Some of the issues I have raised in recent columns in this series came up in a different form in a presentation made by Indrajith Coomaraswamy during one of the discussions the Liberal Party has been conducting on Reform. Though initially we had thought of concentrating on Constitutional Reform, it soon became clear that that alone was not enough, and questions of change had to be looked at holistically.
Given Sri Lanka’s current status, as a Developing Country that has got over the hump of under-development (the only Under-developing country that was still under-developing, as the Economist I think once sharply put it), it is obvious that economic issues are of particular concern. We were fortunate therefore to get four speakers who dealt, in short and succinct presentations that were amongst the best I have heard, on political economics, and the issues we now face.
All of them should be widely disseminated, but in particular what Indrajith Coomaraswamy said should be studied by all decision makers. Pointing out that we were now in a better position than ever in the last half century to go forward, he pointed out the severe institutional constraints we face.
Getting over these would however be easy, if we had the will to go ahead. Though there are always electoral worries about unpopular decisions, given that the benefits of such will kick in within a couple of years, government can easily go ahead, since the President does not need to go to the electorate for another 3 ½ years. Though Parliamentarians who are concerned about their own futures are pushing him to go earlier, falling victim thus to the strategy J R Jayewardene introduced with the 3rd Amendment to the Constitution, he has no reason to sacrifice any portion of his current term, when there is so much to do.
Chief amongst these is the need to increase productivity in two crucial areas. I will not dwell here on what Indrajith had to say about Agriculture, which is so vital a part of our social fabric but where we have done little to increase efficiency (as for instance Thailand has done in recent years). Nor will I refer to the other areas about which Indrajith expressed concern, such as the mounting proportion of high interest debt we are forced to seek if we live beyond our means, since we are no longer eligible for aid on easy terms.
I will dwell rather on what he had to say about the public sector, which is the main theme of this series. He noted in fact that ’The situation in the public service is particularly challenging, because it indicates active input on the part of government which is proving increasingly negative. Thus the public service has increased from 600,000 in 2005 to 1.4 million in 2012.’
The initial reason for this was a reaction to the Wickremesinghe government’s total freeze on public sector recruitment. But it turns out to have become a Pavlovian reaction to unemployment, or rather perceived unemployment, because as Indrajith put it, the private sector has vacancies which cannot be filled. Recruitment to the government sector sometimes contributes to this, as I have found amongst several of those recently recruited, who gave up jobs in the private sector to take advantage of what they saw as relatively easy money – and which I should add they are sometimes propelled to by parents and the still prevalent idea that nothing is as satisfying or prestigious (or secure) as a government job.
I had seen this earlier in some of my own students, who easily found employment given the soft skills we had equipped them with at Sabaragamuwa, but who gave up private sector jobs when government started recruitment. But, given that such recruitment is seen as an end in itself, it does not make government productive. Indeed it sometimes has the opposite effect, since already hard worked Divisional Secretaries now have to find work for the thousands of graduates who have poured into their offices.
It has been apparent, from what I have observed, during my regular visits to the North, and from what graduates themselves have said, that they are contributing little. Many say they are collecting data, but to what purpose they do not know. Others are covering duties in positions that should be filled properly, but they are not trained to do this properly, and there are no duty lists or systems of identifying objectives and measuring results.
Underlying this ineffectiveness is the absence of planning, and of monitoring systems, that dogs our administration. I still cannot understand why government abolished the Ministry of Policy and Plan Implementation, since the Treasury, with its Secretary also having to look after Economic Development, simply cannot devote the concerted energy the subject needs at this crucial stage of Development. Sometimes I wonder if the decision was made because the Ministry previously had been so efficient, and developed such effective models of monitoring, that Ministries unused to such disciplines thought this a nuisance that had to be got rid of.
But, over and above deficiencies with regard to planning perhaps, are problems to do with the absence of initiative in the public sector, as well as systems that encourage initiative. Indrajith put his finger on perhaps the main problem we face, not only in the public sector, when he referred to the need to ensure modern Education, Training and Skills Development.
Unfortunately, we still seem content with the idea that our basic indicators in the field of education are satisfying. But that is simply not enough in the modern world, and particularly at the stage we have reached. We must rather develop the cutting edge technology and youngsters able to practice it and engage in entrepreneurship and attain high productivity in all. That is what our public sector needs, and until we recognize that and promote it, we will continue moribund.