Empower public officials

Thursday, 13 February 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Public officials have weighty responsibilities, which is why their integrity is important. The video of a public official standing up for public interest and raising pertinent issues on development and responding to Parliamentarian Sanath Nishantha went viral this week with much support extended to the professional. What it underscores is how limited the powers of the public official is in this country to counter questionable decisions and policies taken by politicians and the need to change this situation. 

Public officials are often at the frontlines of fighting for better governance. They are also the first point of contact between the public and the State and as such, the standard of governance followed by a Government is often measured by their actions. Their efficiency is also crucial for the implementation of policy and the smooth running of a country, which makes them an indispensable part of a well-functioning nation.

It is for precisely this reason that public servants are often derided or praised. Complaints of public employees taking bribes or engaging in other misbehaviours are often highlighted because they are seen to have a greater responsibility towards the governance of a country than their private sector counterparts. Given that public servants are also custodians of tax money and public finance, they also have a greater responsibility to fight corruption, promote transparency and ensure accountability. 

However, these weighty tasks are often derailed by a general sentiment and the vested interests of politicians. As the public official states in the video, there is no point of having competent and well-qualified public servants if their views are tossed aside by politicians.  

It is important that recognition is linked to wider measures that promote reform and independence of the public sector, and provide them with clear policies and goals to implement. Ministries and departments are supposed to develop a vision and mission, strategies, goals and action plans. Departments in particular have a mandate established by acts in Parliament. Accordingly, their respective reasons for being present are well articulated. In essence, the outcomes that they want to produce and the impacts are self-evident in their vision and mission statements. 

Under the prescriptions of the General Treasury, each Government institution submits its corporate plans each year. Yet, few of them come into fruition at a level the larger public finds useful. Often the public only sees the bribe taking, the inefficiency, the strikes and protests. Despite repeated Government pledges the public service remains woefully dependent on the political system and has little space for whistle-blowing capacity to strengthen governance or push forward measures that are in the public’s interest. 

Improving the competence of the public sector is an important focus and this has been stated by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa multiple times. At a time when the Government is stepping up its recruitment ahead of elections and outlining ambitious economic reforms that desperately need competent public officials to achieve this is essential. In a country where there is a trust deficit between politicians and the public, the public sector is the ideal gatekeeper of governance and democratic institutions. 

Empowering millions in the public sector is the best investment for a developed Sri Lanka but this empowerment should come with the zero-tolerance policy on corruption. Responsibility needs to be matched with authority and the Government must ensure that professional and honest public officials are given the support that they need to do their very important work.