Serving Sri Lanka and the presidential manifestos

Wednesday, 13 November 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Given the dismal 2.6% GDP growth of SL, the 2019 elections will be decisive 



Sri Lanka is entering a decisive week given that the country will be selecting the leader who will drive the country for the next five years. The reason I say decisive is that Sri Lanka has hit the lowest level of economic performance. Sri Lanka is currently placed last in the ADB’s project economic growth for the South Asian region at a 2.6% GDP growth with Afghanistan is registering 2.7%, Nepal at 7.1% and Bangladesh commanding the region at 8.1%. 

Economic manifestos – GR and SP

Whilst many are debating the current ruthless competition that is at play by the two leading presidential candidates, my view is that it has done a lot of good for Sri Lanka, the logic being that people who practice ‘bad governance’ are now facing the wrath of the people on why they will not vote for a particular candidate whilst from another perspective, it is forcing candidates to address the key issues of the country. 

If we analyse, the key issue that both candidates are harping on are getting rid of corruption in the public sector and ensuring the correct people are selected to lead the country given the low ebb that the country is in. Given that I have served Sri Lanka’s public sector for over 10 years in different capacities, let me share my insight on this election promise.

Public sector – best talent in SL

After having worked for 17 years in British multinational companies, when I decided to read for my doctoral studies I decided to serve the country for two years. To date, I have had the good fortune of serving three presidents – Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa and the 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. 

On a separate note I have also served the Boards of the Handicrafts Board, Sri Lanka Tea Board and Ministry of Finance, which gives me a good view of the public sector of Sri Lanka. The journey then took me to serving the international public sector – the United Nations (UNOPS) for five years that completed my ambition of serving people. 

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 very high 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 graduate 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 serving the public sector given that both political candidates have indicated that they will appoint professionals to leadership in the government strategy.

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 many of follow was that after the appointment take effect the focus must be on to the mandate of the entity. 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 and get into the pitfall of having to violate ‘Good Governance’.

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 that goes up to FCID. If board approval is sought or at least keeping the board informed in an official manner such as an ‘information paper’ you can manage difficult situations and avoid getting reprimanded legally.

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. My advice: never break financial regulations as when you called before entities like the Auditor General, FCID or CIABOC, if you have followed FR, then you have armour to defend yourself. 

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 we follow, 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, 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 in each role you take in the public sector it adds up to your end goal. Leading a simple life helps.

11) Walk out

If things become very rough and you are challenged on the ‘values’ you uphold then have the guts to walk out. At one organisation we served, four of walked out and we did get some media flak initially but don’t react. Just two weeks after our exit, a 3.9 billion heroin haul was discovered in the supply chain. Overnight our value increased exponentially.

Next steps 

Post the new president coming in, I would strongly urge the private sector to volunteer and serve the country. The ethos must be “ask not what the country can do for you but ask what you can do for the country”. But, be cautious on your public sector journey as end of the day you need to come back to the private sector and continue your career. Stay ethical and above board on financial governance.

(The writer has a double degree in marketing, MBA and doctorate in business. He is an alumnus of Harvard University. He is the CEO of a foremost Artificial Intelligence company Clootrack for Sri Lanka, Maldives and Pakistan.)

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