Groundviews

The public sector and lessons in patience

Featured image courtesy Anushka Wijesinha for 30yearsago.asia

To me, the best thing about the Department of Motor Traffic at Werahera is the subsidized maalu paan. However, this article is not intended for street food connoisseurs and it is not about how the recent hike in VAT is going to affect maalu paan consumption patterns. This is about the seemingly minor inefficiencies across various departments in our public sector which are, in fact, systemic, deep-rooted and perpetual. This is about how chaos, disorder and unprofessionalism (and corruption) have become normalized at these institutions. This is also about how the gazetted mandates of our plethora of ministries are pretty on paper but ambiguous and contradictory in practice.

It is 10 am at the DMT and van-loads of learner drivers are dropped off at Werahera to apply for a driving license. We are shepherded to a small hall where a security guard tells us to stand in a line to get tokens issued, which soon becomes a three-lane queue with Uncle A casually jumping the line and Uncle B, circling the “queue”, confused, asking us which line/lane to join. Eventually, we show our birth certificates and are issued tokens – my number is 189. We are told to ‘sit and wait’ until the security guard calls out our token number; ironic, since there are no empty seats. The Werahera DMT office receives around 10,000 applications a month so this is no surprise; we move to the back of the hall (partitioned) to ‘stand and wait’. What is surprising to a newbie like me, however, is that said security guard relies entirely on his vocal chords to call out token numbers – despite approximately 300 people being in the hall at the same time, half of us standing in a separate area. We hear nothing for an hour; people, impatient and tetchy, approach the security guard and are repeatedly told to wait until their numbers are called.

There is no loudspeaker, no screen indicating token numbers, and there are no written instructions. Eventually, the security guard shouts out something inaudible in Sinhala and there is a stampede towards the front of the hall. Numbers are called out in batches of approximately 20, with lapses of around 45 minutes or more, and people filter into another hall where we are seated, waiting to be called by the officials who enter our details. Again, there is no system in which we are called – it is completely ad-hoc and very much dependent on how proactive the applicant is. In our specific experience, for the most part, all officials we dealt with carried out their duties professionally; however, there was one instance where an official made an inappropriate sexual remark (which is one too many).

The process of registration took an entire day. The written test, and practical test were, similarly, rampant with delays, the only plus being the use of a loudspeaker to call out names when we eventually obtained licenses, again after a full day of what I would like to call a course in Mastering the Art of Patience in State Institutions. While this may seem like the norm now (i.e. ‘take a day of leave, you’ll be there at least until 5’, ‘aiyo, you should have seen what it was like 10 years ago’, ‘don’t complain, this is what a normal government office is like’), it is a system which can be improved vastly through simple measures. A screen to indicate token numbers, an efficient queuing system, trilingual instructions, more space for seating…the list is not endless. The importance of providing clear information and instructions cannot be emphasized enough, and this is a glaring issue in many State institutions. (That is not to say that all such institutions are inefficient – there are, of course, various instances where the public service proves to be above satisfactory, notably in the health sector).

The latest development at Werahera is the construction of a driver training track (at a cost of Rs. 100 million). While this is appreciated – sure, we need to be on par with international standards, it begs the question of where priorities lie. Surely, ironing out inefficiencies (of which there are many) in the existing transport system should be given priority. In the same vein, the recent vehicle price hike (interestingly justified by the Tourism Minister in terms of reducing vehicles on the road) should be matched with improvements in public transport. The mandate of the Ministry of Transport includes the following: ‘4. Provision of a safe and reliable passenger transport service’, and ‘5. Introduction of an environmental friendly transport system’, neither of which is evident on our roads or railways. A 101 bus ride down Galle Road feels like a street race; safety is secondary, speed is king. The morning Ruhunu Kumari resembles a disproportionate millipede, with commuters clinging on to footboards for lack of an affordable and speedy transport alternative. Train delays, derailments and accidents are so commonplace – after the initial buzz and sensationalizing in the media, we revert to square one. Our transport system is far from being environmentally friendly, although the move to encourage cycling under the Megapolis plan should be commended. However, if this is to happen, roads must be made cycler-friendly – the commitments outlined in the the Megapolis master plan must be adhered to, and it must not be yet another case of mismatch between policy and practice. If Sri Lanka aspires to be the next Singapore it should recognise that its success is largely attributable to an extremely efficient and motivated public sector.

Delays and waiting in haphazard queues have become ingrained in our system, and the DMT is just one among many examples. Time is money, as the old adage goes, and the costs borne by the economy as a result of delays (be it queuing to obtain an NIC, the process of faxing letters from one Government department to another to obtain basic information and lack of follow-up thereafter, cumbersome court procedures, lack of response in public grievance systems, i.e. Tell The President, or poor coordination between departments) must be substantial. At this juncture, Sri Lanka cannot afford them; moreover, yet again, it makes one wonder about promises made to raise the productivity of the public sector, promises made over a year ago and reiterated several times since.