Sri Lanka has to radically reform public service to combat corruption: legislator

Mar 24, 2014 (LBO) – Sri Lanka needs ‘broad based radical reform’ of the public service to combat corruption and end a process where competitive tendering for state projects has become an exception, a legislator said.

Some analysts however say corruption cannot be tackled or rule of law upheld without re-building Sri Lanka’s broken public sector and making it independent again.

Analysts have said that an upright and just public sector headed by permanent secretaries who could not be sacked by the elected ruling class served as a buffer in the past, protecting themselves and the people from arbitrary action of rulers.

But the elected ruling class through constitutions written in 1972 and 1978 had destroyed the independence of the public sector and converted a ‘public service’ into a ‘rulers’ service’ critics say.

State workers have been tied to trees and even asked to worship elected rulers in recent times, but not many had come forward to protect them.

From 1970s senior state officials who defied the elected ruling class have been summarily transferred or sent to the ‘pool’ with no inquiry or a chance to defend themselves.

Attempts to reduce corruption piecemeal by establishing agencies such as though a bribery commission failed to bring results. Police officers who take action against well-connected wrongdoers are routinely transferred.

Public Service

Another attempt to re-build an independent public service with a constitutional council (17th amendment to the constitution) with broad public support was also scuttled by the elected ruling class through another change to the constitution with a two-thirds majority.

“The public service has been interfered with to such a great extent these people have become the rubber stamps of politicians,” de Silva said.

“There has to be broadbased radical reform in public service. That is why the 17th amendment to the constitution was brought to have some sort of independent public service.

“But having said that, the National Procurement Agency is a big step in moving towards eliminating this epidemic (of unsolicited deals).”

The British built the public service after observing the ‘Mandarin’ administrative system of China.

The 17th amendment to the constitution was one of the few amendments that kept to a fundamental purpose of constitutions which were developed in Europe, which is to restrain the rulers and state and give liberty to citizens, analysts say.

Under ancient Sri Lankan law, ruler arbitrary action was limited by custom and also a powerful set of ministers.

But after independence from British rule with the 1979 constitution, Sri Lankans were left with protection against arbitrary rule, analysts say.

Opposition United National Party legislator says awarding contracts without competitive bidding has become a cancerous epidemic which was preying on citizens, who will have to bear the burden of inflated infrastructure contracted dished out with borrowed money.

De Silva said he could not accept a statement by Treasury Secretary P B Jayasundera that large state contracts could not be awarded with competitive bidding.

Procurement Corruption

De Silva said during a regime by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga a ‘National Procurement Agency’ has been set up with the involvement of donor agencies, key infrastructure agencies and even contractors to reduce corruption.

Under procurement guidelines then set, unsolicited proposals were to be the exception to the norm. Any such unsolicited had to be advertised asking whether anyone else was interested and the original proposer could also amend and improve their bid at the same.

But in 2007, the agency was deliberately dissolved by the Rajapasksa administration paving the way to an epidemic of awards without competitive bidding, de Silva said.

De Silva had been critical of a recent award of a sea reclamation project to a World Bank blacklisted Chinese firm on an unsolicited proposal. Many Chinese funded contracts are also awarded without competitive bidding in Sri Lanka.

“Awarding of contracts by competitive bidding has now become the exception rather than the rule,” de Silva told reporters in Colombo.