Tact and tricks in public service

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By Chani Imbulgoda

Public service and the political system are interconnected and bound together and co-exist. Political authority formulates policies. Public service executes them. Today, we hear slogans chanted by politicians against public servants and vice versa. Louder slogans against both the politician and the public servant are heard from the recipients of public service, i.e. the general public.

Public sector organisations, big or small, are discredited as poorly managed, corrupt, financially unsound, lethargic, and bureaucratic. Lengthy procedures, ambiguous guidelines, numerous structures, excessive documentation, and communication barriers are often cited. The work of the public servant has a direct or indirect impact on the daily lives of their fellow citizens. Accusations and agitations made by the public on public sector organisations are justified when the impact turns more burdensome than beneficial and the experience with public servants is a curse rather than a blessing.

This article does not intend to discuss the pros and cons of public service. Instead, it tries to unveil some bitter truths about the public sector. Recently I completed reading two satirical novels authored by Jonnathan Lynn and Antony Jay. “Yes Minister” and “Yes Prime Minister”. They are about the British public service during the 1960s. They are not based on fabrications or fantasies, but on real-life experiences of a Cabinet Minister, and his two Secretaries who represent the British Civil Service. Being a public servant myself, I find the stories in these novels both appealing and appalling. The system that I work in as well as experience gained in my nearly two decades of public service is similar to what I read in the two novels. There is no better time for us to engage in some soul-searching as public officials.


The use of ambiguous and evasive language in verbal and written communication to deceive or confuse the audience is known as doublespeak. This is widespread in the public service. It helps to hide deficiencies and exaggerate. In those two novels, I mentioned, the Minister with his prolonged exposure to public service sees the language “as a curtain to draw across the mind, not as a window to the mind”.  Language veils reality. It steals creativity and conceptualisation. This is well showcased during conducting performance audits and progress reviews. Often used phrases during this time are “we have taken actions to rectify it” or “actions are being taken”.  Same organisation, the same employees keep on repeating this over and again year after year. Things are being done forever, results are never seen.  Back in the novel, the Minister talks about some major changes. His advisor asks “Do you want to do or appear to be doing”? Appearance is the priority, not the outcome.   Politicians and public servants talk the walk, without walking the talk.

Urgent and Approved

In public service, even a simple message goes through several hands and with a heap of papers. It takes its usual tortoise pace. But, if the decision to favour, discriminate or penalise someone it moves at a hare pace. An unusual urgency pops up. Urgency conceals facts. If one wants to get something approved, approach the approving authority when he/she is in a hurry. He/she will either approve it without looking for facts carefully or perhaps they will call for an explanation, where the officer can brief it in a manner, they wish to get the concurrence. In the novel Yes Prime Minister, a senior officer counsels that, “If the approval does not satisfy you, tighten the grip of the man that approves… not as a threat, but as a wise Counselor who helps to see the way out. The approval will be guaranteed”. This reminds me of the phrase “ignorance is the strength” in George Orwell’s famous novel 1984. Urgency shades sight and vision; hypocrites win over ignorance.

Things take time

“Rome was not built in a day”. In the novel, the Administrative Secretary reminds his Minister, when the Minister expresses his worries about a delay in the completion of a scheme. When a government initiates a new project, public service officials find space to intervene. There are protocols to follow. The first step is appointing a committee to examine the feasibility and to make recommendations. Another committee to examine the feasibility of implementing the recommendations. If any discrepancy is found between the recommendations of the two Committees, a third Committee comes in. The process goes on in circles; the work is always in progress. Means matter more than the ends; conformity to the letter more than to the spirit. When all assessments and approvals are in order and in favour of the commencement of the project finally, the need for it may not be there any longer… rather the outputs would not produce the outcome expected.  Public money goes wasted over feeding the committees, not the public.

Morale and moral at stake

The British Minister in the novel worries about productivity. He expresses his concerns to the Secretary over the waste associated with public service. While the government is paying a lot of people to produce masses of food, they pay another to destroy it. Pay thousands of bureaucrats to push papers about to make it all happen. He asks the Secretary whether the latter is not concerned about waste. The Secretary’s response was, “Not really, I am a Civil Servant”.

No surprise in the context of Sri Lanka as well. Pushing papers from one office to another, not being concerned about the end results are visible here. Instead of saying, “I am a public servant and I am not concerned”, our public servants declare in case of a moral dilemma, “I have to do so as my superiors told me to do”. I quote a message from the Administrative Secretary of the novel to justify such moral detachment of public servants; “Conscience is for politicians, civil servants are humble functionaries, whose duty is to implement the commands of their democratically elected representatives”. So, the public servants shed their moral obligation of doing the ‘right thing’. Nevertheless, when the New Year begins, they take an oath to perform the entrusted role in the implementation of public policies and goals; efficiently, productively, with firm determination, and utmost dedication, honestly, and loyally to the public.

Sri Lanka is suffering setbacks and is getting pushed back on the world stage by the outdated rule-based public service. Public service has failed to earn the credit and the confidence of citizens as well as non-citizens. The country is crying, vying and dying for results-targeted, development-oriented public service, which should be a blessing for the private sector to bloom and the general public to be comfortable. Until and unless the mindsets of public sector employees are changed, and the systems transformed, the general public will keep on agitating and criticising about 1.5 million public servants in the country.

(The writer is a holder of a senior position in a state University with international experience and exposure and an MBA from Postgraduate Institute of Management (PIM), Sri Lanka and currently reading for a PhD related to reasons of reform failures at PIM. She can be reached at [email protected])

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