicisation needs to be neutralised if the public sector is to regain its original position of a relatively more independent arbiter of development administration. The Nineteenth Amendment has restored more powers to the Public Service Commission by removing Cabinet control of functions related to recruitment, transfers, promotion, and disciplinary control. The PSC owes its position to the Constitutional Council on whose recommendations Commissioners and the Chairman are appointed by the President. The Constitutional Council has been empowered to recommend to the President ‘fit and proper persons’ for appointment as Commissioners not only to the PSC but to all other independent commissions established under the Nineteenth Amendment. The Constitutional Council consisting of nine members is therefore expected to play a major role in ensuring good governance. The composition of the Council includes the Prime Minister, the Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, and five persons appointed by the President on the nomination of both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, of whom two members shall be Members of Parliament. Whether the composition constitutes the right mix of persons and whether there should have been more representation from eminent persons of dignity and integrity and civil society are issues that may warrant further discussion. It is likely that these issues may be subjected to further review by the new government.
The Nineteenth Amendment lays down that the PSC shall be responsible and answerable to the Parliament. These changes are expected to give the PSC greater independence in carrying out its functions. However, whether it would provide adequate safeguards against political interference would depend on the objective disposition of the holder of the office of President, as he, if he so desires, could tacitly overrule recommendations of the Constitutional Council. The Constitutional Council in 2002 recommended candidates to the Election Commission; however President Kumaratunga rejected the nominee for Chairman to the Commission. Whether President Kumaratunga had powers to reject a recommendation made by the Constitutional Council had not been subjected to any legal scrutiny. Therefore, how the proposed changes would be implemented in practice and how they will impact on the morale, efficiency, and effectiveness of the public service is yet to be seen. It is hoped that the composition of the Constitutional Council under the Nineteenth Amendment would provide adequate checks and balances to lessen, if not altogether eliminate, political interference in public service appointments and promotions.
Modern public administration is increasingly linked with policy-making and to that extent interventions of Ministers and their advisors in administration cannot altogether be ruled out or considered unhealthy as evident from the experience of many developed countries. Governments in developed countries tend to emphasise accountability and the new public management agenda compared private sector performance with that of the public sector and wanted the public managers to deliver the objectives set for them by governments. Unlike in Sri Lanka, public managers were held accountable for results and this has been the essence of public sector practices in New Zealand, Australia, and the UK. In countries such as the UK and USA, governments use various forms of managerialist strategy to influence the ways in which civil servants carry out their tasks. Despite claims of impartiality, senior civil servants are goaded into doing things on the basis of ‘duty to deliver’ and in the ‘public interest.’ The invocation of a duty to deliver under the last Labour government, for example, was intended to promote an entrepreneurial ‘can do’ attitude towards realising the government’s objectives rather than objective analysis or debate about their merits. As Christopher Pollitt and Geert Boukaert have noted, “The administrative culture of the British state is conventionally understood to be guided by the notion of the “public interest”, in which government is regarded as a necessary evil that should be hedged in and held to account as much as possible”. The UK, along with Australia and New Zealand, has seen more radical and rapid changes, turnarounds, and renewals in the reform of the public sector than other developed countries. This has to be understood in the emerging context of a welfare state handling several interrelated development initiatives where people, performance, and outcomes matter, and fulfilment of ‘public interest’ becomes crucial to the political leadership.
In reality, a more broad-based separation of politics and public administration is neither feasible nor practical as the post-second World War concept of public administration expanded to include policy-making and analysis as integral components of the governance structure. Policy-making is a ministerial function to which senior civil servants are expected to contribute and in this process the links between public servants and politicians necessarily become close. Closeness to politicians does not suggest political interference but when closeness becomes a tool to manipulate decision-making it becomes interference. This is where the impartiality, judgement, and integrity of public servants are put to test. In the sixties, seventies and even in the early eighties, public servants were able to resist manipulative processes and uphold public service norms and values. The later periods however, saw a deterioration in the kind of relationships that developed between politicians and public servants leading to a breakdown of ethics and integrity in the management of government bodies. The kind of consensual decision-making between the ministers and public servants adopted in the last two decades betray in many instances lack of propriety and impartiality in the discharge of functions allocated to ministries and departments. Can this process be reversed through the changes introduced under the Nineteenth Amendment? The answer is in the affirmative if there is commitment and willingness to change public service behaviour at the highest levels through more transparent recruitment processes, principled procedures for transfers and promotions laid down through the PSC, incentive support schemes for integrity in decision-making, and adoption of elaborate evaluation criteria to determine performance levels.
Improving efficiency of the public sector is a priority area that deserves urgent attention if development plans of the government are to be executed swiftly and at least cost. In the USA, Woodrow Wilson, as far back as 1887, in an article entitled ‘The Study of Administration’ wrote that, “…it is the object of administrative study to discover, first, what government can properly and successfully do, and, secondly, how it can do these proper things with the utmost possible efficiency and at the least possible cost either of money or of energy.” This holds good to any country even today although over the last one and a quarter century new concepts such as the New Public Management Concept moulded on the basis of private sector models, have evolved making public servants accountable to their actions. In New Zealand, for example, heads of departments are made accountable to ministers through performance agreements and ex-post performance assessment. Similarly, in Britain, performance agreements between ministers and chief executives of agencies are signed to ensure that success in achieving targets is measured at the end of each financial year.
The approach to public administration today is one of engaging staff on a contractual basis for short term to deliver predetermined targets and outcomes and paying commensurably based on results achieved at the end. Although career public servants may be averse to signing agreements based on short-term contracts, the emerging trend may be applicable to new institutions and old agencies where quick results are expected through improved and efficient discharge of functions. The PSC could be used as a lever to propel public servants to enter into agreements with their departments/agencies to work on programmes that have identified specific outputs and outcomes over the life of a project or programme. Countries such as Australia and the United Kingdom have introduced formal contracting and ex-post performance assessment tools as desirable measures for improving the performance of government departments. In measuring the performance of government agencies, the focus and emphasis are on outputs. Achievements could also be measured at the end of the project based on anticipated and actual outcomes that represent value for money.
Payment of salaries/allowances could be linked to performance thereby providing incentives for high achievers. This is a trend that has been in vogue in private enterprises for long and most developed countries adopt this approach in the public sector as well to improve efficiency. Political will and willingness to adopt innovative policies of public administration should be forthcoming to change work attitudes, remove existing structural impediments, including out-dated administrative policies and regulations, to move forward in the direction of an outputs/outcomes based public service.
The Reform Agenda
It is recognised that a well-functioning public administration is a prerequisite for transparent and democratic governance. An effective public administration determines a government’s ability to provide public services and foster the country’s development agenda and competitiveness at both central and provincial levels.
In today’s context, the barriers to a more effective and efficient public service are many. Firstly, even though there is awareness of the need to reform the public sector, there is a fear psychosis operating about public sector reforms. On several occasions in the past, efforts were made to document impediments to improved public service and make recommendations for restructuring and reorienting it. More often than not such recommendations were ignored or shelved because of negative feedback from public service associations or interference from vested interests. The last attempt was made during the government of Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2001-2004. A committee was appointed to make recommendations for reform of the public sector. Unfortunately, due to the premature dissolution of Parliament the process was not followed through. The Nineteenth Amendment and the new government that assumed power after 17th August 2015 could provide an impetus to renew efforts at public sector reform. It is understood that the government is currently thinking of establishing a committee to review public sector structures, salaries and cadres and make recommendations for reforms. Essentially, the reform process should examine the following with a view to making public administration in Sri Lanka dynamic and forward looking:
- Redeployment of superfluous staff in ministries and departments. The criteria for determining excess staff have to be worked out in consultation with key ministries and departments. Various approaches to staff reallocation and redeployment could be considered; viz., (i) there are time-honoured performance standards which could be reemphasised in redeploying staff, (ii) those who are closer to retirement may be given ‘golden handshakes’ with attractive benefit packages, (iii) voluntary retirement may also be encouraged to enable those unwilling or ill-prepared to conform to performance standards, (iv) some items of work could be outsourced to retired staff or private sector entities pending new recruitment, and (v) new recruitment procedures could be enunciated giving emphasis to competence, qualifications, and integrity issues.
- Introducing systems to measure performance through a results-based management system. This system essentially defines objectives, outlines responsibilities, and assesses performance based on outputs anticipated at every milestone of activity. Such a system helps ensure delivery of outputs in a timely and cost effective manner.
- Rigorous performance appraisals, which until recently were considered necessary components of a reformed public sector because of the inherent advantages that the system offers to evaluate strengths and weaknesses of staff, are now increasingly giving way to a dynamic and interactive process of continuing assessment of performance by superiors through assessment of outputs against targets set at the beginning of a year. The objective is to work together with staff in a cooperative manner to achieve targets and make them realise that interactive processes of performance assessment would replace annual performance appraisals.
- Adoption of a systematic approach to provision of training to the different levels of staff based on priority needs identified through an agency’s long term objectives, and apparent weaknesses in performance observed through interactive processes. In particular, training needs have arisen in the areas of (i) project preparation and planning, (ii) project implementation and management, (iii) project monitoring and evaluation, and (iv) results-based management concepts. Public sector organisations should be held accountable for results and this would be possible only if public servants are fully conversant with results-based management concepts and accountability issues.
- Provision of incentives/rewards to high performers among the public sector staff would help uplift the morale and enthusiasm and contribute to enhanced performance. Lack of such a system has often been highlighted as one of the factors contributing to less than satisfactory performance.
The role of the public sector in Sri Lanka to accelerate development would increase substantially in the future consequent to increased economic activity. Capacity to absorb increased aid would be largely dependent on the extent to which public service reforms are carried out, including the introduction of new results-based procedures and processes for enhanced decision-making, and commitment to deliver. Decision-making should be based on judgments that reflect the integrity and impartiality of decision-makers.
The Role of Provincial Councils
While a reformed public sector would pay dividends in the long term, immediate attention may need to be focused on improving the capacity of devolved provincial entities to carry out the programmes of reconstruction, reconciliation, and development. It would be essential to ensure that competent staff whose credentials have been suitably tested for achieving desired implementation outcomes are transferred to devolved entities, particularly the Provincial Councils.
The Provincial Councils should not only have access to funding resources but should also have the capacity to assess needs, prepare programmes of action, and implement, monitor, and evaluate them in due time. A major intervention in this respect would be to look at the current structure and capacity dimensions of the public service at provincial levels and provide leadership training to implement specialised action programmes formulated in accordance with each provincial council’s development priorities. The private sector’s role in this regard also needs to be redefined in the context of the on-going emphasis given to greater private sector participation.
With regard to funding resources for provincial development initiatives, in addition to allowing collection of local taxes and subsidising through central government allocations, the key intervention should be to permit external assistance without conditions as long as the central government is privy to such arrangements. The Northern and Eastern Provincial Councils particularly, because of the significant damages both to property and lives caused by the thirty-year civil conflict, should be able to seek and obtain such funding externally with the concurrence of the central government. In order to ensure that there is legitimacy in the acquisition and use of such assistance, an action plan detailing investment priorities should be drawn up by the Provincial Councils.
The Need for Supplementary Management Techniques
It is difficult to transform overnight a public sector that became heavily dependent on political patronage to adopt systems and processes that are transparent, democratic, and results oriented. The key change should be to adopt a ‘can do’ approach to achieve intended objectives of the organisations the public servants work for. While efforts are made to change behavioural patterns and administrative methods and practices for transacting government businesses, simultaneous attention needs to be paid to create a body of independent, trained, and professionally competent people, who could act as a ‘think tank’ to (i) improve strategic planning methodologies, (ii) review and modify, if required, development proposals, and (iii) provide conceptual and advisory support for enhancing implementation, monitoring and evaluation processes for more effective realisation of outputs and outcomes envisaged during project or programme preparation. This raises the need to include both, ‘generalists’ and ‘specialists’ in the ‘think tank’; the generalists to understand and interpret issues from many sides, and the specialists to look at specific technical issues of central relevance to key departments and ministries.
The fundamental principle behind the creation of an additional team of ‘thinkers’ and ‘doers’ should be to recommend action plans based on the concept of doing things in the ‘public interest’. In doing things in the public interest it is inevitable that flexibility may be exercised and the principle of impartiality and independence may be compromised at least in part, as it happened in the UK during the last government under David Cameron. Previously, senior civil servants under the Labour government were under pressure to observe the principle of ‘duty to deliver’, which meant critiquing and analysing the merits and demerits of issues were of secondary importance. Such interpretations and flexibilities in decision-making and delivery of services are bound to occur in any democracy that is accountable to the people. But the major difference in all these interpretations is that there are no overt attempts to create a political culture of interference but isolated instances of administrative adjustments to cope with the needs of governance.
Another aspect that deserves consideration in the reform of public administration is the need to provide for checks and balances in the management of the public service. The concept of ‘Ombudsman’ adopted in many public sector institutions is considered appropriate in this regard because of the need to provide access to a redress mechanism for those who transact business with government institutions in the event of unfair and improper administrative decisions. As part of the reform process, reactivation of the institution of Ombudsman with more powers should be considered to ensure that the principles of fairness, impartiality, and integrity are integral to decision-making in the public service. The concept of Ombudsman is widely adopted in many developed countries, particularly the Nordic countries and countries such as Australia and New Zealand.
The Nineteenth Amendment cannot be considered a panacea for resolving the multitude of complex managerial issues that hampered good public administration over almost four decades, although it has reopened the doors for revitalising the spirit of good governance. The mechanisms of the Constitutional Council, the PSC, and the overall oversight by Parliament have all built into the system a semblance of fair play and justice in the recruitment, transfer, and disciplinary control of the public servants. But the extent to which the implementation of these mechanisms will prevent infringement of the principles of good governance will depend on the commitment and integrity of the Cabinet of Ministers and the President to uphold accepted norms and procedures of good management. The ultimate success in ensuring a depoliticised and transparent public service will depend on the manner in which the Constitutional Council exercises its powers in selecting and recommending Commissioners of proven integrity to the President. A question arises as to whether the role of the Constitutional Council should be further buttressed and safeguarded through a statutory provision requiring it to submit quarterly reports to the Parliament.
The lead given by the current government in conducting free and fair elections devoid of violence as well as the procedures adopted to investigate maladministration and abuses so far give credence to the belief that the principles of good governance are already in place and that the country could expect a more independent and impartial public administration. A recent editorial in The Sunday Observer (9th August 2015) summed up the current situation as follows, “It is the 19th amendment that restored power and administrative autonomy to the Elections Commissioner and his Department to a degree that he can notify the President – once the all-powerful office – and the President moves promptly to transfer a Ministry Secretary … Civil society groups must take note of all these little upsurges in good governance and civilized politics so creative inputs could be given to ensure that these are not momentary flashes but will become entrenched in institutions and ways of political life. Both politicians and government officials will need to absorb these ‘best practices’ as normal functions and not exceptional behaviour.” It is with such hope that the future of public administration should be viewed, especially because there is recognition that an efficient public service would be the key driver of good governance. It is expected that the constitution itself may undergo more changes emphasising further the principles of good governance. This may include checks and balances being restored to the management of public institutions and strengthening the powers of the PSC to withstand political pressures.
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 Australia, New Zealand, the USA, and the UK are currently adopting such measures to improve productivity.