Random Reflections on the Public Service

Leelananda de Silva, from the Sunday Island,

Introduction: It is called the Public Service as its members are paid from the public purse. The term has nothing to do with the larger and more noble concept of performing a public service, which can be done by anyone from the larger society. A public service employee is a government and state employee, and whether the tasks they perform contribute to the welfare of the public depends on the nature of the government and the state that they serve. In ancient times, those paid by the state served the monarch. Under the British, public service employees served his or her majesty’s government, and whether they served the public was a subsidiary issue. Some did, more than others. The golden era of the public service in the country was arguably the period from 1948 – 1977, when there was parliamentary government. During this period, there was a democratic polity, elected by the people, and where the government and the state, and their employees served the public in a relatively transparent manner, and accountable to the public and parliament. Under the presidential system, public employees are serving the government more and the public less.The public service of any country can be efficient and effective only if other conditions are right. A primary requirement is that the system of public administration in the country should be logically organized in a way that enables the public service to discharge its functions satisfactorily in the interest of the public. When the machinery of government is in disarray, the public service is equally disorganized. When politics is criminalized, and independent institutions like the judiciary, the attorney general, the auditor general, the elections commissioner, the Central Bank, the public accounts committee and the police are interfered with, and there is rampant corruption and bribery in the transaction of public business, there is not much opportunity for a functional public service. Dysfunctionality becomes the norm. In Sri Lanka, the public service alone cannot be reformed. There is a urgent need for reform of the machinery of government, so that its overriding aim is to serve the public and not the interests of the few politicians who are in power.

The British period: From 1796, for 150 years, the British ruled Ceylon. They inherited a feudal system of government which had functioned under authoritarian monarchical regimes. The British while making changes in that system did not abolish it altogether. What they did was to merge the feudal with more modern systems of colonial government. The mudaliyars and the headmen continued to manage the affairs of rural Ceylon. These functionaries were not selected on merit. They were recruited on the basis of caste and family, with the son succeeding the father in these offices in most instances. For the common man, these are the officials that mattered. The more modern system of government as represented by the Government Agents (GAs) and Assistant Government Agents (AGAs) touched the lives of ordinary people only rarely. Until the very late years of British rule, judicial and executive functions were not separate. The AGAs functioned as magistrates and district judges.

                During this period, the economic development of the country was predicated on the development of plantations, first coffee and then tea. Along with the plantations came the emergence of a local educated middle class. This class of businessmen, lawyers, public servants and others were beneficiaries from British rule. The public service which gradually expanded during this period largely served the interests of this middle class, which never exceeded 10 – 15 percent of the population. The public service was of benefit to only a minority of the population. Eighty percent of the population was served by mudaliyars and headmen who were feudal chieftains. If the public service in the British period served the public in any way, it was a service to the middle class. Anyway, British public officials were there to serve largely the British raj, and the plantation economy.

                The British who ruled Ceylon until about 1900 were themselves governed by a feudal system in Britain itself. The common man and woman did not have the vote until the late 1920s. The House of Lords representing the aristocracy and the monarch himself exercised considerable power. One could not expect more democratic systems in the British colonies. The British officials in Sri Lanka were mostly appointed by the secretary of state for the colonies, who was a politician in Britain. There was no independent Public Service Commission to appoint them. What Ceylon had at that time was British politics in various forms. When it is said that there was no politics in British times, and the politics came after 1948, and disfigured the administrative machinery, one tends to forget that the politicians of that time were the high ranking British officials. The British Governor was basically a British politician, if not in name. When Governor Stubbs deported the young British tea planter, Bracegirdle for having joined the LSSP in the late 1930s, was it not politics?

                One should not forget the condition of Ceylon when the British were administering the country. Dr. Ananda Meegama in his recent book “Famines, Fevers and Fear”, has described in detail the condition of the eighty percent of the population, which was largely neglected by the British rulers and by the feudal ruling class. In 1900, of the one thousand two hundred village tanks in the Nuwarakalaviya district (now Anuradhapura), only one tank was functioning. Similarly, in an instuctive article on the Hambantotoa district (in the Island of 23rd November 2011) the former government archivist Harris de Silva described the near famine conditions of that district at the time of Leonard Woolf. Only a tiny fraction of government budgetary expenditures were allocated to these districts where the vast majority of this population lived. Leonard Woolf might be a liberal administrator, but he had no financial resources at his disposal to undertake any meaningful development of the district.

                A significant proportion of the people of Ceylon viewed the British administration in a favourable light. What were the reasons behind this phenomenon? First, in rural Ceylon and for rural people, the British administrators (GAs and AGAs), appeared to be fair and objective in their decisions, and also incorruptible. In contrast, they largely despised the feudal Ceylonese functionaries – the mudaliyars and the headmen with their own local interests and agendas. Second, the middle class in Ceylon, whether educated English or not, looked upon the British as having given them significant economic and social benefits. An important contribution of the British was also the way they organized the system of administration, with clear lines of responsibility and demarcation of administrative tasks. They left a superb system of administrative organization and method. They attached a high value to the preservation of records, which is vital to efficient administration. Above all, there was the rule of law which applied to all, including high British officials. There was no exemption. For a non- democratic imperial regime, the British were benign rulers. During this period, there were clearly outstanding British public servants who went against the grain and had an attachment to this country and contributed to its advancement, in the midst of significant limitations of resources. There were governors like Gregory and Ward. Dr. W.R. Kynsey initiated the establishment of a national health service. There were many others of this ilk among the British who served Ceylon.

                At the end of the British period, there was a system of administration which pragmatically had blended the generalist and the specialist models of administration. The generalists administered the provinces, of which a major task was the maintenance of law and order. Development functions at least until 1931 were rudimentary. The specialists were more to be seen at the centre in Colombo. Many departments (there were no ministries) were headed by specialists, and they reported to the new ministers under the State Council system. Non- civil servants, with specialized experience headed the departments (agriculture, irrigation, education, health, railways, electricity, and public works) and they reported direct to ministers.

Parliamentary government, 1948–1977:

Sri Lanka had a system of parliamentary government for 30 years. It was a short lived and yet a memorable and highly stimulating experience. At independence in 1948, Sri Lanka had adopted a generalist model of administration at the top. Departments were organized into ministries, and each ministry had a cabinet minister, about 20 of them. A permanent secretary headed each ministry and almost all of them were from the Ceylon Civil Service (CCS). The generalist administrator was placed on top, and the specialists were largely subordinate to the generalist administration. This was following the model in the United Kingdom. There were many other models that could have been followed, like in the USA, Australia and Canada where specialist play a larger role in government. Unlike in India which abolished the Indian Civil Service and established the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Sri Lanka continued with the CCS for another 15 years. The CCS was a flawed institution after 1955, denying women the right of entry, when institutions like the Central Bank and the Income Tax Department were taking in women and at a time when bright female graduates were passing out of the university.

                An important development in public administration was the abolition of the CCS and the establishment of the Ceylon Administrative Service (CAS) in 1962. By the time it was established, merging the CCS and other departmental administrative staff grades which had been established from time to time since about 1931. The new CAS was conceived in haste, and was not the product of reasoned analysis of the administrative needs of the country. The CAS, as it was conceived at the time, was the outcome of negotiations among three interested parties- the CCS, the DRO service, and other administrative staff grades of which there were about fifteen and represented by the Ceylon Administrative Service Association. The CCS (about 100 strong) had strong support from the top echelons of the beaurocracy. The DROs (about 150 of them), were politically powerful, with strong support from the political class. The other staff grades, with varying salary scales, each grade numbering about 25 or 30 or even less, had no powerful ally. The outcome in the form of the structure of the CAS was the result of horse trading among these three groups. The form and structure of the CAS could have been different if it was conceived in relation to Sri Lanka’s overall public management demands. It could have been possible to enable officers to go up within their own departmental services and reach the top, thus enabling greater specialization at the departmental level, like in the Department of Inland Revenue.

                The 1948 constitution provided for the establishment of a Public Service Commission (PSC). This type of independent PSC existed until 1972. The permanent secretaries were not appointed by the PSC. Other senior public service appointments were made by the PSC directly, either through interviews or through competitive examinations like the CAS. The tasks of appointing middle grade and junior officials were delegated to departmental heads of government. There was a competitive examination for the clerical service. It is my experience that departmental heads who were delegated the task of appointment of officers within their department, carried out their duties fairly and with little political interference. Whenever appointments were made by the PSC directly, there was more opportunity for political influence. Prof. Wiswa Warnapala in his outstanding study “Civil Service Administration in Ceylon” has analyzed the functioning of the PSC during this period, and it is clear that it worked closely with the Prime Minister when making its recommendations. There was a strong political element in all senior appointments.

                One of the important characteristics of public administration during this period was the growth of public corporations and statutory boards. These bodies were established by legislation, and stating with the Gal Oya Board in the late 1940s, they came to dominate the economic operations of the state. Banks, transport, ports, civil aviation and the plantation economy (after 1975) were managed by public corporations and statutory boards. There were numerous other areas which were managed through this mechanism. The appointment of the governing boards of these corporations was the responsibilities of the minister concerned and the prime minister. The appointments below that level were made by the boards themselves. There was no institution like the PSC to control or monitor these appointments. The board appointments were largely political in nature. This clearly indicates the very limited role of the PSC in overall government appointments.

                During this period of 30 years, apart from the abolition of the Ceylon Civil Service and the establishment of the new Ceylon Administrative service, many other changes can be observed. In 1970, with a new government, the earlier system of almost exclusive system of appointing permanent secretaries from among generalist administrators was done away with. In 1970, permanent secretaries who were economists, engineers, doctors and educationists were appointed, and there were also many political appointments. Engineering, scientific and economic planning services were created in parallel with the Ceylon Administrative Service. The generalist model at the top was being diluted by an infusion of specialists at the top. The economic management of the country, undertaken in these years primarily by the ministries of finance and planning, were staffed by a large number of economists, specially from the central bank. In 1970, with a new Ministry of Public Administration (the Treasury having given up the role of managing the public service), there was an opportunity for a greater focus on the development of public service capacities through training. This led to the creation of the Academy of Administrative Studies in 1969, which is a landmark in the history of public administration in Sri Lanka.

As we enter the 1970s, we see another development in the shape of greater devolution to the districts and the introduction of politics into the management of district affairs. B.S. Wijeweera in his superb study “A Colonial Administrative System in Transition” has described in some detail, the establishment of the District Political Authority System and that of District ministers. The role of the government agent has been diminished as a result. This trend towards greater devolution to the districts and provinces continued over the next decade or two a politicized provincial administration has emerged as an important feature in public administration in Sri Lanka. Although this would appear as unusual in this country, it is a common feature in all western democracies, where elected bodies and elected personnel determine the policies and strategies for development and management at regional and district levels. Devolution up to 1977 was basically an attempt to give members of parliament a greater role in their own districts. There was no devolution in the form of directly elected politicians managing the affairs of a district or a province. That came later.

                                                                               PART TWO

The Presidential System after 1978

I am an outsider when it comes to this period and I shall make a few general observations.  The constitution which was adopted in 1978, and the many amendments, and interpretations since then, have whittled down the autonomy of the public service.  The presidential system, with a strong president and supported by two thirds of the membership of parliament, has gradually developed authoritarian tendencies, which in turn have influenced the evolution of public administration in the country.

One of the major developments has been the growing disarray in the system of public administration. The cabinet was always a political institution but in its formation, its shape was determined by the imperative of rational administrative management. The size of the cabinet until 1977 was not more than 25 members. Under the presidential system it is double that size and in addition there are other subject and project ministries, so that there are about a hundred ministers and deputy ministers. The departmental scene has altered radically. Politics is the determining factor in the allocation of tasks among ministers. The cohesive pursuit of governmental administration has been largely lost sight of. There is so much overlapping of tasks that coordination appears to be a nightmare. The efficient functioning of the public service requires a streamlined and a purposive machinery of government. Under the presidential system, this has been lost sight of.

                The other major development after 1977 that has affected the public service is the transformation of Sri Lanka into a market economy. The private sector is now the dominant player in the economic development of the country. The profile of the public service in the management of the country’s affairs has diminished, and the role of the private sector has increased. Today, the private sector can claim to be staffed by the best and brightest of the country’s managers while the public service even at the top is relatively weak. This is partly due to the salary structure of the public service when compared with those in the private sector. The people who matter are those with MBAs and with accountancy qualifications. Many of those in the private sector at senior levels have been educated abroad unlike those in the public service.

                The rise of the private sector, coupled with the increasing globalization of the economy, has brought up new challenges to those responsible for the public management of the economy. Singapore has a dynamic private sector, with strong regulatory systems to ensure that the country benefits from new patterns of economic and business transactions. There is little evidence that the public sector bodies responsible for economic management have the technical skills, and the required autonomy to manage these relationships. Recently, there have been many problems with the Colombo Stock Exchange and the regulatory processes involved. For a market economy to benefit the country and its people, there has to be transparent regulatory processes.

Another striking development of the last thirty years has been the important role of the security services in the country at a time of civil unrest. In the North and the East, the security services have virtually taken over the functioning of the civil administration. In other parts of the country, they are major factor in civil administration. The Ministry of Defence is a powerful department with large budget allocations, and significant procurement programmes. Prior to the 1970s, the Ministry of Defence was largely run by civilians. That pattern has now changed.  Should the security services, like in the old days be more controlled by civilian administrators?

One of the features of the presidential system has been the increasing number of advisers from outside the public service, attached to the president’s office and to other ministries. These advisers are a parallel establishment to that of ministries, and they cover identical functions to those of ministries. These are largely political appointment. There is no evidence that these appointments are made on the basis of any expertise, these advisers might possess. One of the key institutions in overseeing the public service and in ensuring public service accountability was the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament. In the earlier years, it was a member of the opposition who chaired the committee. That laudable practice has now been overlooked.

After 35 years of presidential government, the clear conclusion is that the public service has lost its autonomy to undertake new initiatives, offer policy advice and implement programmes in the most effective ways. Political priorities appear to determine public sector investment without much of a role for the public service to offer appropriate options which might obtain better outcomes. The quality of the public service, specially at the higher levels appear to have eroded partly because the best and the brightest now avoid it and partly due to the condition of the universities with which the higher levels of the public service had embedded linkages. It is indeed time for the political establishment of the country, both Government and Opposition to examine the current state of the public service and come up with an agreed set of reforms. A dysfunctional public service can be a considerable drain on the economy.

Distinct from all these other issues of public sector management, there is one overriding role for the public service, where its autonomy and its independence of action, must be secured. The public service has been the instrument to organize and manage presidential, parliamentary, provincial and other elections. The public service carried out the tasks of organizing the elections in a most acceptable manner most of the time. There has to be special provision to provide the necessary autonomy for the public service to undertake electoral tasks, without political pressure, before and afterwards. This is a subject which parliament should examine closely. Unlike under previous systems, there have hardly been election petitions, to contest the results of elections. Election laws need a fresh look and agreement sought between government and opposition.  

Future Directions:

One thing is clear. The future shape of the public service cannot be modelled of what has gone on before in the country although some elements of former systems might yet be appropriate. Sri Lanka has changed dramatically over the last sixty years since independence. Apart from a doubling of the population, the economy has expanded in the last thirty years, with extensive global linkages that its management demands all kinds of new expertise. Generalist administrators alone cannot undertake the tasks at the highest levels. Sri Lanka should look at the new developments with regard to the public service in other countries of the Commonwealth such as Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore. What follows are a few random thoughts for the reform of the public service.

                There are five hundred to one thousand posts at the top of the public service, including those of statutory boards and corporations, which will need to be identified so that those posts can be filled, not on the basis of seniority, but on the basis of established experience and merit. These posts should not be tenured ones, and might be filled on the basis of fixed term contracts (five to ten years). There should be a Top Appointments Board (TAB), which lays down the criteria for recruitment for each and every one of these top posts. The TAB would take account of the nature of each post and the tasks to be performed and develop a scheme of recruitment. The eligible persons to apply for these posts will be from within the government and outside. Eligible and qualified Sri Lankans living abroad might be encouraged to apply for these jobs. Politicians and ministers could nominate suitable persons, provided they satisfy the criteria laid down by TAB. TAB could offer more than one name for any one post, for selection by the minister or the Cabinet of Ministers. In many countries, like the United Kingdom and Australia, recruitment at the top level is not confined to those in government. Posts are routinely advertised and there is much headhunting to find the best qualified individual. Recently, the Bank of England recruited its Governor from Canada. Many posts of permanent secretary, including that of the treasury are advertised.

                One of the key tasks of the senior echelons in the public service is to assist the political arm of the government in policy making and policy development. Increasingly in most countries, this role is now being undertaken by ministerial policy advisers, and by think tanks. Recently, in the United Kingdom, suggestions have been made to outsource policy advice to think tanks and other research bodies. In these countries, there are specialist institutes addressing issues such as the economy, fiscal policy, health, education and agriculture, and these have technical capacities for research, analysis and policy advice. Sri Lanka can make a start with the existing institutes and encourage them to focus on specialized areas and seek policy advice from them. There has to be a much closer level of collaboration between institutions of this kind and departments and ministries of government. To some extent, in fields such as primary education and health, there are international organizations such as UNICEF undertaking the same function. The World Bank and the IMF has offered policy advice for a long time. These aspects of policy evaluation, incremental policy change, and policy making in government require urgent reform, so that advice can be obtained from the best available sources.

                Training, research, policy and programme analysis need to be built in to any functional system of public administration. Training has been a neglected area in the public service. The Academy of Administrative Studies which started 40 years ago has made some contribution. There is no training culture embedded in the public service. One institute alone cannot undertake the task. New approaches to training need to be instituted, both at the higher levels of government and at the lower levels, specially at the district levels, where there is close interaction between the public service employee and the people. This is one area in which early action is feasible, whatever the political strains on the public service. While rigorous research on various aspects of public policy and public administration should be encouraged, to be undertaken within departments and in collaboration with outside bodies, there is also a role for more simple, less complicated systems of research and analysis and inquiry, which can be undertaken by individuals and groups of officials in their own areas of work. There can be encouragement of them to come up with new ideas in policy development and policy implementation. The provincial system of government offers new opportunities for those at the provincial and district level, without bothering about the centre, to initiate research and analysis and even experiment in policy innovation. If one provincial council takes the initiative, others might follow.

                In many countries, what is known as the “non profit third sector”, is encouraged to develop partnerships with government, to deliver services in education, health, agricultural extension, other social services, and in entrepreneurial development. The current practice in Sri Lanka is for the government to deliver services directly. One notable exception since the 1930s has been in the running of children’s homes, under the care of the Department of Probation and Childcare. Here, voluntary bodies run these homes, supported and supervised by the government. There is the opportunity to replicate this model elsewhere and facilitate schools and hospitals to be run by community based organizations with government oversight. This approach could enable greater efficiency and accountability and also create new opportunities for mobilizing resources. The government could initiate action with a few pilot and experimental schemes.

                The public service has 1.3 million employees, including the security services. Over 30% of public expenditures (about 7% of GDP) is on public sector emoluments. The efficient and productive use of these employees can make an enormous contribution to economic and social development. It is appropriate to consider whether such a large number of public servants is essential. The bigger the numbers, the greater the constraints on improving salaries. It is essential that there is a plan for the reduction of public service employment over the medium term. While that is being done, there should be an effort to utilize the services of current employees in the most productive way. While certain sectors of the public service are overstaffed, other are languishing for lack of staff. Recently, the chief medical officer of health in Colombo has complained that he has only sixty sanitary inspectors to cover his entire area. The municipality has no funds to recruit more. It should be possible to find a way to allocate to the municipality some of the excess staff from other institutions, so that they can be trained as sanitary inspectors. A fresh look at the needs and demands for public employees from all public institutions might provide a better understanding for the more efficient allocation of these human resources in the public sector.

                In conclusion, I would like to note that I was encouraged to put down these thoughts after reading the perceptive articles by former public servants in the Sunday Island, specially those of Tissa Devendra, Chandrasena Maliyadde, Chandra Wickramasinghe and B.S. Wijeweera. The regular contributions of Dr. A.C. Visvalingam have been of great interest.


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