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Respect and the public service

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Saturday, 28 December 2019 00:01

The public sector is a much-derided segment in Sri Lanka. This is partly because they provide such vital services, it is essential to interact with them as citizens. Whether it is registering a birth, educating a child, getting married, reporting a crime, building a house or even just proving citizenship, it is the public sector that everyone has to turn to. Essentially to exist there has to be a public sector.

Therefore it is not surprising that when the public service lets down the public, the very people they are appointed to serve, the reaction is usually extreme anger. People are angry when they feel they cannot conveniently get access to the services their taxes pay for. 

The public service is often felt to have more perks than their private sector counterparts, especially as they have a non-contributory pension scheme, car permits and other advantages that the private sector does not and therefore is expected to meet public needs. This is also why in many instances the public service is seen as an essential service. 

But the public service is also riddled with inefficiency, incompetence and corruption. Having been forced to deal with these issues for years with little or no solutions, the public tends to lump all public servants together and vent their frustrations on them. They also generally tend to be happy when they are held responsible by a higher authority. This was on full display this week when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa paid a surprise visit to the Registrar of Motor Vehicles (RMV) office at Werahera. 

It is understandably inspiring when a top official undertakes a visit to a government institution to inspect its work, and clearly the public appreciates the attention and support given to their complaints. The public sector, indeed the entire country, is governed by rules and these need to be implemented. But there is also a need to understand why the public sector has become as inefficient and corrupt as it has and provide solutions to the underlying issues. 

The public sector has arguably been undermined for decades, largely by policies that were introduced by politicians themselves. The independence of the public sector was leeched away incrementally over many years, political appointees and overcrowding has diluted its efficiency and competence while scant resources along with prolonged political interference has made it extremely difficult to implement the long-needed reforms. 

Over the years, the structure of due process and accountability that is considered to be the backbone of an efficient public service has been shattered. This is not something that can be fixed with occasional attention or top-down policies. In fact the issues that have essentially taken a strangle hold on the public sector have been highlighted time and time again by respected public officials themselves who have drawn up policies and called for reforms. But they have received limited support from politicians and most reform efforts have been inconsistent. 

Every country needs an efficient public service to thrive. Sri Lanka has a long history of competent, well-qualified and efficient public servants who have been held in high esteem around the world. With the right policies and political leadership, it is possible to put Sri Lanka’s public sector right again. 

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