Public service reform
Sri Lanka's public
sector has come in for much criticism over the years and for
good reasons. Its history of inefficiency and lacklustre
performance is only too well known for elaboration. At a time
when the economy is poised to take off in this post conflict
period, there is a need for a healthy efficient public service
to back up and play a pro-active role in the Government's
development drive. But is our public sector prepared for this
challenge? The way things are, our public service is today
moribund and still mired in hidebound concepts. Hence there is a
need for a complete overhaul to make it adapt to the new milieu.
But this may prove a Herculean task given the entrenched nature
of the country's public sector.
Today, as is common knowledge most public sector institutions
are a liability to the State but maintained at heavy public
cost. Hence one would expect these State bodies to be obliged to
provide a better service to the public. The reality however is
completely different. Today, the country's public service is
marked by arrogance with its employees treating their duties to
the public in terms of doing them a favour. This is an attitude
that should be banished if the public are to be served as they
deserve.In the interim basic, courtesy should be inculcated in
the public sector staff and above all their service to the
public to be treated as an obligation. These institutions are
maintained by public funds even though most of them are white
elephants guzzling up State resources but giving little return.
It goes without saying that our public sector has earned a
very low esteem among the public who considers it an ordeal to
have any dealings with a Government Department. One has only to
walk into a State Institution to confirm this view. A general
air of lethargy and drift greets the visitor. The empty desks,
groups of employees huddled in corners or hanging on to
telephones, idle fans, mountains of files all goes to paint a
picture of decay.
The lackadaisical attitude to public inquiries,inordinate
delays, being sent from pillar to post and the general feeling
of being an intruder into a well-guarded citadel complete the
picture of what our public service is all about. A harried
public can only throw their hands up in despair as excuses are
trotted out for the non-performance of a basic function.
It is in this context that an observation made by Public
Management and Reforms Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayaka bears
relevance. Addressing representatives of Trade Unions he has
enjoined public servants to discard the words 'No' and 'Can't'
from their vocabulary. Or told in plain Sinhala 'ne' 'be' kiyala
Unfortunately this 'ne' 'be' culture is firmly ingrained in
our public sector and the former Prime Minister who counts over
50 years of public life is only too aware of this. Today Public
servants consider themselves as a privileged breed and though
they may get less paid than their counterparts in the private
sector make up for it by their impudence and insolence at the
cost of the general public.
Of course it goes without saying that the rot set in with the
politicization of the public service. Discipline was thrown out
of the window and it was a case of the tail wagging the dog when
employees carrying political clout began to rule the roost with
even the Head of Departments fearing to upset the status quo.
This has led to the gradual deterioration of our once coveted
As a result today, the public service is filled with square
pegs in round holes that have spawned incompetence, inefficiency
and lethargy with the public made to grin and bear the
indignities it is made to suffer at the hands of political
Therefore the solution to end this 'ne' 'be' culture is only
too obvious. For this there has to be a political will on the
part of the authorities. The public service which was once held
in much esteem should be weaned away of the deadwood and made a
really service oriented one that would meet the aspirations of
the public. For this, the public service should be excised of
its rotten core. Nothing else would suffice.