Updating the Public Service

I have followed with interest the recent contributions in the Island from some of my former colleagues in the Public Service (PS). They argue enthusiastically that our district administration should return to the days of the Government Agent. Their most cogent argument is that the proposed reversion would bring about better coordination and effective governance.

I am in general agreement with the proposal but in the light of my personal experience, I believe that a lot of spadework is necessary to make the reversion meaningful. In any case reversion without thought is unlikely to solve the problems in hand. A deeper insight is called for into the socio-political factors that have produced the present problems in public administration. Impact of the changing scene on governance has to be appreciated and corrective action taken to synchronize administration and politics into a disciplined and comprehensive system.

In presenting my case, I am reluctantly compelled to cite some of my personal experiences that have been confined to my memory and my official diaries for the last several decades. I do so apologetically solely for the purpose of supporting my arguments, regretting the unavoidable personal references.


What fascinates most in the post of a GA is the power and prestige enjoyed by colonial holders of that position who used that power to impress, with little or no reference to the public benefit arising from its use. I have referred elsewhere to the anecdote in which such an intellectually sensitive person as Leonard Woolf sacked the ageing Vidane Arachchi of Angunakolapelessa for failing to run in front of his horse at its pace.

The supremacy of the GA carried its halo long after the British Raj was no more. The MPs never came to the Residency to see me when I was GA, Trincomalee in the sixties. They waited patiently at the Kachcheri until I got there, never made demands and considered whatever I did for them as a favour. I ruled the roost at the DAC and the DDC. The following anecdote would best illustrate the then prevailing atmosphere.

Mr. Dahanayaka, who was then the Minister of Home Affairs, came on circuit to Trincomalee in the late sixties. He was travelling over the ferries from Trincomalee to Muttur. The Minister and I were the only occupants of the vehicle that led the entourage, with the two MPs of Muttur following us in a separate Jeep.

As waiting for the MP's jeep after crossing a ferry was a waste of time, I ordered that our vehicle drove on regardless of the distance between us and the MPs. The climate then was such that the MPs could not think of travelling in our vehicle. The most they wanted was to follow the Minister as closely as possible in order to impress their electorate.

After reaching the Muttur Rest House, we waited there for the other vehicles and when they arrived, the DRO in charge walked up to us, along with the MPs and complained to me in the presence of the Minister that one of them was finding fault with him for not travelling immediately behind our vehicle. I turned to the MP concerned and told him sternly,

"You have no business to blame my DRO. He was carrying out my orders. If you have any complaint, come to me."

As the MP stood dumbfounded, Minister Dahanayaka sized up the situation and asked with a glint in his eye, "Around whom does this District revolve?" Yet the MP stood clueless and the Minister added, "Is it round the MPs?"

"I suppose so Sir." replied the MP peevishly, out of his depth. The Minister's irony was beyond his reach.

The significance of this incident did not dawn on me at the time, as I was yet in my mid-30s. But as I look back at it in my old age, I feel guilty about the manner in which I treated the Parliamentarians. I was in the picture only in my personal right, just because I had scored more marks than others at a competitive examination. The MPs were there as representatives of the People. Their views deserved greater status, than what I conceded to them.

The backlash

The superiority complex of 'Pukka Sahibs' produced antipathy on the part of politicians who did not have the language and status to stand up to them. The MP referred to above was a member of the Opposition at the time. I was very fair by him and stood by him when the MPs in power tried to use their clout against him. They were displeased with me for that reason and were complaining to headquarters that I was partial to the SLFP. They would have been glad to have me transferred out but they were unable to convince Dudley, the PM.

Came the 1970 General Election in which the SLFP rolled back to power and the said MP came on top. When I announced the result and shook hands with him, he looked aside rudely and made a beeline to the Rest House to plead with Madame Sirimavo, the new PM, that I should be transferred out immediately, as I was a partial to the other side. My seeming arrogance was not the only reason that displeased the MPs. They found that they were superfluous in a setup in which the GA was assiduously attending to the needs of the people.

I had set apart a day every month for each of the DRO divisions. The DROs were expected to draw up the circuit program in such a way that I could visit the sore points in the division where I could take on-the-spot decisions to solve the problems of the people who were in heed of help. The normal practice had been for the people to go to their respective MPs to get recommendations to the GA for help. My personal accessibility in the field progressively curtailed the queues, both at the MPs' offices and at the Kachcheri. In retrospect, I see the emasculation of the MPs was a result of lack of coordination between the administration and the politicians.

Most problems in governance arise from this lack of coordination. The first attempt at coordination was the District Coordinating Committee. But it did not perform the intended function as it was never structured to play its legitimate role, with the result that it became a Talking Shop. Under the CCS regime, it was dominated by the GA, the politicians playing only a peripheral part. They came to the DCC only to present their problems and seek solutions at the hands of the GA. The system worked satisfactorily within its limited context until decentralization forces came into play.

The first attempt at decentralization was made after 1970 with the creation of the post of 'District Minister'. But the reform failed to achieve the intended role of coordinating political goals with PS delivery. The Ministers who came to power under the new scheme were inadequate to play their part in the new setup; nor were attempts made to prepare them for the role.

What was uppermost in the minds of those in power at the Centre and the periphery was the subjugation of the district administration to the political figurehead. The innovation only catered to the ego of the DM who had no plan of action of his own; nor was he given one by the Centre or supervised in his performance. The DM's only interest was to lord over the GA whose power he had jealously resented all along.

The person who became the first DM in Trincomalee was the MP I had ticked off at Muttur. He barred no holds in rubbing his new found eminence into the GA through petty devices. He wanted to sit at an elevation above where the GA sat and selected a room on the top floor of a building which was higher than the one the GA occupied. He sent for the GA at the slightest provocation, particularly during busy hours to impress upon the people that he was in command of the District. The DM had no clue about planning or management. His only interest was to get the best in everything for his electorate and his henchmen with a view to broadening his vote base.


I do not believe the farcical situation that prevailed in Trincomalee after the 'enthronement' of the DM was common to all Districts. The difference depended on the quality, adequacy and the personality of the administrative Head of the District. Unfortunately my successor did not have the appropriate background.

He had not been selected to the administrative service through a competitive exam. Nor had he the experience called for by the post. He had been picked up from nowhere and built up with political patronage for personal reasons. He thrived on the grapevine under a setup based on hearsay.

My successor was content to cow down to the DM in order to retain his post. On one side he showed off as a legitimate successor to the rulers of the British Raj by exhibiting his name, on a board he put up, at the end of a genealogy of his predecessors in office, misappropriating for himself a part of my service perhaps to conceal that he was a product of the preceding election. On the other hand he tried to curry favour with the ordinary people through cheap gimmicks like giving them lifts in the official car.

Returns from my successors generous car lifts were short-lived. As the vehicle lost its prestige carrying loads of passers-by, it came to be nicknamed the CTB. Another trick used to impress the people was to ask them to come to him with their complaints. He was not aware that people did not have to come to the Kachcheri as I had gone out to meet them myself. He attributed the absence of crowds in the Kachcheri to my 'aristocratic' ways. Tempted by the open invitation, people queued up with petitions drawn up by writers who had revived their vocation with the arrival of the new GA.


Most of the requests were about petty disputes that ought to have been settled elsewhere. The GA would make a minute for necessary action and put the petition in the out tray from where it would find its way into the waste-paper basket. The petitioners return after some time in the absence of any response to their requests and are made to submit copies of the documents. Copies themselves go through the same process as their originals. People realize the futility of petitioning the GA after several disappointing visits and the long queue outside the GA's office vanishes for good.

The GA had no clue about district administration and was never seen in the field. All that he could do was to transfer the files in his 'in tray' to the 'out tray' by minuting them to some official 'for necessary action'. He was nonplussed when he presided over the DCC. All that he could do was to harangue his predecessor. Presiding at the DCC one day, the GA pointed at the Progress Charts covering the four walls of the office. "Look at this bluff. These are all concoctions of the previous man. False statistics to deceive the Government!"

No one contradicted him out of respect for the post he held although all disagreed with what he said. But one outspoken 'non-conformist' rose to protest. "I disagree," he said, "I can guarantee every one of these figures. I have personally seen them happen". The GA was stumped but the charts were dumped in the Record Room the very next day. However the GA was soon found out and removed by his mentors when they discovered the administration crashing under his clueless gimmicks.

I have referred to these incidents in some detail to stress the fact that the post of GA by itself is no solution to the problems of district administration. They call for honesty, calibre and ability in the man who is appointed to that post. Of course the example cited above was exceptional. There have been very clever men running the Districts with great acceptance but the variations in the efficiency of the cadre were conspicuously steep. The problem that needs discussion is the failure on the part of Government to take positive action to choose the best and to prepare them methodically for the job, a problem to which I shall revert presently.

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