Difference between price and value

Friday, 23 September 2016 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Everyone has a price. But are they worth it? On Wednesday Parliament approved higher pay and perks for members of independent commissions, particularly the head of the Bribery and Corruption Commission. Under the new measures members will be paid higher salaries, given phone and fuel allowances and in the case of Bribery Commission members Rs. 10,000 per each session they attend.

The new figures, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe explained, were aimed at attracting top professionals to the independent commissions. Defending the increase, he pointed out that other key Government officials including the Solicitor General and Chief Justice are given similar remuneration packages. He also said other Government members including Parliament members could be given pay increases in a second round over the next few months. 

On the surface, attracting top professionals makes sense. Singapore, an example the Government is enthusiastic about following, has some of the world’s highest paid civil servants and consequently the most honest. Singapore routinely attracts global talent to deliver impressive standards of efficiency, transparency and development. They simply have the best of everything because these top professionals are then held to demanding standards, including the highest levels of honesty. 

Far-reaching key performance indicators are underscored by a civil servant bonus system that is linked to economic growth. The yearly bonuses are explicitly linked to growth so there is less scope for bouts of populist adjustments, which tend to happen with electoral cycles, keeping policy rock solid. In 2012 when Singapore’s economy slowed down so did bonuses, even the Prime Minister’s salary was slashed.  

Sri Lanka is at the opposite end of the paradigm. Specific Government officials may not be well paid but there is still plenty of largesse doing the rounds. Top officials of loss-making State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) are often paid in the hundreds of thousands. For example, SriLankan Airlines, which is carrying debt to the tune of Rs. 461 billion, has nearly 200 officials who are paid more than Rs. 1 million per month with many others getting cars and other perks. How is it possible to justify this expense given its financial situation? The same is true of dozens of other major SOEs where not only are seven figure salaries the norm but some of them are even exempted from paying income tax.

The payments alone are not the issue. It is a question of value. Are these officials worth the salaries that are being paid to them? Is this the best use for taxpayer money? How is their performance evaluated? What repercussions do they face if they do not perform? The fact that a share of these is political appointments makes the situation even harder for the public to accept. In Sri Lanka the qualified and the politicised sometimes overlap, a convenient loophole that has been enthusiastically used by the present Government. Even if political appointees are qualified, they must still adhere to a transparent system of evaluation so that they can prove themselves up to the job.

As for the now slightly richer members of the Bribery and Corruption Commission, they have a moral obligation to put the corrupt behind bars because otherwise they may soon find themselves in the dock of their conscience.