Negative aspects of bureaucracy in Sri Lanka

18 September, 2022

“Bureaucracy is the art of making the possible impossible” is a famous quote by Javier Pascual Salcedo on the subject of “red tape” and is well-suited for Sri Lankan public service.

It is fair and justifiable to say that, except a handful of Government institutions, the vast majority of others fall into the category described above. If research is conducted, ten out of ten people who obtained some type of service from a public office will corroborate that bureaucratic red tape is an intolerable nuisance, apart from habitual lethargy and inefficiency.

Despite the fact that the entire overcrowded public service is paid for and maintained by the general public, the customary approach of most public servants is negative toward public issues.

The irony is that, unlike in many developed countries, the public service consists of 1.6 million personnel, and there is one public servant for every thirteen citizens of the population.

In sociology and political science, bureaucracy is described as a concept referring to the way that administrative execution and enforcement of socially recognised legal rules are carried out.

Wikipedia describes bureaucratic red tape as the regulations or conformity to formal rules or standards which are claimed to be excessive, rigid or redundant, or to bureaucracy claimed to hinder or prevent action or decision-making.

Red tape

Elsewhere, red tape is described as the negative aspect of bureaucracy, referring to the excessive use of documents, processes, and procedures and a negative attitude that may delay the delivery of services to ordinary citizens.

The pestering red tape in Sri Lankan Government offices is the main cause of citizen complaints. These procedures and processes may be merely policy outputs for bureaucrats, but delays in results continue to harass and annoy the general public who visit public offices.

A recent fiasco at the Health Ministry regarding non-availability and shortages of essential medicine, publicly exposed how inefficient the state machinery is.

A discussion that was covered by the media at the Health Ministry headed by the Minister of Health himself revealed the ugly truth about Sri Lankan bureaucratic red tape.

The vociferous Minister openly blamed them for the inefficiency of the bureaucrats and ordered them, in no uncertain terms, to let go of traditional practices and act swiftly to provide essential medicine to the masses. Although this one single incident came to the limelight due to media engagement, every day, everywhere, similar inefficiencies and delays occur due to red tape.

For several reasons Public servants offer a lacklustre service to the public. The first is that they are secure in their salaries and retirement perks regardless of whether they serve the public or not. There are no performance evaluations, monitoring, supervising, or reporting systems in the Sri Lankan public service.

Administrative restrictions

Public officers are not interested in the least in deploying creative or innovative solutions, even in a simple situation. The usual excuse is that they are bound by administrative restrictions.

They are also protected by the trade unions that always fight tooth and nail for the rights of their members but never for the benefit of the general public.

For example, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, principals’ and teachers’ unions went on strike action and completely stopped online teaching, placing the entire student population in jeopardy.

Even after winning their demands for salary increases, from time to time, they went into trade union actions, allegedly in support of other unions. This clearly shows that the majority of them are only selfish and opportunistic towards public issues, however sensitive they may be.

Perhaps, the rationale behind the existence of red tape in Government offices is to proclaim legal control. In most Government offices, staff from the top level to the bottom display unwarranted condescending attitudes towards those who visit to obtain services.

Anyone who walks into these offices for a requirement is forced to behave as if they have come to beg a favour from the officers. This is the customary attitude of public servants and the bitter truth.

Bribery is commonplace and frequent in most Government offices as a result of some public sector workers engaging in dishonest and corrupt behaviour. Government officials are more likely to prioritise resolving the problems of those who bribe them. The results show that excessive bureaucracy has an uncontrollable detrimental effect on institutional performance as a whole.

On the other hand, prevailing obsolete rules, regulations, and laws in Sri Lanka prevent even those who are willing to provide a good service to the public.

These redundant laws prevent them from completing their job tasks, making them frustrated. In such situations, they feel disappointed and disengaged. This situation creates a hassle for the public by preventing them from receiving services.

Employee motivation is one of the key aspects and the primary tool of organisational success. While the Sri Lankan private sector is giving top priority to employee motivation, the public sector does not even consider this important.

It is evident that the level of motivation is almost zero in Government offices. Perhaps they do not have to feel motivated as they are secure in their jobs. They do not have to impress anyone, least of all the general public. Simply, they have poor work commitment.

The country desperately needs foreign investment at this crucial juncture. It is abundantly clear that temporary assistance from institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, or friendly countries is not sufficient to come out of the pit.

In 2021, the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business Index” placed Sri Lanka in the 99th position. However, the reports reveal that in 2021, the position dropped further and trended around 105th place. This simply means that there are 104 better places for investors to turn to.

One of the main reasons for the low position in the listing “Ease of Doing Business Index” and the investors’ abandonment of Sri Lanka is the dreadful bureaucratic red tape that prevails in almost all public offices.

Adding salt to the wound is profound lethargy and inefficiency in Government offices and agencies. There were attempts to improve the situation regarding foreign investments from time to time, but those efforts were not successful as of now. If policymakers do not address this critical issue immediately, Sri Lanka will fall further in international recognition, further alienating foreign investors.

In addition, the customary Opposition of some of the dubious and opportunistic political parties creates an unpleasant environment for a friendly investor.

For example, when the Indian giant Adani Group came forward to invest a substantial amount in the power sector, these politicians used their best weapon, trade union action, to prevent such investments.

Public questions

Yet, when the public questions how they will uplift the economy if they are given power, they openly admit that they will bring foreign investments, making a mockery of their own policies.

This double standard clearly reveals their political opportunism.

Instead of helping to eradicate red tape and finding solutions to the ongoing crisis, the sitting parliamentarians as a whole do not seem to have realised or recognised the gruesome future. Almost every one of them is working on their own agendas, aiming at their respective political futures, although they make a fake hue and cry about public welfare.

In her book “Sea of Tranquility”, Emily St. John Mandel quotes, “What you have to understand is that bureaucracy is an organism, and the prime goal of every organism is self-protection.” “Bureaucracy exists to protect itself”.

However, bureaucracy, when it is positive, benefits society by creating structures that keep people safe. It also implements policies through laws, rules, and regulations to safeguard the well-being of the society and economy of a country. Therefore, only the negative factors that harm society must be eliminated.

– Sunday Observer Sri Lanka

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