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The burdens of the public sector

The statement made by Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa recently, that Sri Lanka’s public sector is a “burden to the country”, attracted mixed responses. While some viewed it as the Government acknowledging a long-lasting national issue, some, especially public sector trade unions, condemned that statement.

However, Rajapaksa’s comment was a rather blanket one. If what he meant when he said a “burden” was a reference to the financial aspects relating to maintaining the public sector, we must first understand that it is not that simple, and that there are a number of other matters that have made the public sector what it is today.

Most importantly, we must understand that the way we look at the issue of public sector expenses needs to change. The fact of the matter is, a certain institution or sector becomes a burden when it fails to fulfill its duties to match the public funds spent for it. Most of the time, we look at the money spent for the public sector and discuss reducing these expenses; however, increasing the quality of the services provided is also a key step.

In Sri Lanka’s public sector, as far as recruitments are concerned, we can see two main issues: Public institutions being overstaffed and understaffed, and the recruitment of qualified but incompetent people. Even though the popular opinion is that the public sector is burdened by a surplus of employees in certain institutions such as the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC), this does not apply to all institutions alike. Justice Minister Ali Sabry recently acknowledged in Parliament that the Attorney General’s Department has a severe shortage of hundreds of employees, while consumer rights activists such as Asela Sampath have claimed that the Consumer Affairs Authority has only around 200 officials actively engaged in protecting the rights of consumers.

If the Government is genuinely determined to change the state of the public sector, hiring only the necessary number of employees, as well as hiring people for existing vacancies and not artificially created vacancies, should receive more attention. The culture of giving jobs that do not exist in a bid to garner votes should change.

The other recruitment-related issue is hiring qualified but incompetent people for topmost posts in the public sector, who not only hinder the services provided by the public sector, but also do not proactively contribute to the progress of this sector. To make matters worse, some who have been appointed to such top positions do not even have the necessary qualifications and/or experience, and their appointments are clearly political appointments.

In addition to this, political influences that certain public sector officials have had to deal with when fulfilling their responsibilities is another major issue. During the past few months, Sri Lanka saw several high-ranking public officials stepping down from their positions, claiming that they did not have the proper environment to perform their duties, owing to political and bureaucratic interference. These inferences are not always direct, and sometimes, they come in the form of the disregard of expert opinions.

Recently, former CAA Executive Director Thushan Gunawardena, who played a part in exposing the infamous garlic scam at Lanka Sathosa, resigned from his post citing political pressure when carrying out his duties, and subsequently named Trade Minister Dr. Bandula Gunawardana as the source of such undue interference. Similarly, medical experts resigned from the Health Ministry’s Covid-19 Technical Committee, claiming that expert opinions were not being considered when making decisions pertaining to the vaccination programme, while former Paddy Marketing Board (PMB) Chairman Dr. Jatal Mannapperuma resigned, allegedly because implementing the decisions made by those above him was not prudent.

However, the issues do not always come from the higher levels of the public sector political leadership and its hierarchy; issues such as inefficiency and corruption also need to be addressed. People often complain about delays in providing services and demands for bribes in public institutions – for instance, it is known that bribing officials has become a normal part of obtaining services at the Department of Motor Traffic (DMT).

To identify and eradicate such acts, there should be a proper monitoring and regulatory mechanism. There are so many steps that can be taken in this regard, such as giving more attention to digitalising the public sector, which would notably change this situation. Even though the President’s surprise visits to public institutions such as the DMT and the National Housing Development Authority (NHDA) gave hope to the people, it was temporary, and the country does not see such inspections being continued or improved.

Ultimately, the Government holds the most responsibility towards changing this situation. It should understand that the cost of maintaining the public sector is merely one aspect of this matter, and as long as Sri Lanka delays addressing other issues, the country’s public sector will not be a public-friendly service.