President Maithripala Sirisena’s exhortation to public officials not to be bound by public circulars or regulations which may get in the way of efficient execution of their duties is a timely one. The campaign, currently being carried out by the Joint Opposition to the effect that the recent High Court judgement against messrs. Lalith Weeratunga and Anusha Palpita has flashed the red light to public officials against deviating from the existing procedures in carrying out their duties and functions, it has to be said, has put these officials on the back foot, so to speak. Already a ministry secretary has refused to carry out an order issued by the minister concerned, which the former had deemed irregular, according to media reports. If the trend picks up and allowed to go unchecked the wheels of public administration is bound to be ground to a halt, sometime soon. All the public officials will take cover behind the ARs and FRs and sit tight doing nothing. Hence, the President’s injunction to these officials to improvise wherever necessary, with an assurance that no official would suffer any consequences for his actions, is a move in the right direction.
Of course, no public servant is expected to act illegally, or, carry out illegal orders. That goes without saying. This does not, however, mean that they cannot deviate from laid down procedure to meet emergency situations, with or without the concurrence of the political authority. If administrative procedures prove a stumbling block in attaining the desired goals then, like the President said, they can bend the rules. The fate that befell Weeratunga and Palpita should in no way be a hindrance in carrying out one’s legitimate duties. The duo were arraigned before court for carrying out an illegal order issued by the former President in misusing public funds to offer an election bribe to the voters. It is difficult to comprehend a similar order being issued by any political panjandrum in the current regime after the High Court judgement or any public official carrying out such an illegal order, in the future. Where Lalith Weeratunga, miscalculated was, in assuming, that the all powerful Rajapaksa juggernaut could not be toppled from the pedestal of power. Had he or Palpita had even an inkling that a regime change was in the offing, it is certain that they would not have burned their hands, the way they did.
The JO campaign is aimed at dissuading public servants from carrying out their legitimate functions. When the public are thus inconvenienced and placed in hardship the accusing finger will be pointed at the government, by the JO spokesmen. This way, they also plan to garner sympathy for the Lalith-Palpita duo, who they will claim were placed behind bars for the sacrifice of serving the public. The Yahapalanaya government, on the other hand, has tied the hands of dedicated officials, who will now think twice before acting, the refrain is bound to go. Hence the government must think about introducing some form of immunity law for safeguarding public officials if they deviate from procedure in emergency situations. This will reassure these public officials to do the President’s bidding.
The green light given by the President to the public officials to use their discretion in acting to better facilitate their duties and functions to obtain the best results for the public, no doubt, will come in handy during natural disasters and other calamities, when the wheels of administrations often grinds to a halt. This was witnessed in the recent flood and landslide disasters where officials were at their wits end to make prompt decisions to facilitate the rescue efforts. They may, or may not have been hampered by the myriad of circulars to put emergency measures into action. The President’s assurance, no doubt, will remove such impediments.
However, there may still be public officials, attached to the various ministries, who may deliberately avoid taking proactive measures, in order to place the government in poor, before the general public. Such officials, who are bent on sabotage, do this for political reasons. In this context the recent allegation made by former Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake that certain officials in the Central Bank, who were appointed under the former regime, were putting out bogus statistics (to show an economic downturn) and failed to carry out instructions, could not be without foundation. Such bad eggs needed to be dealt with.
The President’s instructions to public officials not to be sticklers to laid down procedures will also encourage both local and foreign investors. We say this because the country has lost a host of foreign investors, over the years, due to the numerous bottlenecks inherent in the administrative set up. The country can no longer afford this luxury, with the foreign investors taking their businesses elsewhere, at the first sign of trouble. The numerous delays have also opened the doors for corruption. A modern economy cannot be expected to operate under obsolete and moribund ARs and FRs that were introduced in the colonial era. A massive overhaul is needed in all sectors, if the country’s economy is to progress smoothly.
Daily News, October 12, 2017