Do’s and Don’ts for public servants during an election | Daily News


Do’s and Don’ts for public servants during an election

Police and Security Forces are an important component of the public service
Police and Security Forces are an important component of the public service

Political neutrality is an important feature of the public sector at all times, but it is especially important in the lead up to an election, and during the pre-election period – commencing from the filing of nominations and up to General Elections now slated for August 5.

For meaningful democratic governance, it is essential to ensure neutrality, in the sense of political non-partisanship in public administration. A healthy relationship between the two is of extreme importance as while politicians are in charge of defining the policies, the responsibility of implementation of the policies lie on the public service bureaucrats. This responsibility is all the more important because career civil servants possess the knowledge, technical expertise and longer experience, in contrast to the frequently changing ministers belonging to political parties.

The principle that civil servants should undertake their duties in a manner that serves the collective rather than a partisan interest due to political affiliations is espoused by all countries. While in some countries this principle is entrenched in the Constitution, in others it is either a law, regulation or an unwritten convention.

There is also a theory that in practice there could not be an ideal type of impartial bureaucracy because the public service is inherently a political creation, and, thus can never be made fully apolitical. Bureaucrats, in delivering a public service to the citizens, inevitably participate in the political role of deciding who gets what from the public sector. At the same time many experts are of the view that despite their political orientations, the public servants - by and large – treat the citizens in a fairly equitable manner.

Last Monday (June 9), President Gotabaya Rajapaksa instructed all heads of Government institutions and members of director boards to refrain from engaging in political activities during the forthcoming election period. In a special directive, the President underlined that the heads of Government institutions and members of director boards should not be involved in political activities in favour of any party, and if they want to be involved in political activities they can do so after resigning from their respective posts.

The total number of public servants in the Central Government, Provincial Government, statutory bodies and state enterprises is more than 1.4 million.  Public servants must be accountable to the Government for the effective delivery of its programmes and responsiveness of the administration to the Government of the day within the law and the constitution. Different countries have developed institutional arrangements which balance these two concerns, to avoid the extremes of a self-serving public service immune to political leadership, or an over-politicized public service hostage to patronage and serving partisan rather than national interests.

President Rajapaksa categorically stated that he did not want the officials heading state institutions to do politics for the Government. He wants them to run their respective institutions efficiently without corruption and make them profit earning entities. The public institutions are dependent on public money and those institutions should not be a burden on the public, he said and stressed that no public property, funds or State vehicles should be used for election work, adding that the law would be strictly implemented against any individual who violates this order.

An OECD research publication on public service and politics concluded that political neutrality is not a sharply defined goal – it is a broad judgment that can be made only over a considerable period of time. The tensions between the values of neutrality and responsiveness are not always evident in the short term. Political responsiveness can be enhanced by selecting staff on the basis of both merit and commitment to a particular policy programme.

The question is whether those staff would just as willingly assist in the implementation of the policy priorities of a new Government, and the next. The experts are of the view that political involvement in administration is essential for the proper functioning of a democracy. Without this an incoming political administration would find itself unable to change policy direction. However public services need protection against being misused for partisan purposes, they need technical capacity which survives changes of Government, and they need protection against being used to impair the capacity of future Governments to govern.

There is wide diversity in the level of involvement by politicians in the appointment and management of senior civil servants. While there is near universal agreement on the general principle of political non-partisanship, it is not necessarily equated with an apolitical process for senior appointments. It is also important to note that a politician is involved in appointments or dismissals does not, per se, make that appointment or dismissal political or partisan. For example, the Swedish Constitution requires that all appointments to posts in the public administration should be made “on objective grounds such as skills and merits” even though they might be made by politicians.

In most countries, including United States and France, when a new President is elected all senior advisors and politically appointed ambassadors tender their resignations to enable the new leader to appoint his trusted persons to those important positions.

Public servants in Australia can participate in politics, but with some cautions as to conflict of interest. A holder of government office is also disqualified from being a candidate in legislative elections. The Australian Constitution says that candidates must sign a declaration that they are not disqualified under section 44 of the Constitution. Those who are debarred from contesting include, “Any person who (v) has any direct or indirect pecuniary interest in any agreement with the Public Service of the Commonwealth”.

In the United Kingdom, the guidelines given to public servants include that during elections “Particular care will need to be taken during this period to ensure that civil servants conduct themselves in accordance with the requirements of the Civil Service Code. In particular, civil servants are under an obligation: to ensure that public resources are not used for party political purposes; and not to undertake any activity which could call into question their political impartiality.”

In every democracy, there are regulations to stop public servants from indulging in political activity during elections. President Rajapaksa’s reminder to the senior public servants is most appropriate and timely as public service neutrality at the forthcoming General Elections would definitely enhance Sri Lanka’s proud record of returning to free and fair polls.

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