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Sri Lanka: How Public Service was Destroyed by Politician?

| by R.M.B Senanayake

( November 8, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) These days there is much criticism about the Foreign service – a service which was second only to the former Ceylon Civil Service and consisting of outstanding persons of intellect selected through a competitive examination. The Chris Nonis affair has shown how a bunch of thugs have taken over the once hallowed foreign service. But it is these public services that held the country together and allowed the country to command respect from the international community. We never had a competent administration under our Sinhalese kings who drew no distinction between the power play and the need for a sound and competent State administration.

It is not an accident that the LTTE emerged as a force after 1972 when the Leftists had destroyed the merit based senior administrative service. Up to then, the Civil Service had acted as a non-political administrative mechanism and the Tamil people who were also represented in it were reluctant to resort to extra-legal violent agitation. But after 1972 the public service was fully politicized and the Tamil people would no longer accept the public administrative mechanism as impartial. It had become an arm of the ruling political party and since the political party represented only the Sinhalese, the Tamils treated both the political and administrative system as oppressors. They were the same and they represented only the majority Sinhalese. The way was open to identify the State as an instrument of harassment by the Sinhalese majority community.

The Administration held the country together

The central government administrative service plays a no mean role in holding India together. By doing away with the administrative service recruited on merit and instead packing its higher levels with political appointees, the Foreign Service, the Administrative service and the Police service have become not the services of the nation but the services of the ruling political party or only of the President. Our so-called democracy is merely an instrument for the exercise of power for the benefit of the ruling circle. Scarce public services are being distributed not on the basis of any rule of fairness but only on political favour and corruption. So the public go after their elected representatives to get admission for their children to the better schools, to get a government house, a government job or priority and special favour in any government department or institution. Similarly employees in the public service curry favour with the ruling party politicians, to get transfers, promotions and avoid disciplinary actions for their acts of dishonesty and corruption in the disbursement of public funds.

The Members of Parliament are elected not to govern the country but to draw up laws and to act as a check on the Executive. But how can these MPs check on the Executive when they themselves are involved in the irregular exercise of Executive power. How can such a corrupt system be called a democracy merely because these politicians are elected by the people – an election marred by abuse of power and State resources. Where is the equity and fairness in the provision of public services to the people under this system? Social revolutions are caused when the people realize the unfairness of the political system. There comes a time when the people are not willing to tolerate such unfairness any more. It begins with a few who perceive the unfairness and they draw the attention of the masses to the blatant abuses of power and position. The French and Russian revolutions were brought on by the exercise of arbitrary power by the king and the ruling class.

It is the central public service which holds India together. China was the first country to develop a public administration where appointments were on merit and through a competitive examination. The Mandal Report in India sought to provide special appointments to the central public service for the lower castes but it was rejected to uphold the principle of merit. Merit has disappeared altogether from our public service appointments.

The Peter Principle operates.

The politicians who became Ministers, except for the few well educated among them, found it uncomfortable to deal with those appointed on merit for they were intellectually inferior to them. They could not order them around. So following the Peter Principle they appointed their favourites from outside the public service. They preferred friends and relations who were inferior to the serving public servants in education and accomplishments. For the benefit of those who have not heard of the Peter Principle (formulated by the famous management theorist Tom Peters in his work "The Peter Principle: Why Things always go wrong") it refers to the principle in a hierarchy where individuals at the top prefer to appoint only those who are not as clever or intellectually comparable as they are to the next level of authority. The process goes down the hierarchy and hence the less capable thereafter get promoted over time to the top where they are unable to perform and there they would remain "bungling the job and eroding the competence of society". This principle now reigns supreme in our politicized administrative and foreign services. So although we have been importing petroleum products for the last fifty years without a hitch, now they can import only inferior petroleum. It is the same in every other service and the country is well on the way to becoming a failed state.

Democracy and the limitations of popular judgment.

The people are wise if they elect competent and honest persons as their representatives. Democracy is based on the principle -not that the people are capable of right judgment but that they can decide who hurts them. As Pericles said "Although only a few are capable of devising policy all are certainly capable of judging them." Democracy in backward countries is a process of learning by the people – learning to judge their rulers through trial and error. Election Day can be a day of judgment for those who govern us. But this is based on the assumption that the process of election is inviolate and has not been tampered with. But that requires a system of government where checks and balances operate on the rulers. They are accountable to the legislature and the judiciary. But if these two bodies are already subordinated to the Executive then the actions of the Executive are not based on the law but on arbitrary exercise of the will of the ruler as in the times of our Sinhalese kings and in the Western democracies before the Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England, of the Revolution of 1789 in France and the 1776 revolution USA.

This right to throw out a government is severely vitiated in a dictatorship. It may be so vitiated that a change of government is impossible. Then only a social revolution can overthrow a government. Historically Athenian democracy as pointed out by Karl Popper was an attempt to avoid tyranny at all costs. They had in place the process of ‘ostracisation’ where any citizen if he becomes too popular, could be removed precisely because of his popularity. Eminent statesman like Aristides and Themistocles were ostracized or sent into exile. Perhaps MR would have qualified for ostracisation in the Athenian democracy. The great danger in a democracy is the emergence of populist politicians. So we have to put up with populist politicians who will take decisions sacrificing the long term for the short term as we see in the recent budget. If the people are wise they will elect leaders who espouse sound economics and not populism. Political expediency and benefit rather than principles is the governing factor in our current political decision-making and even constitution making. Despite the oath to uphold the Constitution our political leaders have violated the fundamental principles of the Constitution with gay abandon. President J. R Jayewardene adopted a hybrid Constitution removing the checks and balances required to preserve freedom in a presidential form of government. A balance is also required between the need for representation and the need for competent governance. The advantage of the presidential form of government is that the Ministers are all drawn from competent personnel who are outside the Legislature. The USA, France, Japan all appoint technically competent persons with considerable management experience to be Ministers, instead of country yokels. What we need direly is a competent set of Ministers and they are not available through the process of popular election. We need not abolish he executive Presidency but to make it accountable under the law to the legislature and the judiciary. The absolute legal immunity of the President should be abolished as should the 18th Amendment and elected MPs should be debarred from being Ministers. The President should be allowed to appoint as Ministers only persons of good standing with experience in management of not less than ten years in a large organization in the public or private sector.

The MP is not a delegate

The MP thinks that he represents only those who voted for him. But as Burke pointed out the MP is not a delegate of his voters but is expected to act in the best interests of his people and the people include those who voted against him. He is expected to be a legislator not an intermediary of his constituents with the administration. State officials are expected to serve all persons fairly and not favour those of the ruling party. What we have is not a democracy but what political science calls a ‘plutocracy" or some would say a "kleptocracy" where a political elite based on some social criteria such as membership of a family or caste or class, rule the country in their particular interest.

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