There is a lot of talk about borrowing from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to alleviate the current severe economic and financial crisis in Sri Lanka. At the same time, discussions on the terms and conditions that the IMF will impose on Sri Lanka seem to have taken precedence. Such discussions include the reforms needed to transform loss-making state-owned enterprises into profitable ones, proposed strategies to reduce government spending, safeguard audit requirements and human rights, curtail public sector employment which is unnecessarily burdensome to the country’s economy, and the structural changes in the economy. However, the focus on proposed structural changes within seems to have taken a prominent place among them.

Public sector employees constitute about 19.10 per cent of the total employment in Sri Lanka. The numerical growth of the public sector employees in recent times has led by the recruitment of graduates to various positions in the public service. Although the public service has grown in numbers, many today question whether its quality has improved as expected. The problem of undue political influence in the public service has become as complicated as cancer. Some used the public service to appease political allies. For some politicians, recruiting employees for the public service in Sri Lanka was also an additional source of income.

According to international researchers, Sri Lanka’s public service has expanded exponentially due to political and administrative negligence. Many government institutions in the country are currently overstaffed. The ratio of public servants to citizens has changed from 1 to 113 when Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948 to 1 to 13 today. The problem is exacerbated by the international accusation that the public service, which in the past was expanded due to irrational recruitment, is now a burden to the country.

It is no secret that some politicians have hundreds of government-paid public servants, personal staff and advisers in their offices, official residences as well as private residences. Many of them did not get the job or position they deserved. They were simply recruited based on political affiliations. It is also reported that a significant number of them hold two or more posts. They also illegally receive separate salaries and allowances for each post. Most employees of the above type do not report for duty at the relevant office or other place of duty. But salaries and allowances under various names are credited to their bank accounts on a monthly basis. It is not surprising that the public service is a burden to the country in such a corrupt situation.

How to alleviate the burden of public sector employees mentioned above? What to do if the IMF imposes strict conditions on the removal of surplus public servants; are some of the issues we need to address urgently.

Most government institutes in the country do not have an updated Human Resource (HR) plan or process. If there is such a HR plan, the current situation would not have happened. HR planning is the process of determining the future employment needs [demand] and determining the course of actions to be taken to achieve employment needs of an organisation. HR planning must be done prior to performing employee management tasks such as recruiting, selecting, hiring employees for the public sector. Accurate human resource planning allows for the optimal utilisation of HR in the public service by calculating future demand and current supply of human power/capacity and balancing the demand and supply. In countries such as Singapore and Japan, where there is a developed public service, an updated HR plan is maintained for each institution, both individually and for the entire public service. This has enabled those countries to maintain smooth functioning of the domestic labour market and to accurately manage unexpected fluctuations in public sector employment.

Sri Lanka is a country with a capitalist market economy. The ‘economic engine’ of such a country is private sector enterprises. However, the private sector is guided and regulated by the public sector. Therefore, in determining the future manpower requirements for the public service should align, not only the strategic plans of the Government and the projects and the structural adjustments recommended by the IMF, but also with the conduct of the private sector. Sri Lanka is planning to enter a production-oriented economy. Accordingly, everything that can be produced locally is encouraged to be produced locally. Export-oriented products are encouraged in other ways, which are expected to strengthen foreign exchange earnings. In the implementation of those strategic plans, it may be necessary to close some of the Government institutions that are still difficult to name, and to create new ones. Therefore, it is imperative that overall economic planning be considered when redistributing so-called surplus public servants to suitable institutions.

One of the strategies that can be applied in case of overstaffing is to suspend recruitment temporally. But not all recruitments in the public service can be suspended. Therefore, it should be decided after a thorough analysis of the manpower requirements of the public service for which jobs and posts the recruitment should be suspended. Otherwise, there may be a shortage of manpower in the future for certain positions, especially for middle-level management positions in the public service.

Instead of firing surplus employees to make the so-called inefficient public service more efficient and effective, a rational human resource plan is a viable option now. At a time when the country is facing several serious economic problems, the possible unemployment that could result from the termination of public servants and the social pressure and political instability that could result from it are very dangerous. Although it is possible to terminate employees hired on casual, temporary or contract basis and probationers, it is not easy to terminate permanent employees who represent a large percentage of the public service. Either they should resign voluntarily or be allowed to retire with compensation. However, the resulting financial costs and the involvement of the trade unions will again put additional pressure on the public service itself.

According to the Establishments Code of Sri Lanka, the appointing authority has the power to terminate the service of an officer holding a temporary post in the public service at any time, without giving any reason. But permanent services cannot be terminated as such. This shows that the correct amendments to the domestic labour laws are also essential to reduce public sector employees. What really needs to happen is to increase productivity by amending the relevant laws and regulations. Some obsolete industrial laws enforced in the country have a negative impact on employee performance. However, it should also be emphasised that such reforms are successful only if they complement the attitudinal change in public servants and the integration of public servants with modern technology.

Most of the recent recruitments in the public sector to fulfil a popular political promise were for the post of Development Officer. Due to such recruitments being made without a specific duty, the new recruits who came to certain government institutions do not have even a chair to sit. They come to the workplace every day without a specific purpose and must engage in ‘whatever work is assigned to them’. It is no secret that they have been used for certain contracts of politicians. It prevented graduates from making a proper contribution to the country’s economy. Recent surveys have also revealed that frustrated public sector employees are looking for part-time work instead of doing their job, abusing their work hours.

If we had a strong human resource planning and job designing in the public sector, there would have been ample scope to regularise such recruitments which were subject to political influence. Approval of job title in the public service or in the relevant corporate hierarchy alone is not sufficient for effective recruitment. The requirement of designing the relevant job or position and the net result / benefit arising out of it should be clear. Also, the specific tasks, duties, responsibilities and accountability for the relevant post should be clearly defined.

We have seen very strong and systematic human planning of the Armed Forces, led by the Sri Lanka Army. They are up to date and flexible. However, Sri Lanka Police needs such a strong human resource plan. Instead of procrastinating, action plans should be formulated by government institutions to make optimal utilisation of human power without overstaffing or understaffing according to a plan. This requirement is included even in the proposals recently submitted by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) to the Government and the President to help the country recover from the current crises and political corrections. If the IMF imposes strict terms and conditions to limit the public service, such a plan might be an effective preparation in advance to manage possible pressures thereafter.

Tharindu Dananjaya Weerasinghe

[Senior Lecturer, Department of Human Resource Management, University of Kelaniya]

By Tharindu Dananjaya Weerasinghe