Towards a vibrant public sector
Public servants are in the news again. Their role in the country’s
rebuilding process has come under the spotlight. President Mahinda
Rajapaksa has said that the trust placed in the Security Forces in
liberating the country has now been placed in public servants in
building the country.
“Today we have taken the development challenge in which you are the
leaders. The progress we achieve in this regard depends on your
commitment. Like the Security Forces you also should commit yourselves
to the country’s cause. It is your responsibility, take the same path,”
the President has said.
This is a noteworthy and commendable statement from the country’s
First Citizen as Government servants can be considered as the livewire
of the country’s administration process. Sri Lanka has nearly one
million public servants, including Security Forces/Police personnel,
health workers and teachers. In other words, one person out of 20 in the
population is a public servant.
There indeed are a lot of lessons other public servants can learn
from the Forces and the Police. One is their sheer dedication. They work
without any ‘rest’ as such for hours on end. Many of them visit their
families only a few times a year. They can never strike, unlike other
public servants. They do not demand higher pay or better working
conditions. Rain or shine, these guardians of the Nation are at their
posts. In peacetime, they are playing even more diverse roles from flood
relief work to consumer protection.
It is this kind of dedication that should permeate to the rest of the
working population, not just public servants. If all workers in the
public and private sectors have the same kind of dedication and
commitment, it will not be a difficult task to develop this country
Just as the Forces and Police personnel are working towards
reconciliation, other public servants should also be involved in this
healing process. The first step is learning Sinhala or Tamil, as the
case may be. If all public servants are bilingual, the Government’s task
of fostering reconciliation will be much easier. Needless to say, they
should also have a good knowledge of English as well. The ability to
work in all three languages will go a long way towards achieving the
goal of national rebuilding.
Public servants should also change their attitudes concerning a
variety of matters. They should love their respective organisations and
strive to minimize waste and corruption. Reducing waste is not a
difficult feat - it can be as simple as turning off an air conditioner,
fan or a light bulb that is not needed. Telephone usage, especially for
personal calls, can also be minimized.
After all, the Government pays these bills with public funds,
including those contributed by public servants themselves. Keeping the
workplaces clean is another essential task. Most Government departments
have now joined the ‘Pilisaru’ programme of the Environment Ministry,
which is a step in the right direction. That will make Government
offices more pleasant for the public who come to them.
That brings us to the very meaning of the term ‘public servant’. It
simply means ‘one who serves the public’. This is the primary task of a
public servant. Public servants should not think of the people who come
to Government offices as a hindrance. On the other hand, they are the
very reason why various Government offices exist. Thus a courteous
service to the public is a ‘must’. A smile and a warm welcome will
always be appreciated, even if his or her requirements cannot be met
It is time to think of members of the public who come to Government
offices as ‘customers’, in line with the private sector, where the
customer is considered ‘king’. Serving these customers should be a
priority and they should not be sent from pillar to post to get their
Public servants, at least those with considerable authority, should
be able to take snap decisions without necessarily being bound by rules
and regulations, especially in an emergency. This was proved during the
current flood situation, where some Government departments had not taken
immediate action for relief measures as they were waiting for the
outcome of lengthy approvals processes. A mechanism should be evolved to
address such situations which demand immediate action.
Honesty should be a hallmark of all Government employees. While the
authorities can and do take measures to stamp out corruption and catch
any culprits, all public servants must commit themselves to work
honestly. A civil society organisation recently presented a posthumous
award to an honest Customs Officer who was killed in the line of duty.
The Government should also have a similar programme to recognize and
reward honest Government employees, in addition to any reward programs
already in operation in organisations such as Sri Lanka Customs and the
Police. This will be an example and encouragement to the others to lift
their standards. Individual institutions can also initiate ‘employee of
the month’ programs, as in the private sector, to spur their workforce
to reach greater horizons.
The heads of Government institutions should have a regular dialogue
with their subordinates and get their ideas for uplifting their
organisations. Such brainstorming sessions may yield proposals and
innovations that may make a difference to the efficiency, viability and
profitability of Government organisations.
The present Government has already proved that privatisation, once a
mantra for economic emancipation, is not the panacea for all ills.
Better management and a highly motivated workforce can be described as
the key to improving the productivity of Government organisations.
The public sector can draw many vital lessons from the private sector
in this regard. The Government’s laudable decision to appoint several
key private sector personnel to head or advise certain Government
institutions seems to have paid off handsomely as these organisations
are already showing signs of an upturn. The public sector should be as
vibrant as the private sector - we need an active partnership between
these two sectors to develop the country and usher in prosperity.