Public sector conundrum  

Friday, 8 May 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The public sector is a complex branch of the State, and how it is used can sometimes be both a gain and a loss to its members. 

The public sector has been a job bank to successive governments with the largest expansion coming after the end of the conflict. It also comes with a hefty salary bill, estimated in excess of Rs. 100 billion each month, and one of its most senior officials is now asking public sector employees to donate a portion of their salary to the President’s COVID-19 Fund. 

Despite the massive salary bill, due to the sheer number of employees, their various categorisations and seniority levels, not every public servant gets a decent salary by socially-acceptable standards. 

According to data released in 2017, Sri Lanka’s State and State-Owned Enterprise workers, excluding the military, grew a whopping 30% to 1.1 million from 2006 to 2016. The survey, conducted by the Census and Statistics Department, included the Central Government, Provincial Government, statutory bodies and State enterprises and showed that not only is the public sector inflated, but it often made recruitments to areas of little use to the people. 

Finance Ministry data showed that 88,000 so-called ‘Development Officers’ had been recruited to the State service between 2005 and 2015 but only managed 11,000 medical officers, 33,000 nurses and 3,579 midwives. There are also gaps in technical areas that have left the Government weak when negotiating agreements and fast-tracking economic reforms. 

Politically-driven recruitment is clearly a major problem within the public service and continues to be a fiscal liability, especially since each year around 30,000 workers become pensioners. According to Finance Ministry data, the number of pensioners grew from 430,153 in 2006 to 564,472 in 2015, increasing the burden on workers. It also gives little manoeuvrability for the Government as next to interest payments on debt, the second highest expenditure is on public sector salaries. This also limits allocations of areas such as healthcare, education and housing. 

On top of that, because the public sector is so unwieldy, it is also inefficient, corrupt and large institutions make huge losses, which are in turn also paid by taxpayers. Some, such as SriLankan Airlines, have no indispensable service to show for it. Sri Lankans therefore pay a heavy price for its public service and while there is no doubt that the public service its important and those responsible for essential services absolutely a godsend in the time of crisis,  it is also important to keep in mind that not all public sector jobs or roles are created equal.

Ideally the public service should not be the pawn of politicians or those close to them. The public service should have their independence restored so unfair and unnecessary demands are not made upon them. The right kind of reforms, done with proper consultation and transparency, would both improve the public sector, the lot of its deserving employees and the quality of service the public can get from them. It would benefit the members who deserve better than to be coerced into giving up their salaries or be on the frontlines of the COVID-19 battle without adequate PPE.

The public sector has gotten Sri Lanka through many crisis and they deserve appreciation for that, but the complexity of the space they occupy in governance should not be overlooked either.