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Governtment of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 66 - Streamlining administrative procedures

( Created date: 23-Jan-2013 )

In writing recently about the need to deploy resources more effectively, I concentrated on human resources, and the failure of government to develop a coherent policy that ensures attention at local levels to local problems. Employment is created en masse, without careful study of needs, and of the skills required to fulfil those needs.
The other side of this coin is the absence of procedures that will ensure, or at least encourage, the desired results. Administrative efficiency is not seen as necessary, and administrative and financial regulations seem designed to inhibit initiative and energy rather than promote them.
One major problem is the lack of any sense of urgency. When I was appointed Secretary to a Ministry, I was horrified at the manner in which files were piled up in the in-trays of my colleagues. When I expressed surprise, I was told that government did not require matters to be dealt with for three days. This struck me as preposterous and, when I probed further, I found that three days was supposed to be the maximum period within which responses should be sent.
This had become a minimum. I explained painstakingly that responses should be made immediately, unless there was need to seek further information, and that the guideline of three days was intended to set a limit on the time any institution should take to find information internally. 
Obviously there would be instances in which further information had to be sought from other sources, but that did not mean that there should be no response till such information was received. The expectation was that a response should be sent in three days, indicating the action being taken and when a substantial answer would be forthcoming.
I was reminded of this when we had an almost hilarious exchange at the Committee On Public Enterprises, when it turned out that instructions we had issued over a year ago had not been followed. The institution concerned had written to the Treasury as requested after three months. The Treasury had then replied after another three months. 
This failure to respond promptly was the reason for continuing shortcomings with regard to a number of matters we had raised. And sadly the Treasury representatives, one of whom is generally supposed to sit on the Board of institutions that receive public funding, do not see any need to liaise between the two bodies they serve so as to expedite responses to queries, or obtain authority for action (with appropriate guidelines) when this is needed.
When we asked if reminders had been sent, it turned out that calls had been made. The fact that calls are forgotten has simply not registered on public servants, perhaps because we still work within what I call a ‘machan’ culture, ie one in which things happen as personal favours. The fact that, with personnel changing all the time, and no solid system of briefing and handovers, institutions must have files that make clear at a glance what is going on, and what more is needed, is not registered by many administrators.
Of course the manner in which files are kept does not help either. Files have multiple copies of many documents, most of which should in fact have been weeded. In many cases I found that chronology was not thought important, and papers were piled up with no sense of sequence. The simple rule, that a file should contain essential information only, was unknown by my colleagues at the Ministry. And there is no understanding at all of the need to weed files regularly, which was drilled into us by the Registry Clerks at the British Council, where I first learned my administrative skills.
The last COPE report had mentioned the need for the Treasury to issue fresh guidelines on procedures, but nothing of the sort has happened. Knowing that perhaps serving officials are too busy to look into this matter thoroughly, I had in fact recommended that they get the services of an experienced administrator such as the former Deputy Head of the Treasury, Faiz Mohideen, but I fear that no such initiative will see the light of day, and instead we will simply muddle along.
All this is sad, because one sees tremendous enthusiasm amongst the young officials who attend our meetings, and all they need is guidance, to follow and develop clearcut systems of administration. But we prefer to muddle along, depending on the skills of a fast dwindling group of senior administrators to produce good results.
Some of them still do produce good results, though not in the proportion they would, had they set up systems to enable their subordinates too to function effectively. And unfortunately the failure to get good results in the measure we need and deserve will act as a spoiler for the achievements we can rightly be proud of with regard to physical development over the last few years.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in what seem shortcomings in the implementation of the Recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. This applies as well to our failure to set a clear system in place with regard to the very good Action Plan that was produced, a few months later than it should have been, but nevertheless with coverage of a range of problems and inclusion of Key Performance Indicators.
Our Report for the Universal Periodic Review says that a Task Force has been appointed to monitor action, but there is no clarity about who is on the Task Force and what their responsibilities are. Remembering the problems that occurred with regard to implementation of the interim recommendations of the LLRC, where some things were certainly done, but much omitted as the LLRC subsequently pointed out, I can only hope that we set up a system that has a mandate to deliver, and to report to all stakeholders on what is going on, and what more is needed. 


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