Tough act to follow

Thursday, 21 July 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

During Prime Minster Ranil Wickremesinghe’s tour to Singapore, one key Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between the two Governments was to provide capacity training for public servants, but it is questionable whether their efficiency and competency can be improved unless politics is removed from the equation.  

Few governments can afford more employees, so it is vital that the ones they have work at high levels of performance. But that also requires an end to political interference. Time was when Sri Lanka’s civil service was respected and held in high esteem, however, over the past few decades, that respect has been bartered for political influence at two levels. Politicians need to stop handing out Government jobs for votes and they also need to stop undermining the powers of top civil servants by questioning their competency and limiting their legal powers.

Both are happening under the present Government. Plans are already being laid to recruit 8,000 new public employees to implement the Right to Information Act, despite activists insisting that such authority should be given to senior officials within public institutions. Such recruitment also unnecessarily increases a bloated public service of about 1.3 million at a time when the Government is struggling to lower high budget deficits and consolidate fiscal reforms.

Repeated questions over the Auditor General’s Department have also caused disquiet with officials threatening to openly protest the alleged interference of politicians. Limiting the scope of such vital institutions also chips away at the Government’s pledges for improving good governance and stamping out corruption. The Public Services Commission should be empowered to investigate and take punitive measures against the public service, locking out any political involvement.     

Engaging Government employees requires a very different approach and is arguably more difficult. For one thing, Government organisations and their workers are increasingly are being denigrated and stigmatised as under-worked and overpaid – resulting, not surprisingly, in a sharp decline in employee morale and engagement. These are negative influences that private-sector employers and their workers have not had to face.

Another difference is that the factors motivating Government employees are different from those that drive their private-sector counterparts. Public servants are more likely to be motivated by incentives such as the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the people they serve, which makes the line of sight between their roles and their agencies’ larger missions of paramount importance.

Showing them this link has to be connected with a larger economic surge where public servants, especially in rural areas, have to be encouraged to seek employment in the private sector. Right now the private sector is considered to be too rigorous a workplace with fewer perks than Government, but that needs to change so investment can flourish. If graduates are given viable options, they would be less inclined to cling to public employment.

Perhaps the biggest challenge after politicisation is increasing the salaries of public servants. To do this effectively, the service needs to be trimmed drastically and the best of the best have to be empowered to function efficiently. If they are well paid, then there can be no excuses for corruption. Singapore has done this with impressive results for decades, even attracting top international professionals to work for their Governmentand is a tough act to follow.