Groundviews

Public Service Failure: Episode 2

Featured image courtesy theecologist.org

The Ceylon Electricity Board.

I can imagine the range of emotions the mere mention of this public institution will inspire in a number of you. Particularly those of you who, like me, do not have a generator, and have sweated it out through the power cuts over the past few weeks. But this article is not aimed at grumbling about the power failure per se. It is concerned instead with the total inefficiency of the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) in performing its duties.

The episode I am about to describe is the first hand experience of a close friend.

The scene was set at a house in Layards Road, that was under the supervisory care of my friend. Fear of an electrical fire set in when a fuse inside the property began to spark and set off some mini-explosions. The tenant informed my friend and called up the CEB’s emergency hotline and requested the mobile van to attend to the matter on site.

This was at roughly 8pm on the 4th of April. They promised to be there in an hour. My friend went over to the house, as the matter seemed dire, and made another call at 9.22pm. Clearly, the emergency service seemed to take the former part of its title as a mere suggestion. When asked for a reference number from the hotline, the reply was that the system was broken and they were not able to generate a reference number. When my friend pleaded for the emergency mobile service to arrive quickly, the hotline – ever so generously – repeated what it had said an hour and a half earlier – that it would be there in an hour.

In what situation does a 2.5 hour long wait constitute the provision of an emergency service? Pizzas get made and delivered in Colombo in one fifth of that time. And, why should taxpayers have to plead for a public service to keep its promises? Or in this case, plead in vain? My friend hung up in dismay.

The second part of my friend’s experience is irritatingly similar to my recent experience at the Ministry of External Affairs. You see, an ordinary citizen would have had little choice but to wait helplessly for yet another hour until the emergency mobile van may or may not have turned up. That is the reality for someone with no access to power. However, and this is not an attack on those with connections, my friend just happened to know a person in the Ministerial ranks. My friend made the call we all wish we could make, and lo and behold – the mobile van was at the doorstep within 15 minutes.

This is not a criticism of the Ministerial intervention. This is a lamentation of the reality that is our public service. If the CEB is able to provide a service for those with access to power in a timely manner, what reasonable excuse does it have for unreasonably delaying their services for those who don’t? It is doubtful that it was one of capacity. The CEB – perhaps a microcosm of the public sector at large – lumbers forth in its elephantine way with no concrete attempts to improve itself. The Yahapaalanaya government speaks of good governance. It can start with its own Electricity Board.