Need for a professional administrator as Treasury Head

by Dr Sudath Gunasekara

(July 31, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Now that the Jayasundara episode is over with his resignation from the post of Secretary to the Treasury in the wake of a court indictment, it prompted me to pen these few thoughts on the folly of appointing political hand-picks for the post of Secretary, General Treasury and the Ministry of Finance, which used to be the pinnacle of public Service in this country in the past. I think, after nearly 40 years of political experimenting, now the time has come to question the ethical dimensions and the wisdom of appointing non- career administrators to this one time highest position in the public administration.

In the days of the Civil Service this was the highest post in the public Service. Provisions for the appointment of Ministry Secretaries were given under Sec. 51 of the Ceylon constitution and the procedure of their appointment and conditions of service were governed by the Secretary’s Minute. They were appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister and the recipients were selected from among senior Civil Servants who had completed at least 20 years of service. This condition was considered necessary since it meant that a person appointed as a Permanent Secretary with that maturity was likely to have a broad background and would be able to cope effectively with complex problems of administration. The persons selected as Secretaries those days belonged to the Supra Class of the CCS which fell outside the purview of the Public Service Commission. They belonged to the administrative hierarchy with responsibility for policy formulation and implementation. It amply displays that those days even a Civil Servant, unless he was exceptional, was not considered good enough to hold that post.

These prerequisites clearly demonstrate how careful one has to be in selecting a person before he is appointed as secretary to a ministry. The very fact that they were designated Permanent Secretaries also shows the very concept of their service. The understanding was they were permanent appointments in the highest echelons of the state machinery who maintained the continuity of an independent public service within a system where the Ministers who were elected on a five year basis, were not regarded as permanent public office holders (unlike today).

This principle provided for the uninterrupted continuity, independence and the stability of the general governance and administration of public policies in between a period of change of government during elections. Although the Secretaries could be transferred at the request of Ministers, this tradition provided a high degree of independence, protected by the Constitution and other statutes and minutes. Accordingly those days ‘Permanent Secretaries’, as Warnapala puts it, constituted the island’s ‘Super administrators’.

Under this system the post of Secretary to the General Treasury and the Ministry of Finance was always filled by a senior member of the then Civil Service. Both public finance and public administration came under his domain. Usually the most senior and competent person who had completed several years of service as a Ministry Secretary commanding the respect of other Secretaries for his competence in discharging the functions as a Secretary, was appointed to this post. He was also placed on a special salary scale, Rs. 3,000 pm above other Ministry Secretaries. This enabled him to perform the functions and duties both as the Secretary to the Treasury and the Ministry of Finance with full authority. Under that system he had both the administrative and financial control over the entire public service. He was also the Chief Accounting Officer of the government. Under that system by the time one became the Head of the Treasury he had been accepted as the most senior and competent person in the entire public sector. Being a trained public servant of the highest calibre his public spiritedness had to be always above all other considerations.

However, since 1970s we have seen a tragic departure from this time honoured practice and successive governments have resorted to the appointment of non-career administrators as the Head of the General Treasury for political expediency. The first outsider to be appointed to this highest post in public service was Prof. H. A. D. S. Gunasekara, a stalwart of the LSSP and the Professor of Economics of the University of Peradeniya who had never been a professional public administrator before. A.S. Jayawardhana, another economist from the Central Bank, was also appointed later. Thereafter the UNP government appointed Charita Ratwatta, an accountant by profession and also who happened to be the one- time General Secretary of the UNP. He was succeeded by P. B. Jayasundara, again an economist from the Central Bank. Overall, all these outsiders have miserably failed as Secretaries of Finance as well as the Head of the Treasury to deliver the goods in the interest of the general public. They always gave priority to the needs of those who patronised them. Nor were they able to command the respect of the public service either, particularly the Sri Lanka Administrative Service (SLAS), whose members man all the key positions in the administrative machinery of this country, from the President’s office at the national level to the divisional level in the rural backwaters.

Another vital qualification needed for a person to hold a high position like a Secretary to a ministry was his practical experience in the field. The long experience in administration and the deep knowledge of the actual ground situation in different parts of the country that an SLAS officer acquires over a period of about 20 years, having served in different stations in different capacities and the understanding of human problems and the empathy he develops towards the people, having witnessed the reality in the countryside, could never be expected of a subject matter specialist like a banker, whose entire life is confined to an air conditioned room in Colombo or a person holding an academic position within the four walls of a university.

None of those outsiders who had been appointed as Secretaries were professional administrators. They may have been experts in their own fields. But none of them could match the calibre of people like S.F Amarasinha or Jinadasa Samarakkody, all of whom came from the coveted Civil Service and had long years of practical administrative experience and interaction with the general public. Perhaps what the post-1970 governments wanted was not so much good financial management or efficient public administration but someone who would say ‘yes’ to all what they proposed to appropriate public funds to fulfil their electoral obligations. The abolition of the Public Service Commission and the creation of a separate Ministry of Public Administration in 1972, independent of the Treasury, further highlighted this sad story of politicization of public service for realising their narrow political goals.

I do not for a moment acclaim the old system as sacrosanct. The Civil Servants may have mostly catered to a particular class, probably a class which they represented. Although such allegations are not totally true this trend I think is understandable given the nature of the socio-political environment which prevailed at that time. But I don’t think anyone would have had any doubt about their independence, efficiency, integrity or honesty, which the political appointees, either in the past or future, can ever claim to have, since their obligation to their political patrons is greater, as their survival rests purely on political patronage.

Why politicians go for Central Bank men or accountants may be explained partly by their conviction that the post of Secretary to the Treasury, as they understand it, is a job that deals mainly with the control and management of finances of the country. The downgrading of this post in 1972 by removing the public service from the control of the General Treasury, may also have made it easy for the appointment of a non-career administrator as its Head. This notion in my opinion is a myth. Firstly, because this job is primarily a public administration job, a management job of the highest professional order that calls for long years of experience in public administration, which no amateur could cope with. Secondly, although the Secretary may not be an expert in finance or monetary matters, there are enough experts like the Governor of the Central Bank and other economists attached to the Treasury, from whom he can get the necessary advice on such matters. Therefore, one need not necessarily be an expert in finance or banking to be the Head of the Treasury. What you need is an eminent administrator of the highest integrity and calibre who can objectively take a decision after weighing the pros and cons of the facts placed before him and also who can withstand parochial political pressure to protect the interest of the country at large as a public officer. He should consider his position as the guardian of the country’s Treasury and the protector of the public service in the broader interest of the general public only and not the political interests of the party that patrons him, as an outsider is compelled to do.

Another misconception as regards selecting ‘so-called subject matter experts’ from outside the public service for this coveted post seems to be that the present day SLAS officers are not competent enough to handle this job. That again is unfounded and I hold it to be another myth invented for simple political expediency, partly supported by other interested parties, such as certain ex-Civil Service men. This only displays the ignorance of politicians responsible for such appointments. However, I do not claim that any SLAS officer can handle this job as much as any Civil Servant was not fit to do it even in the past. It certainly needs some special merit. But I must say that any experienced SLAS man is a better administrator than an outsider who has zero experience in public administration. On the other hand, if you don’t have the quality people within the SLAS, then what the governments should do is to remedy that situation immediately, without resorting to putting square pegs in round holes by appointing parachutists, since the SLAS constitutes the back bone of the machinery of governance even at present. Therefore, to say that the government cannot find a person from nearly 2,500 SLAS officers is absurd and totally unacceptable. There are inadequacies even in the SLAS, I agree. But this is not something peculiar to SLAS . It is a common malady found in all services and everywhere. Therefore, I do not think one should resort to throwing away the baby with the bath water.

(The Writer is retired Ministry Secretary and one time President of the SASA.)
- Sri Lanka Guardian