Ampara, Colombo, Constitutional Reform, Politics and Governance

The Public Servant and the Politician: in Harmony or in Conflict?

[Authors note: This is the text of my comment as a Panel discussant, delivered at the Institute of Public Management on 3rd November 2009]

My reflection will be in the context of the present situation. How are these two entities – the Public servant and the Politician relating to each other in today’s world.  Not what the relationship was in a golden past or in a unlikely imagined future. And since my own view is that the relationship today is inherently unsatisfactory, how it could be improved or reformed to benefit the ultimate stakeholder, the public, which is the real object of the executive exercise.

Also my comments will be on what can be done immediately within the political, social and economic framework of what we have. Otherwise we may be talking about an ideal future which is only a dream and frankly not an useful exercise. Is there a magic button you could press to start the process of improvement.

Let us examine the heart of the relationship today between the politician and the public servant. It is that of a greatly empowered Executive on the one hand and a generally non-productive, disempowered public service on the other.

To be fair, in any objective assessment of the empowered executive, and the prime example of this is the Sri Lankan Executive Presidency (as has been said the most powerful political office holder in the world) there have been some successes – for example; the free market reforms in 1978 and the ending of Conflict, more recently. But it also has to be said that these were at great cost. Market reform increased the gap between the rich and the poor; the end of the War in addition to the loss and injury to many thousands, destroyed assets and has opened us to international condemnation on the means adopted.)

The relationship – between Politician and Public servant – at all levels of the administration – displays the in essence the following  features.

  1. A powerful dominant politician, not only at the apex of the polity but  – at every level – Minister, MP, Provincial councillor or Pradeshiya sabhikaya. All these office holders acquire and are clothed with the authority of the Executive President, perhaps not by law but in their own perception and that of the people they apparently serve.
  2. AND, concurrently a disempowered, servile, public servant, again at all levels.  To put it crudely rather like a wife in a dominant family relationship. Be available  – on call – for cooking or sex or looking after the children – and above all, keep your mouth shut.
  3. This relationship could be harmonious; perhaps very much so ;  but in fact it could also be rather dull and unproductive for a public servant who is professionally trained and wants to do a job of work. He has got in to a service by merit and would like to prove it. But he is constantly being told how to do his job. He is as they say in the jargon ‘micro managed’. He is rarely asked for advice or consulted.
  4. The subject for our discussion seems to suggest that there should be’ No conflict’  between the two parties. My submission is that is a ‘non Question’.  The system simply leaves no space for conflict. If you make trouble you could be thrown into the pool or jail; and if the conflict poses any real danger to the power of the politician it could be always solved through a little bit of roughing up or even some well-known cases where a recalcitrant media has been involved, even with elimination.

In short, it is my submission that the question posed by the thought provoking subject put to us, is really irrelevant to the real world of today.

What then can the sane people here – and I count Hon Minister Sarath Amunugama among that lot,  hope to do. That is again in the present situation,  without basically changing the given architecture and instruments of governance we have now.  The remedy clearly, has to be structural; nothing superficial and piecemeal will be sufficient.

I submit we have the ability and the means to do it. What is needed is the political will.

What is the way forward?

  1. Implement the depoliticization instruments presently available. i.e appoint without further delay the Constitutional Council (It is already part of  the Constitution. (isn’t it a violation of the Constitution not to do so and are not all office-holders who presently hold such offices, such as commissioners and so on,  doing so in defiance, at least morally of the Constitution ?)
  2. I think its non – implementation  has  diminished the value of the Constitution. In my view it is the root cause of the breakdown of discipline and overall law and order. The predominant problems of the public service, the judiciary and the  electoral system arise from this. Why should anyone care for, or follow the Constitution and any of its provisions any more.
  3. So let the Constitutional Council, when the magic button is pressed, begin to  advise the President about whom to appoint to the key posts – PSC, JSC, Elections Commissioner, Chief Justice, IGP, AG etc – (after all, they (the constitutional Council) can’t all be so stupid as to suggest the appointment of knaves and imbeciles. And the process is open and provides space for negotiation. So what’s the problem?)
  4. How will the magic button work?.  In several simple ways.  For the public service, the protection from political harassment that  a non – politically appointed PSC will provide will directly empower the public service. They will know that there is someone else other than the government Minister, MP, etc, etc, to whom they can appeal against an improper order.
  5. Secretaries to Ministries and Heads of Departments of Government will continue to be appointed by and accountable to the Executive namely the  President and the Cabinet.. These will remain political appointments. Whether their relationship with the politician will be  harmonious or conflictual or something in between  – the nagging wife syndrome in our metaphor – will depend on the relative strength of personality and  negotiating skills of the individual concerned.
  6. In the final analysis however these public servants ie Secretaries and Heads of Departments,  would have recourse to fundamental rights action. A non – political, proactive judiciary may be the best safeguard for these categories of officials who do not have the protection of the empowered PSC , against any glaring act of executive injustice.
  7. There has been some talk of Codes of Conduct for public servants and politicians. I am afraid I don’t believe in self -imposed Codes of Conduct. They are just not observed and sadly are in the same class as Election promises.


One personal experience of Harmony or Conflict and a possible via media.  I would call that dynamic tension, which may be the most productive relationship one could hope for. When I went to Amparai as GA in 1970 in encountered an issue of ‘contested territories’ with the Deputy Minister there. He was a tough guy; a little tin pot dictator.

At the beginning our relationship was very tense;  but at the end I would like to think there was mutual respect and regard. We both learned lessons.

[Editors note: Deshamanya Bradman Weerakoon is a retired senior bureaucrat of the Sri Lankan government. Mr. Weerakoon has the unique distinction of serving nine Sri Lankan heads of state in a career spanning across half a century. Click here for more information on his career. ]

GV - Test 1