Revitalising the public service | Sunday Observer

Revitalising the public service

10 January, 2021

Sri Lanka has nearly one million public servants, a comparably high number for a country with a population of only 22 million. Some would call it bloated, but there are instances when the numbers are not enough – particularly doctors and teachers. Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi told Parliament last week that the Government cannot allocate more than one doctor to certain rural hospitals due to the lack of doctors in the health cadre. Likewise, many rural schools lack teachers for subjects such as English and Mathematics.

Public servants can also get into difficulties while carrying out their duties. In our political culture, even the good deeds done by previous governments are deemed to be bad by the next one. This is what happened in the Sil Redi (clothes for observing Sil) case, where two senior public servants were accused of misappropriation of funds.

The funds were genuinely used for a good cause, but the next (Yahapalana) Government that came to power decided otherwise. Hence, the legal action against the two officials, who suffered a loss of reputation and pain of mind as a result, even though they had not done anything wrong to all intents and purposes. They had just carried out a beneficial project of the Government in power at the time. In another instance, a former Army Chief was questioned for distributing relief during a flood.

It was in this context that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said he will provide necessary constitutional protection to ensure that any public officials who had served the people in good faith will not be punished in the future. However, relevant laws must be brought in to ensure that politically motivated charges cannot be brought against public servants even if the Government changes, as long as they have acted in good faith and within the country’s laws and regulations. Indeed, this must not mean a free pass for any corrupt individuals in the public service – any such acts must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law as a warning to others.

The Prime Minister was speaking at an awareness program for public officers about the National Program, Gama Samaga Pilisandarak-Weda Samaga Yali Gamata (Conversation with the Village/Back to the Village with Work) at Temple Trees.

The Prime Minister said that some public servants were reluctant to go out of their way to serve the public due to the unpleasant experience they had during the previous Yahapalana regime. “The greatest betrayal of the Yahapalana Government to this country was the imprisonment of Government officials for serving the people,” he said.

The Prime Minister’s reassuring words will enable public servants to work without fear or favour. In fact, we have seen how public servants have risen to defend the public when local level politicians come out with harmful proposals. An intrepid female forest officer stood her ground when a minion of a politician who wanted to cut down a mangrove forest questioned the need for oxygen a few months ago.

The public service must also move with the times. It has been synonymous with lethargy, inefficiency, corruption and outdated regulations. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has paid several surprise visits to a few Government institutions to see for himself how they work (or don’t work). He had to tell the public officials in no uncertain terms to get their act together or face consequences for their inaction.

There has been a quantum leap in many Government departments after these visits and regular supervision, but more needs to be done. They must be modernised in sync with the technologically advanced times we live in. As for some of the strict regulations imposed on many Government departments and structures, we hope the newly appointed Deregulation Commission will find ways and means to make their work easier.

All Government departments must necessarily go online, especially, in these pandemic times when it is essential to minimise contact between people. Currently, only a few offer online services and all must come aboard the Government e-portals so that anyone, anywhere can access Government services 24/7 without visiting a Government department or agency in person. For example, the Foreign Ministry’s portal for registration of expatriates wishing to come home was a roaring success. There should be Smartphone apps for all Government departments, from the Immigration Department to Agrarian Services.

The pandemic also taught us another lesson – that more Government servants should be able to work online from home. The Government infrastructure should be reconfigured in such a way that more remote work is possible, even if the pandemic fades away. The ‘office concept’ is already passé in many countries where Governments and companies already allow their staff to work full-time from home.

‘Telecommuting’ saves money on transport and office facilities, not to mention time and energy. The Government should provide the relevant software and laptops to key identified Government servants so that they can work from home anytime. This can extend to health (Telemedicine) and education (e-learning) as well.

Even though many children had to learn online, most teachers lacked the equipment to communicate with their students during the pandemic, thus depriving the children of learning materials. Likewise, hospitals will be able to cut down on clinical visits by patients if they can go to the nearest Nenasala and consult their doctors via video.

These may seem far-fetched, but once the initial investment is made, it pays several times over. The Government will have a greater reach if it is available at the press of a button or the click of a mouse.