Perceptions and realities of today’s public service | Daily News

Perceptions and realities of today’s public service

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa during a visit to the Department of Motor Traffic in Werehera recently. Picture courtesy President’s Media Division
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa during a visit to the Department of Motor Traffic in Werehera recently. Picture courtesy President’s Media Division

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa addressing senior Transport Ministry officials recently said that every successive government in the country earned public wrath due to inefficiency of the public service. He added that all government institutions which are close to the day-to-day life of the public should run in an efficient and transparent manner and they should be free from corruption.“The inefficiency in the public service will end during his tenure of office,” he confirmed.

In his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Thomas Friedman says that “in the globalization system, one of the most important and enduring competitive advantages that a country can have today is a lean, effective, honest civil service.” In other words, public service matters, and an effective, efficient, accountable public service can be part of a country’s comparative advantage. A fine statement, indeed!

For all countries, big and small, globalization and the knowledge revolution are the realities of today. They are resulting in fundamental changes in the way we work and live.

In this new global environment, countries like ours, which are relatively small and open, have to understand global trends, issues and opportunities better than our larger neighbours. Our success will depend on our agility and flexibility, our capacity to learn from others and our ability to absorb the best global practices. In short, we have to think globally to succeed domestically.

Our public sector

For public servants, this means being ahead of this global curve. They need to think what it will take to increase Sri Lankan competitiveness and productivity growth on a sustained basis. And they need to think how to prepare to compete with the new economic giants in the coming decades.

It is generally agreed that, except for a few isolated institutions, our public service as a whole is sick and decaying.

The present Government seems to have recognized the problem. The President himself has accepted the need to reform or renew the public service and the need to instill new values and breathe new life into the system.

The Ministry of Public Affairs in their new mission statement has indicated that it will strive to ensure an excellent public service through sound national and regional administrative system with competence human resource. Let us hope that this commitment will become a reality soon.


I would like to point out two major issues which might provoke interesting reflections and discussions during the implementation of this commitment. First, the working-age population in Sri Lanka was reported at 53.07 % in 2018, according to the World Bank collection of development indicators. The statistics indicate increasing trend.

Such a change, naturally, will lay more pressure on the need not only for more job opportunities but equally for a new approach to manpower planning and efficient use of our human resources. Secondly, Sri Lankan elderly population currently represents 12.4% of the total population. It was 5.4% and in 2003.

Naturally, an ageing population poses a major challenge for human resource development and needs a novel approach based on lifelong learning employability so that the work force can adapt itself to the changing requirements in the world of work.

On top of all these, Sri Lanka has to fight for survival in a growing international, competitive and technology-driven environment. Therefore, we cannot have any complacency in Human Resource Development policies. That is why the Government has a pivotal role to play in ensuring not only the provision of a qualified, versatile and adaptable public service work force.


If we take an inside look at our public sector today, we notice that it is bedeviled with counterproductive old-fashioned civil service policies and practices that impede the efforts to recruit and retain highly qualified employee and motivate them to perform to the best of their abilities. Low levels of salary packages, especially for positions demanding greater skills, undermine efforts to recruit and retain qualified employees. Excessively rigid procedures and practices impede the ability of public service officials to significantly affect the performance of their employees.

Above all, there is the issue of politicization, which is now accepted as unchallengeable! Politicization of public service is a universal social process bringing a political character or flavour to public service. However, it was exceptionally high in the developing world, including Sri Lanka.

This litany of concerns about the structure and performance of public service system highlights the need to take significant steps to restructure and energize the public service system.


The public sector reform programme was a topic that had been discussed for a long time at many forums, but had continued to remain unaddressed due to various other obligatory factors as well as political agendas, and therefore the President’s interest in the reforms is a heartening note.

In 1996, the government of Sri Lanka enlisted the help of international consultants to address significant weaknesses in the country’s public service. Their study focused on reorganisation of public service structures, rationalization of public sector cadres and introduction of results-based management systems and procedures. The analysis focused on five main topics: (1) consolidation of core strategic functions in the President's office; (2) improvement of the policy coordination process at Cabinet and ministerial levels; (3) separation of policy-making, service delivery and regulatory functions of public service; (4) enhancing the effectiveness of line ministries through realigning tasks; and (5) introduction of a results-based management system that links resource inputs with well-defined outputs of departments and offices.

The report is almost 25 years old and maybe somewhat outdated. Yet, the recommendations given therein could be taken into consideration as a starting point for a new research.

I believe that the common theme of any public reform programme should be a search for more effective public sector performance through applying simple principles of modern management. These essentially boil down to four points. (a). clear expression of, and agreement about, objectives (b). Senior public officials who are accountable for results (c). the freedom to manage resources within incentives for efficiency(d). clear information about performance.

However, while these principles can guide the shaping of a management system which encourages the achievement of results, it must always be remembered that results are produced by people and teamwork effort. That means, clear-cut concepts should be available for leadership, culture, values, vision and motivation. These are what energizes the individual officers or teams to achieve organisational goals.

Efforts to reform public service systems, which are based on these ideas, have successfully implemented in a growing number of countries. Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom and USA have been pursuing reform programmes of this type for many years now.

The Government of Malaysia also introduced a total quality management programme for public sector and established citizens’ charters as an assurance that divisions and departments will produce outputs or services that comply with declared quality standards. They have a key performance indicators (KPIs) system used to continuously upgrade the services. Public sector heads are held accountable for achieving the intended outcomes of their respective programmes. The focus is on results, not just processes of budgetary expenditure. The reward systems of performance appraisal procedures have also been introduced as support mechanisms to ensure a higher level of motivation, discipline and delegation among public sector employers.

If we can learn from experiences elsewhere, and pursue a suitable type of approach to reform our public sector, we can focus to utilize the energies of public officials by increasing their responsibilities through the removal of outdated regulations while strengthening their accountability for results. Various incentives and sanctions can be used to reinforce accountability but the specifics depend entirely on the circumstances.

At its best our current system of public service is something like an organism capable of mass producing standardized public services. It is what Henry Ford did for his motor car - that is, delivering a product of uniform quality which, even though did not meet the expectations of the buyers, they had no alternative but buy. Asking the question whether the product's quality or suitability was as fine as it should be was not encouraged, and the absence of significant alternative suppliers meant that the expectations could not be challenged.

The challenges facing our economy in an expanding global environment is making human resource development more and more important in overall management in enterprises, whether public or private. For the past five decades, the private corporate sector in Sri Lanka has been investing in the development of their human resource base. I believe that there is a need for the public sector as well to invest heavily on Human Resource Management and Development.

Until the institutional capacity and effectiveness of the public service system is upgraded, the credibility of government efforts to bring about a more liberal and competitive market environment will be seriously in doubt. The task lying ahead us is indeed very challenging. 

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