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Lessons for the public sector chairman

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Wednesday, 13 September 2017 00:00

If anyone has served the public sector in any capacity, the decision last week by a High Court on the highest-ranked Government officer of the country sure sent shockwaves. Not only because of the hard decision of three years’ rigorous imprisonment but the personality has taught at university, a bubbly personality who was passionate about children’s education and always stood up for officials who were righteous. Incidentally a point to note is that a few months ago the Secretary to the current President resigned citing personal reasons which erred many who supported good governance.

Public sector – best talent in SL

After having worked for 17 years in British and American multinational companies, when I decided to read for my doctoral studies I decided to serve the country. I had the opportunity of serving three Presidents – Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa and current President Maithripala Sirisena in the capacities of Chairman of the Sri Lanka Export Development Board (EDB), Sri Lanka Tourism (SLTPB), the largest retail chain in Sri Lanka – Lanka Sathosa and the key policymaking entity - the National Council for Economic Development (NCED) during my tenure. The journey then took me to serve the Government of the world – the United Nations (UNOPS) for five years.

If I have to evaluate working for the private sector as against the public sector, there is no doubt the satisfaction one gets in serving the latter is a life-changing experience. I would always urge every private sector person to at least serve the Government for two years to understand some of the realities. 

Without hesitation I can state that 95% of the public sector employees are honest in their financial dealings and their commitment to the job far outweighs their counterparts in the private sector. The real public sector officials of Sri Lanka demonstrate quality of thinking and depth of strategy to be higher than the private sector counterparts. 

The logic being that to get hired into the public sector in Sri Lanka one has to be a university student and they must be the cream of this segment. Hence they are the brightest people in the country in the relevant batch to be picked up. But I do agree that their commercial thinking is limited given the exposure they have. Given the salary scales they are on, living a simple life is a way of life but this leads to reducing the complexities of life that the urban counterparts have to live up to. 

Let me share a few thoughts on working for the Government which I felt is opportune given the developments last week.

1) Minister appoints but work for people

In Sri Lanka the usual practice is that a chairman is appointed by a minister of the relevant subject area. But an ethos I followed was that after the appointment the focus must be on to the mandate that you have taken. May be your lifespan can be short with this approach on a three-year tenure but yet you can make a difference and influence strategy. You might have to balance the political economy of Sri Lanka but as long as the eye is on the mandate you were given you can service the institution well.

2) Board of directors 

Most boards of directors in Sri Lanka have an official from the Treasury. In tough institutions the Ministry of Finance appoints two members to the board. As a chairman you must keep the board informed of the decisions you take. Especially post the issues of financial governance that we have seen in the recent past, if board approval is sought or at least keeping the board informed in an official manner such as a ‘information paper’ you can manage difficult situations. 

3) Have a good advisor on AR 

and FR

Sri Lanka’s procedures might be old fashioned and out of pace with today’s challenges but if one digs into the nuts and bolts of the procedure manual we can see the many options of implementing decisions without violating Government procedures. One technique I followed was to be close to the accountant in the relevant line ministry. Normally this person is a top SLS officer and he can give you insights that can help avoid many issues in working for Government corporations. 

4) Tender procedures

A highly respected Treasury secretary once mentioned that a sure way to slow a project is the current tender procedure. But the reality is that we have live with what we have. One practice I followed even with pressure from all quarters was to ensure an anchor with strong values was included to the tender evaluation committee and a clear detail minute to be recorded post every meeting that was signed by each member apart from the tender decisions taken. 

I remember once a supplier with high connectivity exerting pressure for award but as a team we did not wilt and followed the process. One strategy we also followed that came from a respected civil servant was to table all key tender decisions at the board meetings even if technically there was a grey line if the board actually can comment on an independent tender board appointment. 

5) Media 

Once again the advice of a very senior public servant was that in Sri Lanka the media does not lie. For any story there is some degree of fire that is causing the smoke. Whilst one can be strong on governance it is also important to demonstrate this trait. The best ambassadors are the people inside the company whom you work with on a daily basis. All media leaks happen from inside and the way you live on a daily basis is what gets communicated outside. 

Good work is normally latched on by media immediately and strong communication becomes a natural story rather than having to conduct press conferences.

6) Build a network 

Once you are in the public sector the related stakeholder network happens naturally. Your best communication is the network, especially in a country like Sri Lanka where ‘corridor talk’ is more powerful than formal media. The objective of the network must be to drive organisational projects and never to be used for you to stay in the seat. This is where many make the mistakes as the stakeholders are people who are connected closely to the powers may be. Never be under obligation to the stakeholder community.

7) International community 

The world is craving good talent in the public sector. When performance happens that international community, especially the donor community, comes in contact with you. This becomes the real power for execution. Make the best of the partnership but keep the line ministries informed as any donor funding has to come through the Ministry of Finance technically.

8) Internal public 

Regular updates to the internal staff is paramount so that social media does not become the source of data by the internal public. A walk across all departments once a week helps. The mouthpiece to the internal public is your driver. Be absolutely transparent in what you talk, especially in the vehicle. I had a policy decision that I will always use the same driver that the organisation allocates to the chairman. The same strategy I follow with the chairman’s office staff and secretary. This brings in stability and clear communication inside the organisation.

9) Have an anchor

Given that strong work ethic and financial governance is a way of life, it’s best to have an anchor in the line ministry who will advise and communicate the key vibes in the close circle. This is very important especially if you are career technocrat rather than just a political appointee even though officially you are the latter.

10) Have a personal vision 

Whilst enjoying the serving mentality and you may be having an ambition to move to the world’s public sector like the United Nations, on a personal front you must have a ‘vision’ so that on each role you take in the public sector it adds up to your end goal. Leading a simple life helps.

(The writer has a double degree in marketing, MBA and doctorate in business. He is an alumnus of Harvard Kennedy University and serves on many director boards in the private and public sector. The thoughts are strictly his personal views.)

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