The decline and fall of public administration

|  by R.M.B Senanayake

(January 02, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Government seems to have hopelessly blundered in preparing the results of the G.C.E Advanced Level Examination held last year. Previously we saw the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation importing contaminated petrol and selling it to consumers, causing damage and expenses to the vehicle owners. According to Minister Champika Ranawaka the Norocholai coal power plant is working below capacity due to serious technical defects or inadequacies, causing financial loss to the country. The Hambantota harbor seems to have its own technical problems posed by the presence of a rock at the entrance to the harbor, which requires extra expenditure to rectify. Why are all these mishaps and failures taking place now? Are they a result of faulty decision-making or weak administration or both? Didn’t we have a bureaucracy that was reasonably competent? Why this display of poor decision-making and crass inefficiency? The reasons must be plied and to my mind they stem from the fact that politicians have taken charge of the administration.
Bureaucracy undermined
The very concept of a bureaucracy, whose features were detailed by Max Weber long ago, has been undermined. Instead, we have a system of placemen in high offices, appointed not after a screening of their knowledge and expertise but only on their getting the ear of the President who has taken charge of all appointments, promotions and disciplinary actions in the public service. The top officials are appointed on the basis of their political loyalty or personal loyalty to the appointing authority be it the President or the Ministers. The Cabinet, a collective body totally unsuitable to make detailed administrative decisions has become a rubber stamp for the exercise of power by the President and the Ministers. In the USA, they call this practice the spoils system. This system was introduced here after 1972 when the powers of appointment, promotion and dismissal were taken away from the independent Public Service Commission and vested in the Cabinet, a mere rubber stamping body for the decisions of the President and the Ministers. Public interest organizations and the OPA realized the havoc that was taking place and canvassed for the 17th Amendment which was passed by Parliament. But President M.R has done away with it and gathered all power over the Public Service to himself. He and his Ministers have become the Chief Executives of the Ministries, whereas previously the Secretary was the chief in the Ministry and ranked as the same as the Minister. The quality of administration of any organization depends much on the caliber of its Chief Executive. He must have a fair knowledge of the subjects dealt with by his organization in addition to managerial expertise. Do our politician Ministers have such knowledge of the subjects handled by their departments or the administrative expertise to fit them for the posts of Chief Executives? The late Felix Dias Bandaranaike once remarked openly that the SLFP lacked educated men and professionals. So he made provision for Members of Parliament to enter Law College, relaxing the minimum entry requirements. Several SLFP politicians benefited from this concession. But today the situation is even worse. The SLFP has only a handful of Members of Parliament who are sufficiently educated to be entrusted with the power to run a Ministry as its Chief Executive. We no longer have politicians like Felix Dias Bandaranaike, Lalith Athuladmudali Dr N.M Perera or Dr Colvin R. De Silva. They possessed outstanding intellect and realized that the requirements of sound administration required that they work through the bureaucracy rather than run the Ministries themselves. They realized that efficiency required respect for administrative principles like the unity in of command and hierarchical ordering of officials in the chain of command.

The fundamental value of administration is efficiency
The chief objective and value in public administration is efficiency, Administration has to do with getting things done, with the accomplishment of tasks and goals. But the elected politicians of today only seek to have themselves re-elected so as to exercise power for a further period. Imagine what would happen when they take charge of departments which are part of the Ministry. They will only appoint officials who will blindly follow their orders and serve their interests rather than those who have the expert knowledge and competence. They lose sight of the objectives of the Ministry and see only the objectives of the Minister. They do the bidding of their Ministers, irrespective of whether it is right morally and whether it serves the public interest or not. If they don’t conform to the Minister’s wishes they will lose their posts, if not their jobs and careers. So the role of the Secretary to the Ministry has been reduced to that of a cipher. Our poorly educated Ministers felt inferior in the presence of the Secretaries and Heads of Departments and following the Peter Principle, preferred to appoint persons who were either less educated than themselves were at least their relations and friends to whom they could talk on equal terms. Where they could not appoint their own Secretaries they preferred to deal with subordinates and listened to tale carriers who had their own nests to feather. This is the practice of intrigue which is in the tradition of governance in our feudal culture. They have wrecked havoc on the administration.
Politicians take charge of the administration
Money and the exercise of power are the levers to be used to get re-elected. So when they take full charge of the administration of their Ministries which include the departments under them, they will busy themselves exercising administrative power to further their personal and political interests. The concept of public office as a public trust has no hold on our politicians. So what will happen when such politicians take charge of administration? Will they make efficiency the main objective of the administration or will they prefer to exercise power to further their personal and political interests by rewarding their voters, political loyalists and businessmen who will support them with money for their election campaign.
Administration in a democracy is supposed to serve the public interest. But can this happen with our politicians? Of course even in the USA and Britain a similar clash of interests existed until the Reform of the Public Services. In Britain, the spoils system was done away with in the 1830s. But in USA it prevailed until the 1890s and even up to the First World War when President Woodrow Wilson took measures against it. When Ministers become the administrative heads of their Ministries they will appoint only those who are supposed to be loyal to them to the top posts. These men lack the knowledge and expertise to become key executives. When they appoint their minions as Secretaries and heads of departments these persons would act only to serve their Ministers and not the public interest. This system of direct control of the administration by the Ministers took place after 1972 when the appointments, promotions and disciplinary control of the top officials was taken over by the Cabinet from the independent Public Service Commission which existed prior to that. During the period of President CBK public interest organizations and the OPA led a campaign to restore the independence of the Public Service Commission. Their efforts bore fruit with the passing of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. But President M.R did away with it by the 18th Amendment and gathered all power over the public, the police and the judicial services unto himself.
Public office as a public trust
But power in a democracy is a public trust and there must be checks and balances on the exercise of power to ensure that those in charge serve the public interest and not their personal interests. All power is a trust to be exercised only to further the interests of those who bestowed such power. One of the requirements is to ensure that the power is exercised only according to the law. Another is that power should be exercised to further the interests of all the people and not only of those who voted for the ruling politicians. So the administration must be unpartisan. The Athenians who invented democracy elected their administrative leaders and also limited their tenure, I believe to three years and disqualified them from seeking re-election. This is in contrast to a bureaucracy which the Chinese invented where a permanent body of officials was chosen on merit through an examination and held office until they retired. This system did not even suit the Athenian democracy of ancient Greece. Over the years the western democracies realized that administration could not be entrusted to elected politicians who lacked knowledge of the subject matter and expertise in administration. This became evident after the Industrial Revolution. The state was called upon to deal with matters which required knowledge of a variety of disciplines like Economics, Engineering, medicine etc. The present working arrangements of modern government are the result of a process of trial and success. When Woodrow Wilson took office there were still vestiges of the spoils system. He found that the spoils system militated against administrative efficiency required in a technological age where science and technology should guide decision making. Changes in a modern society are rapid and inefficiency is costly. The issues facing a modern economy are complex and require the best brains that the country can muster. For example decisions about health or the running of hospitals requires some grounding in medicine and public health. A Minister who is a complete layman cannot run the administration of the health services directly by himself. It is the same with any other field of public administration today. Elected politicians cannot be expected to have the required knowledge and expertise to make the correct decisions. So the western democracies formulated the principle that the Minister should confine himself to policy making and allow the administration to be run by a permanent official – the Permanent Secretary. The Minister had powers to hold the officials accountable according to law. The Permanent Secretary ranked in status as the same as the Minister. Those who have watched the TV drama “Yes Minister” would have seen how the Permanent Secretary runs the Ministry. Theorists of Public Administration also drew a distinction between politics and administration and vested the latter with permanent officials. A distinction was also drawn between policy and administration with policy making being reserved for the Minister. Public interest theorists realized however, that administrative officials could abuse power and hence gave the power to the Minister to hold them accountable. The British Parliament had the power to impeach officials although it has fallen into disuse. The U.S Constitution still gives Congress the power to impeach officials elected or permanent. Theorists also argued the case for officials to hold office permanently. The Civil Service Reform League of New York set up in 1872 canvassed against the spoils system.
We find that in our democracy, the voters are not sufficiently discriminative. They vote for persons who are like themselves rather than for educated persons who are fit for public office. So we find criminals and drug dealers among the elected politicians. It is unthinkable to allow them to take charge of administration. We see the antics of one such politician who resorted to the feudal system of tying errant officials to trees. If the present spoils system continues for much longer we are likely to see a collapse of the administration with loss of public confidence in the administration which is the state itself. There will be a Progressive deterioration of public services: a disappearance of basic state functions that serve the people, including failure to protect citizens from terrorism and violence and to provide essential services, such as health, education, sanitation, public transportation. We will soon witness all these things happening. The state will increasingly serve the interests of the ruling elite and not the public. The security forces, presidential staff, central bank, diplomatic service, customs and collection agencies will use the state apparatus to serve their interests rather than the public interest.
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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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