CaptureTo help the deliberations of the committee appointed by the National Human Resources Development Council to recommend new ways of working in the Public Sector, I requested the assistance of several distinguished public servants of past vintages. These ranged from the time in which recruitment was to the old Civil Service to those who had retired very recently.

Not all responded, but those who did were of the highest calibre and continue to be respected by new generations of both administrators and politicians. Interestingly enough, while commenting on the issues we had raised in the draft concept paper, they also introduced some sharp new perspectives.

The most stringent criticism was with regard to the packing of the public service for political reasons. One former Secretary noted that ‘The unsustainable and highly politicized practice of treating the public sector institutions…as a means to solve unemployment problems through ‘sponsored employment’ should cease forthwith.’ Another put it even more bluntly – ‘Don’t treat the public sector as a refuge for unemployed graduates’.

One of them noted the side effects of such practices. In addition to the wasteful costs involved, he referred to ‘inefficiencies and unnecessary administrative burdens. Idle people constitute a disturbance to people who are working and generate additional problems’. This indeed was something I had practical experience of, and had pointed out in my reports written after Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings. I found several Secretariats full of youngsters with nowhere to sit and nothing to do, with the poor Divisional Secretary, already over-burdened, having to find space and occupation for them. And of course the purely political nature of the exercise was made abundantly clear by the fact that these new recruits had received hardly any training, and no effort was made to ensure productive activity in coordination with previously employed personnel.

There was reference too in the written submissions of the experienced to the absurd politicizing of what should be serious work. It was noted that the President, Prime Minister and ministers ‘should cease the practice of handing over letters of appointment to PS ranging from Secretaries to samurdhi niladhari! The decade old and effective practice of delivering the LoA by post or the KKS can easily be restored.

One reason for all this personalization is of course our mad electoral system. Fortunately COPE has drawn attention to the manner in which Ministers treat government appointments, in highlighting the pernicious practice engaged in by Rajitha Senaratne (or perhaps only by his wife, since he will doubtless follow his friend Ravi and deny knowledge of her activities) in sending in a list of individuals from the Kalutara District to be put on the government payroll.

I should note that I too have had pressures in this regard, and I cannot claim to have always done absolutely the right thing. Once when I was Secretary to the Ministry, I stopped an appalling appointment, and set up a proper selection procedure which led to someone else being selected. My Additional Secretary was under pressure to change the marksheet, but I forbade that.

However when I was told that the appointment had been promised to the manifestly unsuitable candidate, and it would be a great loss of face if someone else was appointed, I agreed to not make any appointment, but leave the post vacant. I was not happy about this, but I felt I could not let a productive working relationship suffer if the Minister felt let down. And at least I had stopped someone quite incapable from getting a permanent government job.

I also feel that, if there are good candidates recommended by the Minister, and there is no injustice to anyone else – for with regard to junior positions marking can never be entirely objective – we should oblige the political branch as best possible. But I have stood firm when there were no such good candidates – which has led to the Commission advising me to stay away from interview boards where minor positions are involved.

That even such limited selectivity did not happen in the past is clear from the number of individuals from the Galle District who throng our Ministry, having filled the place when Mr Gamage was Minister – indeed one of the first problems I had to face was an audit query about some appointments rushed through before the election, when the Administration had frankly to admit that there were undue pressures.

One whimsical side effect of this packing is the rush on Friday afternoons to get an early train home. I suppose in the larger scheme of things that that is better than what happened at Oluvil, when all the Security Guards appointed courtesy of Richard Pathirana left early in the day to enjoy weekends with their families – while the Galle port was rendered desolate as those from the East whom Mr Ashraff had put there were journeying in the other direction.

In one sense it may be better to declare that appointments should be made from a list issued by the Ministry. This happened in the past, according to a circular I was shown way back in 2015, which also referred to earlier decisions. I countermanded this in one of my last acts as a Minister, though I gather with no lasting impact. But that at least would limit the bullying of appointing officers,  and if it is confined to minor positions with clear recruitment criteria and only to existing cadre positions, the harm done will not be massive.

Sadly, the political kudos obtained by such appointments does not last. Hence the need for further carrots, as with the massive salary increase this government began by granting. But the impact of such measures, ably expounded at a recent discussion on the bond scam by a distinguished economist, will need to be looked at separately.

Ceylon Today 5 Sept 2017