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Protecting public employees

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 7 February 2019 00:29


Sri Lanka’s public sector is often derided for being inefficient, corrupt and bureaucratic. It is usually seen as an overstaffed behemoth that is overregulated and impedes economic growth. Much has been said and written about how the public service should be reformed for Sri Lanka to move forward, but there is also a case to be made about good public servants who are competent and stand against corruption. Identifying such public officials and supporting them is also a major part of governance. 

The Customs Department is one of the most important public offices as it holds a law enforcement role, a revenue collection responsibility, and an economic function. Basically, without a competent Customs Department, the economy cannot function. Over 50% of public revenue is collected by the Government from Customs, and every major industry has a link to the department. 

Therefore, the standoff that sprung up between the Finance Ministry and Customs unions over the transfer of Customs Director General P.S.M. Charles was extremely important. As the days dragged on, the work-to-rule begun by the Customs unions were beginning to bite, with a range of businesses from tourism to Pettah wholesalers affected. The stalemate also forced open the lid on Customs investigations and the number of companies linked to fraudulent activities, as well allegations of political interference. 

Unions gave details of the investigations to media and public attention was drawn to their seriousness. After days and several rounds of discussions, the Cabinet decided to reappoint Charles on Tuesday. The reappointment is said to be for three months, leaving open the question of what might happen once the deadline is over. The close nexus between the investigations being done by the Customs, the companies involved and the political patronage they enjoy is well known to the public. Ensuring that these investigations are concluded independently and legal action taken is key to give public confidence that corruption can be fought successfully Sri Lanka. So far, despite four years of the “Yahapalanaya” Government, little change is seen on the ground by the public at large in connection with crimes by powerful people. 

Good governance is not just about fighting corruption. It is also about making competent appointments, and then protecting those officials so that they can promote transparency and run those departments well. Effective governance is creating the space for checks and balances to work, without interference from politicians or other powerful people. Public officials need to work without fearing they will be replaced or transferred for simply doing their job. This is not the case in Sri Lanka.  

Governments also have a responsibility to facilitate whistleblowing, and in so doing protect public interest whistle-blowers. Laws which recognise the right of those who act in the public interest not to suffer harm or threats of harm, and which build on the democratic principles of free speech and freedom of information, are critical. They provide individuals a safe alternative to the silence that allows negligence and wrongdoing to take root. 

Customs is a critical department where corruption is both allowed to happen and is investigated. Customs unions will fight for due process, but they also fight against reform that would increase accountability within their department. Changing this complex situation has proved to be beyond most governments.

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