|Saturday, 6 April 2002|
Reconditioning the public service
by T. Somasekaram
As in my other writings, I write from direct personal experience. I joined the public service in 1957 when I was 22 years old, as an Asst. Supdt. of Surveys and retired 35 years later, in 1992 at the age of 58, as Survyor General. My overall impression of the public service is that it is like a Benz car - now sadly hacked and ruined by years of misuse, but still a Benz and it can be re-conditioned and made to run very well indeed.
I have been in the private sector managing my own small publishing company, for 9 years after retirement, but the overall impression of the public service has remained unchanged. At the topmost levels, the public service is of higher quality than the private sector, the same assessment applies to the average workforce. Where the difference lies is in the initiative, drive and forcefulness and the freedom to take quick decisions in the private sector. What follows are some practical tips about how the public service can be re-conditioned and made to run well.
Public Service Commission
The first step required is to create a truly independent Public Service Commission and put all matters connected with the public service - from appointment, promotion, disciplinary, control to dismissal and retirement under their purview. A five man commission, consisting of persons of true eminence from different disciplines - law, medicine, science, administration and business can be appointed.
They should be persons of such eminence that the country and all public servants will accept them as worthy of holding the posts. The principle in law, 'Just must not only be done, it must also appear to be done' is relevant. The members of the PSC must be men and women of unquestioned integrity, who cannot be swayed by external pressures.
The next step would be delegation of power and responsibilities. This will involve categorisation of the public service into three broad layers - staff officers, middle grade officers and minor grades. While the PSC can directly handle the staff grades, its powers over the other grades should be delegated to Heads of Departments. This was the practice when we joined the public service.
The system worked very well. Unfortunately, the powers of the heads of departments have been hijacked by the Ministry staff, leaving them with the responsibility for carrying out their work but with hardly any power to enforce their decisions.
Empowering heads of departments Two illustrative cases
Case 1 - Reinstating an officer who had vacated post
I would like to relate two 'believe it or not' stories from my public service days to illustrate the real need to restore the power of the Heads of Departments. a Surveyor working in the Anuradhapura Division had gone on leave to Jaffna and got delayed to return due to transport difficulties, in crossing the Kilali lagoon. The officer granting the leave, the Supdt. of Surveys, Anuradhapura, had served 'vacation of post' notice in terms of the Standing Orders.
The Surveyor managed to cross Kilali and reached Anuradhapura even before he received the vacation of post notice. But an officer who has been 'vacated' cannot be allowed to resume work unless he is re-instated. But the power to re-instate was with the Ministry. The Surveyor had come back to Anuradhapura, the Asst. Supdt. recommended his reinstatement, the Supdt of Surveys recommended that he be reinstated, the Provincial Deputy Surveyor General recommended that he be reinstated and this recommendation reached the Surveyor General.
But he had no power to reinstate. He sent up the papers to the Ministry recommending that the Surveyor be reinstated. The Ministry took about two months to reply stating that he could be re-instated. Surely, this power should have been left to the Surveyor General or to the Provincial Deputy Surveyor General. If so, the Surveyor could have commenced work within one week of returning to Anuradhapura. As it happened, a professional man willing to work was idling for over two months, while the Ministry took its sweet time to exercise its power of re-instatement.
Case 2 - Routine Promotions
My second story is about routine promotions. Effecting routine promotions consequent to the retirement of more senior officers is a simple matter. Earlier, it used to be a brief order by SG, "The retirement of Mr. A. B. Perera, Grade I Surveyor on 13 March 1963 is approved. Mr. X. Y. Fernando, Grade II is promoted to Grade I from that date". In fact, where vacancies arose as a result of officers reaching the age limit, the officers getting promoted used to get their promotion letters in advance. Now the situation is simply ludicrous. No less than 15 different steps are involved and the time taken will be over six months. Let me illustrate with an actual case.
Step 1 - SG writes to Ministry "Please approve the retirement of Mr. A. B. Perera Grade I Surveyor on 13 March 1998".
Step 2 - Ministry responds about two weeks later, "Retirement of Mr. A. B. Perera, Grade I Surveyor is approved".
Step 3 - SG to Ministry "Please approve filling the vacancy caused by the retirement of Mr. A. B. Perera, Grade I Surveyor". (This is how they want it done. Even Steps I and 3 cannot be combined.)
Step 4 - Two weeks later, Ministry to SG, "Filling the vacancy caused by the retirement of Mr. A. B. Perera Grade I Surveyor is approved".
Step 5 - SG to Ministry, "Please approve the following officers to form the selection board to interview candidates for promotion. (Generally, a senior Deputy Surveyor General as Chairman, an Asst. Secretary of the Ministry, the DSG (Admn) and one or two officers from allied departments).'
Step 6 - Ministry to SG, "Composition of the Selection Board is approved"
Step 7 - The subject clerk dealing with the matter telephones all officers approved to form the Selection Board, finds a date to suit all and fixes it. (The date to suit all may be several weeks away.)
Step 8 - The date, time and place is confirmed in writing to members of the selection board. If the number of vacancies in 'N', then '2N' eligible candidates are notified to be present to be interviewed.
Step 9 - On the date fixed, Departmental vehicles are sent to bring the members of the Selection Board.
Step 10 - The selection board meets, works out a scheme of marking and conducts the interview. (After the interview date was fixed, and the members were known, there would have been numerous telephone calls and letters in support of some of the candidates.) Some members of the board will ignore these extraneous influences, other will surreptitiously glance at the letters under their files or their notes of telephone calls. Results are finalised and all members of the selection board sign.
Step 11 - The list showing the marks received by the candidates and the list of those selected is sent to the Ministry for approval.
Step 12 - The list is approved and the Ministry asks the Department to prepare the letters of appointment and send them for signature.
Step 13 - The letters of appointment are prepared and sent to the Ministry.
Step 14 - 'In due course' the letters of appointment are received after signature.
Step 15 - SG despatches the letters of appointment to the officers who have been promoted.
This was the situation during my time more than 9 years ago. I telephoned a senior officer now in service and asked him whether there has been any change for the better. He told me the procedure remains exactly as it was during my time. Please also see some classic cases described in my book Surveying Stories .
All the troubles with the Trade Unions in the Survey Department for over decade were due to this one fact - SG, while he was responsible for carrying out the work, had practically no power over his staff and could not make even simple decisions like re-instating officers of effecting routine promotions.
This is no isolated phenomenon. Whether it be the Director General of Irrigation, the Conservator of Forests or other heads of departments, they are able and responsible officers who have come to the top after a lifetime of service but incompetent nincompoops sitting in Ministries with various high sounding titles, prove to be real bottlenecks in getting work done.
Duties of Ministers, Ministry Secretaries and Heads of Departments
I must make it clear that Ministers have the moral and constitutional duty to lay down policy and monitor progress. The Ministry Secretary, as the Chief Accounting Officer, answerable by name to Parliament, has every right to give instructions to Heads of Departments under him and monitor their progress.
But it is a fundamental blunder to try to handle day-to-day activities, particularly of the technical, professional and specialist departments, where Ministry staff from the general services are simply not competent to carry out the task. Empower the heads of departments, hold them responsible and send them off - retire them for inefficiency - if they do not perform.
Test of Efficiency
There was a well known study of the British Civil Service, headed by Lord Fulton, in the mid 1980's. In the study, several indices for measuring the efficiency of the public service were developed. These were Inter period comparisons, Inter-agency comparisons, Inter-national comparisons and Speed of Replying to Letters. Let us take Speed of Replying to Letters and apply Inter-period comparisons for the decades 1951 to 1960 and 1991 to 2000.
When I was in Vakarai in the Eastern Province in 1959, an application for an old Survey plan posted at the Vakarai Sub PO, resulted in a tin roll containing the document being received on the 3rd day. I am not exaggerating. It happened repeatedly. The request was taken in the Vakarai Valaichenai bus, loaded along with other mail into the night mail train to Colombo and sorted by the travelling postal staff.
It was taken over by a peon from SGO collecting all letters to P.O. Box 506. It would reach the documents section the same day, the documents would be found, parcelled and put in a tin roll and delivered to the Colombo PO. It would travel in the night mail train, reach Valaichenai, then get transported by bus to Vakarai and reach me on the 3rd day. Same with letters. I myself answered all letters. by return post.
The then A.R. prescribed that letters must be replied to within 3 days and if it could not be done, interim replies should be sent once a week, till the matter was disposed of. We dared not disobey the A. R. as our next increment might not be granted, if we were found to be inefficient in correspondence, for which there was a specific box in the Confidential Report. The A. R. has been replaced by the EC and this rule has been omitted.
What is happening now? Even if a Surveyor has done excellent work, there would be no signs of his increment being paid, unless the Surveyor visits the Head Office, gets his papers looked into by the office clerical staff, possibly give them 'something' and arrange to have his increment paid. (I know this for a fact.)
Speed of replying to letters is not only an index of efficiency, it is also an index of lack of corruption. If members of the same Department or other Departments and the public can expect replies to letters within one week, there will be no need for them to visit offices or pay 'something' to get legitimate work done.
As we rose in the hierarchy and the Survey Department started going down, along with the rest of the public service and the nation, those of us who were concerned about the reputation of the Department insisted on seeing the mail every day before it was distributed to the staff.
My predecessor as SG Mr. Elmore Perera went to the extent of getting every letter recorded and following its progress through the Branches. I thought this was too cumbersome a procedure but got my PAs to record every Reminder received and followed up. Every 2nd Reminder would result in a sharp rebuke from me to the staff officer concerned.
I have just received the latest of Cambridge, the magazine of the Cambridge Society. It contains the address made by the Vice Chancellor Sir Alec Broers. He states inter alia, "A Vice Chancellor has a unique opportunity of seeing the University in all its aspects, from the outside and the inside. For instance, the fact that I insist on seeing personally every complaint received in the office is one of the best ways of taking the pulse..."
I think this is a salutary and practical method. Heads of Departments have to see the Audit Query register and initial it once a month. Similarly, the government can issue a circular that there should be a Register of Reminders maintained by the Personal Assistants and every Head of Department or Provincial/District office is responsible for following up.
Cutting out deadwood
Unless a Department is functioning with 100% efficiency, there must be at least a few cases of disciplinary action. It would be salutary to ask every Head of Department and Ministry Secretary to send:-
(1) the last printed Administration Report and to provide the names and designations of the officers
(2) who were commended for good service
(3) who were warned to show better progress
(4) whose increments were suspended, deferred or stopped
(5) who were retired for inefficiency and
(6) who were dismissed.
Cutting out deadwood is beneficial to both parties, the Government and the officer concerned. The following incident will illustrate my point. When I was Supdt. of Surveys, Colombo in the late 1960s a draughtsman named Abeyanayake became a habitual drunkard and an inefficient worker and all my efforts to correct him failed. The standard public service technique is to get such an officer transferred, passing on the headache to another officer.
I did not believe in doing so and recommended that he be retired for inefficiency. SG accepted my recommendation and he was retired. About a year later, I was in a local train late in the evening when I saw Abeynayake in the same compartment, fully drunk. The compartment was crowded and I was feeling nervous. He came over to my side, sat down, and told me, "Sir, thank you very much for retiring me. I did not fit into the Department. Now I have my pension and am also doing a business and am far better off". Saying so, he hugged me and kissed me on both cheeks, to the merriment of all the passengers in the compartment - and my heartfelt relief.
Senior management service
The abolition of the Ceylon Civil Service is a blunder of great magnitude. During Civil Service days, only 6 to 8 were selected by open competitive examination from graduates between the ages of 22 and 24 and it ensured the cream of talent to hold the topmost positions.
Those officers were of real quality. The abolition of the CCS and creation of the large SLAS where intake per year is much larger has made it a much diluted service. Also, instead of the officers rising to the top on merit, now they climb to the top by becoming known to politicians while serving in their areas and being inducted to the Ministry when those politicians acquire power.
Once there was a high powered delegation of senior public servants from Singapore and from them it was learnt that they were better paid than their counterparts in the private sector. On inquiry, a Singaporean had responded, "A company Director can only ruin his company; a senior public servant can ruin the whole country!"
Modern communication technology
I have been telephoning several departments in the recent past. I am blandly told by the peon or the PA that Mahattaya will come around 9.30. Another frequent answer is that he is out for a conference. More frequently still, the telephone is engaged, even when the head is out, as someone else is using the free telephone!.
I think the following steps are overdue. All Heads of Departments and other Government institutions must have an E-mail address. In the case of the larger Departments, heads of Divisions should also have separate E-mail addresses. Instead of letters, E-mail messages should be sent. Where money or important matters are involved, a signed document can follow by post.
All inter-agency correspondence within the Government should be on this basis. Also, conferences where personal attendance is required should be cut down. Specifically, it is better to lay down a rule that there should be no conferences on Wednesdays and Thursdays and all officers must be in their offices and attend to their duties.
Further, E-conferencing can be introduced. During my time 10 years ago, there used to be conferences where about 30 senior staff would be present at a Ministry conference the whole morning and either no matter concerning the Department would come up or perhaps one or two minor matters. I am told that this happening even now.
Within each Ministry, the Minister, Secretary and all Heads can form an E-group so that all get to read the message sent by anyone of them. The old boys of my school Jaffna Hindu College have an e-group. My son and his friends from St. John's College Jaffna have formed an E-group named the SJC 90 group i.e. those who were in the school in 1990. The old boys are scattered all over the world now, but they are in touch on a daily basis, the messages ranging from very humorous recollections of their teachers to announcements of weddings. (I get to see the messages because we have the same e-mail address)
Non implementation of official language policy
The constitution was amended in 1987 to provide that Sinhala and Tamil shall be the official languages and English the link language. President Premadasa was able to reach in to the hearts of the Tamil community, because he spoke in Tamil on national TV while campaigning for the Presidency, and he repeated the oath in Tamil from the Paddirupuwa when he took the oath of office.
Earlier, as the deputy leader of the UNP, he represented the party at the funeral of Mr. S. J. V. Chelvanayakam in the Jaffna Esplanade before a huge crowd, in March 1977. His tribute to Mr. Chelvanayakan was in pure, high flown Tamil, from the first word to the last. I think he must have got the text written out in Sinhala, and memorised it but he did face a huge emotional audience and speak in their language.
This is of great symbolic value. When I travel along Galle Road, and pass the Kollupitiya Police Station, it does hurt me that the board is in Sinhala and English, without Tamil. Turning words into deeds is an important matter. I think effective steps should be taken to ensure that all public name boards must be in all three languages.
When I visited Jaffna Hospital in 1991, when the LTTE was in control, I was pleased to notice that the word Ward was in all three languages and the directions to go to different sections of the large hospital was also in all three languages.
Actual implementation of the language provisions of the constitution will help in the peace process, because Tamil people will begin to see that the government is sincere.
Produced by Lake House