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Trimming the public service

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The Finance Ministry this week announced it had obtained Cabinet approval to hold heads of State institutions, including ministry secretaries, department heads and even accountants responsible for paying for employees that have been recruited beyond the approved public sector cadre. 

This appears to be the latest attempt by the Government to discourage recruitment for posts that do not add value to the public sector. However, what must be remembered is that extra workers are usually pushed into the public sector by politicians. In the past decade there has been an emerging trend in Sri Lanka where the political party in power creates jobs in the public sector to absorb unemployed graduates and party supporters without considering whether the appointments serve any development process. 

One great example of this is the recruitment of nearly 80,000 “development officers,” which was initiated by the previous administration but has continued under this Government as well. The Management Service Department under the Treasury has observed that there are still 18,000 positions vacant in this category but some of the officers who were previously hired are not given specific work in the institutions they are sent into. These employees are paid by taxpayers and it is incredible that these appointments are given preference above vacancies in healthcare, education, engineering and other technical fields.

According to latest figures released by the Finance Ministry there are over 1.3 million public workers in total with at least 7,500 of these recruited outside due process. Yet if a proper evaluation is done the number of inefficient and wasteful appointments would undoubtedly be many times this number. This situation is usually caused by political interference because people who work on political campaigns do so because they are low skilled and usually cannot find a better job on their own. The preference for public sector jobs also stems from the non-contributory pension schemes, vehicle permits, excess leave and other benefits such as maternity leave that private sector workers would not have access to.    

Economists have argued that when successive Governments were unwilling or unable to introduce economic reforms that would increase private sector job creation, they found the public sector to be a convenient employment creation agency. However, the macroeconomic instability arising from the current fiscal framework calls for a radical rethink of the traditional approach to the Government being the employer of first resort. 

No program of public service restructuring will be sustainable in this country unless it is supplemented by a package of other reforms that generates rapid expansion of private sector activity. In a country with a limited population, freeing up public sector workers might be the best recruitment tool for the private sector, but this remains the challenge as politicians continue to use recruitment as a gateway for votes. 

Absorbing unemployable people to unproductive sectors only makes it more difficult to develop the country, and the brunt of that is often faced by hard-working citizens who have chosen to work in productive sectors and pay taxes. Surely, it is time for these people to have their efforts honoured above short-term political gain. Public sector reform requires board and sustained measures. Making a few public officials responsible for recruitments is simply scratching the surface.

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