One of the most depressing features of government is the readiness with which transfers are used to solve problems. At the Education Consultative Committee in Parliament, some of my colleagues pointed out what seemed to them grave faults in Principals or Zonal Directors of Education, and recommended that they should be transferred at once. They were startled when I said that would be wrong, but then acknowledged that, if the officials concerned were unsatisfactory, it would be destructive to transfer them to other responsibilities where they would also prove unsatisfactory.
Last week the same thing happened at a Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meeting, when strong objections were made to a particular Grama Niladhari. Again, the community representatives who made the charges – with no inhibitions about naming their subject – seemed surprised when I said that was inappropriate, but agreed with my point that their complaints should be investigated. The man should then be reprimanded if the charges were established, and subsequently dismissed if he did not improve.
Now however transfers are used whenever there is a problem – or even when there isn’t, as with the recent Ministry of Education decision to transfer everyone who has served in a particular school for over a particular period. The way in which this has been implemented means that the original aim, to provide teachers to rural schools that have had vacancies, has been completely subverted – rural schools have lost the teachers they had, which those supposed to replace them from towns have by and large refused to move.
This is an inevitable consequence of formulaic approaches to administration. Transfers then are seen as routine, whether they improve the service or not = or else they are seen as ways of getting rid of someone who is a problem. Unfortunately the problem can be political, in that a particular politician does not like an official and wants them moved, or it can be disciplinary, in that someone is moved because they have done something inappropriate. What should be a means then, a method of improving the service, becomes an end in itself. The transfer is done, which means action has been taken, so no action need be taken to ensure that the inappropriate action is not repeated.
In discussing this matter subsequently with the Divisional and District Secretaries, it seemed they too were of the view that some Grama Niladharis did not do their job properly, through incompetence or worse. But there seemed no way of dealing with this, except through transfers.
I had come across this problem before, when as Dean at Sabaragamuwa I had to deal with an English instructor who did no work. He had in fact been hired because my predecessor knew his mother. The students complained about his absences, and his tendency to pontificate in class about anything except English, but when I investigated and then, after warnings, dismissed him, they said I had been too hard and that I should be compassionate. I had much trouble convincing them that I had no right to be compassionate with state resources and their futures.
I think I succeeded, helped perhaps by the fact that the young man in question had so clearly signed attendance registers months late. The complaints died down, but subsequently I was told by another Dean, from Colombo, that I must have been the only person who had succeeded in dismissing an academic member of staff. I know that is not true, because I am aware that there have been dismissals for political reasons, but I think she was correct in implying that no one is got rid of for incompetence or improper behavior.
I presume this is why I was described as too unpopular to hold any executive position, and I suppose this is understandable in a context in which popular favour is considered the main criterion for public office. But the consequence is that the public suffers. And the suffering is particularly grave for those who have no other recourse, such as small village communities and in particular children in rural schools.
We could do much better if we developed clear job descriptions, with performance agreements which included measurable items. There should be annual reviews of performance based on productivity, not the preposterous forms that those in authority over others have to fill now. But in addition to such reviews, there should be written reprimands not only when culpable errors are made, but also when inadequacies are noted. With regard to principals for instance, attendance records of teachers should be reviewed regularly, as well as examination results and even the general cleanliness of the premises.
Crucial to the successful entrenchment of expectations, and monitoring of results, is good training. I have pointed out on several occasions the need for training in initiative and accountability, in addition to the formulaic lectures that now pass for training, and now we have another institution that can fill the gaps that the Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration has allowed to widen over the years. The army has established an Officer Careers Development Centre that includes amongst its objectives assisting government institutions and other agencies to develop leadership traits and social skills. This will also I hope promote mechanisms to judge personnel by results, and to introduce remedial measures that will deal with the deficient as well as the incorrigible.
The equitable and effective delivery of services to the public is an important right, and deficiencies caused by neglect or callousness or incompetence must be overcome. Transferring the deficiency to others is a pernicious custom that should be stopped, and we need to inculcate instead a culture of personal development as well as accountability.