Consequences of bureaucracy | Sunday Observer

Consequences of bureaucracy

7 February, 2021

The legendary American television correspondent Robert David ‘Bob’ Simon who won 27 Emmy Awards and covered conflicts in 67 countries said, “The minute you’re working with the government, you’re dealing with bureaucracy, you’re dealing with time lags, and you are dealing with rigidity and a slow pace”. Among many other intellectual quotes, in this writer’s opinion, Bob Simon’s is the best suited for bureaucratic red tape in Sri Lanka.

In sociology and political science, bureaucracy is described as a concept that refers to administrative execution and enforcement of socially recognised legal rules. The structure is illustrated as conforming to the standardised procedure, formal division of responsibility, hierarchy, and impersonal social engagements.

Commonly known as ‘red tape’, bureaucracy has perhaps one of the strongest influences in a country’s economy and society, both positive and negative. The bureaucratic arena refers to all state institutions involved in implementing policy decisions taken by the state, delivering stipulated services, and regulating them for the benefit of the country and its citizenry.

Since the inception of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Presidency in late 2019, these public agencies are under massive pressure to deliver more efficient results and bring services closer to the people.

Gama Samaga Pilisandara or dialogue with the village is an exceptionally effective concept introduced in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s vision statement ‘Vistas of Prosperity’. Notwithstanding political, administrative, and social pressures, and amid the disastrous Covid-19 situation, President Rajapaksa continues to meet people in the remote areas, trying to solve their pressing issues.

The best example that can be cited for the negative approach of bureaucrats and inefficiency of the bureaucratic system are these meetings. The majority of public criticism is leveled at the inefficiency, negligence, and lethargy of the government machinery. Whether the President’s strong directives will be carried out by public officials is yet to be seen.

President Rajapaksa, addressing a meeting with the plantation industry-related Ministry Secretaries in May 2020, pointed out that the laws should not obstruct the policies to achieve the economic objectives of the people. He also emphasised the need to get rid of the bureaucratic red-tape when attending to people’s needs. This statement outlines his view on the subject.

However, in fairness to the public servants, it must be mentioned that the government should analyse whether they are legally protected if such directives are implemented. If not, an immediate methodology must be introduced for this purpose.

Establishments Code

However, an important fact to consider is that the public service is guided by the ‘Sri Lanka Establishments Code’ that provides for conditions of work, conditions of employment, and the duties of public servants.

Bureaucracy is an essential element to run the administration of the government. Public servants are authorised to ensure that people follow rules and regulations. Therefore, one has to understand that public servants are strictly guided and controlled by government policies. The criticisms from society are strictly levelled at inefficiencies, delays, malpractices, and other anti-social acts, but not for adhering to policies.

Ideal bureaucracy

In an ideal bureaucracy, the principles and processes are founded on well-balanced, clearly-understood rules, regulations, and laws. They must be applied without being influenced by interpersonal relationships or political alliances. Nevertheless, in practice, the entire citizenry has witnessed that this fundamental principle is violated over and over again by the public service in the country.

The impersonal nature or ‘coldness’ is most often criticised by the masses. In fairness to the public servants it must be noted that by strictly applying the rules and policies consistently everyone receives equal treatment. If the bureaucrats can remain impersonal in friendships and political affiliations, they can treat everyone fairly without bias. The pertinent question is, does this happen in Sri Lanka?

The country has witnessed time and again that President Rajapaksa, not only when he meets people in remote areas in his dialogue with the village program but also when he visits public sector institutions, he attempts to drive in the concept of ideal bureaucracy.

He has been seen many times requesting government officials to listen to the social issues with a balanced mindset and act with empathy. No one expects the public officers to violate rules or regulations. They only expect them to be considerate and humane on people-sensitive issues.

With regard to the business arena, Sri Lanka is placed at 99th position in World Bank’s ‘Ease of doing business report 2019’. This means that there are 98 better countries available for foreign investors. Sri Lanka at present is a country without civil war, terrorism, racial discrimination, or ethnic cleansing. Yet, foreign investors are reluctant to invest substantially due to several reasons. I believe the prevailing bureaucracy is one reason for this situation. Other factors such as, undue political interference, uncertain policies that are changed when governments swap, constant opposition from so-called left-wing political parties also negatively influence investor interest.

Political power

Even local businessmen and investors prefer to obtain more political power to circumvent the bureaucratic knot. Those who fail to secure political influence resort to bypass the red-tape by turning towards other illegal methods. Every Sri Lankan who wants to establish a new business is aware of the difficulties they face due to the complex processes, lethargy, procrastination, inefficiency, and often the attitude of government officials.

For example, even a simple requirement such as registering a sole proprietorship business is made complex by related regional government institutions. The process takes days going from pillar to post in the same premises, standing in long queues, and filling up dim-witted documents, and so forth. Most of the officers are uncooperative and treat the public as if they are asking for a favour.

Due to the rigidness of the prevailing practices when implementing rules and procedures, bureaucracies are often sluggish to respond to unexpected situations. This factor was clearly evident since the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak. At times, even with the involvement of the President himself, many government institutions, particularly on public welfare and relief issues, were way behind required standards and schedules. If not for the commitment of the health fraternity and the timely deployment of the military apparatus, the situation would have been bleak.

Several salient factors can be identified in the bureaucracy arena that hinders the economy and the society, hampering public life. In Sri Lanka, the bureaucrats seldom demonstrate accountability. Also, transparency is questionable in actions, particularly in financial aspects.

The Auditor General’s annual reports on irregularities hardly ever come to light. Even if they do, that usually is often politically motivated after a regime change. This exerts pressure on senior civil servants who either delay or completely abandon making decisions if they feel that the issue is controversial.

It is a fact that reforming the bureaucratic arena is an extremely difficult task. The leadership and management knowledge of the top tier civil servants are questionable. Although they are given training before the appointments, the depth or the result of such training programs is unclear. In such a situation, they are left only with the Establishments Code guidance. A system must be established by the government to adequately train young civil servants immediately after entry into the administrative service.

Public service

It is public knowledge that the public service in Sri Lanka is overcrowded and a colossal sum of public funds are allocated as salaries. Nevertheless, the majority of the graduates vie for government jobs upon leaving universities.

Only a few want to enter the private sector or go for self-employment due to the relative ease of a government job. The system of education must be transformed to amend this serious issue. Nevertheless, the government service cadre expands year by year irrespective of any variation in the amount of work.

A bureaucracy benefits society by creating structures that keep people safe. It also implements policies through laws, rules, and regulations to safeguard the well-being of the society and the economy. Most of the problems that obstruct the efficiency of Sri Lanka’s civil service are already discovered and solutions found. It is the execution that is needed immediately.