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POSTED AT 09:05 AM 10-02-2019

Honourable Minister’s “dishonourable list”

File picture of harvesting in a Sri Lankan village. Many young people are reluctant to work in paddy lands and prefer government jobs.

One morning I walked into the office room of the University Registrar – the highest administrative officer of a state university. As I entered I saw him working with two loads of folders laid in front of him on his table.

Over the folder loads I looked at him and asked: “What are all these files you are busy with early morning?”

“These are the applicants from the Minister’s list for the post of Computer Assistants.” He answered and clarified it further. “They sat for the aptitude test, but out of 80 plus applicants only  two have passed the test.”

“You must be recruiting the two, even if they have just passed it,” I said in a questioning tone.

He looked at me straightaway and answered: “We have 18 vacancies;  I am trying to see if there are at least ‘good failures’ to select from the list and, fill all the vacancies.”

Following the procedures

I asked him again: “You mean there are no qualified people with computer skills in Sri Lanka?”

He replied: “In Sri Lanka, there might be. In fact, there are and, they are leaving the country because they can’t find jobs here and we can’t recruit them either.”

“What do you mean?” I asked him again.

“I mean, when we want to recruit non-executive level employees to the public sector institutions, they should come from the Minister’s list. We can’t recruit employees from an open advertisement.”

“We are violating human rights of the citizens of this country,” I said.

“I’m not sure ; we are adhering to the circulars enacted by the Government and, following the procedures,” he said in response.

Managing the public service

Our discussion ended there. But before we proceed further in discussing the economics of it, I must also show what happens with such recruitments. The following is an example of that:

Kaushalya has been working on a “contract” basis as an assistant in a small library, attached to a university. She has a degree plus a diploma in Library Science and has also acquired a few years of experience in the library field. Her salary is Rs. 35,000 a month and, her contract is for six months only. She cannot get a permanent position because her name is not in the Minister’s list.

Subashini was recruited on a “permanent” basis and, was assigned to the same library as an assistant. She has no qualification in Library Science or even any educational qualifications other than her GCE Advanced Level. However, she draws Rs. 48,000 a month as her starting salary. She has come from the Minister’s list.

The head of the library has a two-fold problem now: She cannot figure out how to manage the library and deliver the library service output to the library users efficiently and effectively on the one hand and, secondly in doing so how to maintain the incentive system and motivation between the two employees on the other hand.

Not knowing what to do and how to do and having no authority on what is to be done, the head of the library also decided to let it go as it is keeping her ears and eyes closed. So we let the public sector run as it is.

The problem gets multiplied, as the library needs to be kept open in the evenings and weekends. Kaushalya has to work overtime, but she is not entitled for overtime payment as her salary is fixed on contract basis. Subashini usually leaves at 4.15 in the late afternoon and doesn’t want to work thereafter in the evening or even at the weekends; if she does, of course, she should be paid overtime payments according to government regulations.

Inputs that matter for the output

The public sector often comes under criticisms due to its inefficiencies and sub-standard service delivery. How does it deliver a better output with sub-standard inputs? There are clerks who do not know how to write a letter; technicians who do not have technical competencies; computer assistants who haven’t used a computer; gardeners who do not know gardening; and receptionists who do not know how to answer a phone call. This is our public sector, filled by employees from the Minister’s list.

But we expect a demand-driven delivery to facilitate private sector-led growth. The heads of the public sector institutions are responsible for delivering better output with an input that they are not responsible for. What a dilemma!

The worst comes when the employees are sometimes not responsible for their immediate authority either. They are responsible for someone outside the workplace, while their immediate authority has no authority to give instructions to them or to question them for not following the instructions.

Friday, Monday and the weekend

Employees are basically from the Minister’s village or electorate or, at least the district, wherever their workplace is. On Friday, they get ready to go home for the weekend.

Depending on the variations of the factors such as travel time, travel mode and traffic flows, on Friday they begin to get ready to go home as early as possible. It paralyses the public sector work on Fridays.

After spending the weekend, some of them leave home to come back for work on Monday; it paralyses public sector work on Mondays too.

When their activities on both the first and last working days are taken into account, the public sector service delivery in the public sector during these two days are apparently below the accepted work norms.

Economic implications

Apart from the sub-standard public sector service delivery, there are other economic implications too. Regardless of the worker contribution to the economy, people should pay taxes to maintain the salaries and wages as well as other perks of the incompetent employees.

There are greater surprises than that coming from increased budgetary allocations to pay the employee compensations: Statistically, there is a positive contribution to GDP which deceives all of us who have to make use of the per capita income figures and economic growth rates.

Let me explain: Technically, public sector output is part of the service output added to the country’s GDP. But public sector service doesn’t have a measurable output value or sales price. A tangible agriculture or manufactured commodity does have an output value or a sales price.

Therefore, GDP contribution by the services is usually measured according to the “input-incurred” value added method. This means that the “cost of inputs” is the contribution to GDP so that the compensation for employees (salaries, wages and all other remunerations) is the contribution to GDP.

Public sector job creation

By implication, a country can increase its GDP by increasing the public sector employment, even if their real contribution is absolutely zero!

Over the past 10 years, our labour force has increased from 8.1 million to 8.4 million, while about half of the labour force works as employees in both the public and private sectors. In 2009, out of these employees 27 per cent was in the public sector which has increased to 36 per cent by the second quarter 2018.

History and future

I’m aware that until the 1970s public sector recruitment has been the responsibility of the respective heads of such institutions. Even the Station Master at a railway station had the autonomy, responsibility and accountability to hire and fire the workers to work in the railway station.

Somewhere down the line, I believe it was in the 1970s when there was high unemployment running at over 20 per cent of the labour force, this practice was taken over by the parliamentarians who saw it as an opportunity. Even in the pace of policy reforms after 1977, there has been no serious attempt for public sector reforms.

The big question that remains to  be answered today is that who would be willing to give away the “sacred cow” that we have embraced tight for half a century. And, after all when private sector expansion is constrained by inadequate investment flows, the value of the sacred cow is on the rise! 

(The writer is a Professor of Economics at the University of Colombo and can be reached at sirimal@econ.cmb.ac.lk)

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