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As the IMF has noted in its Governance Diagnostic Assessment in September, “The resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in July 2022 emphasized that addressing the crisis required changes in governance as much as changes in economic policies. The role of civil society in demanding accountability carried an equally important message about the drivers of change”.

This article is being shared in accordance with the role that the IMF has called upon civil society to play as catalysts for change in the pursuit of good governance, ultimately aiming for a harmonious and equitable society. The recent IMF report on the Governance Diagnostic Assessment of Sri Lanka delivers a scathing critique of the abysmally poor performance of governance. It also offers recommendations for improvement along with a specified timeline tied to the financial assistance Sri Lanka has recently received from the IMF. The approval of the second tranche of this financial assistance is still pending review by the Governance Board of the IMF.

While the IMF’s assessment provides a macro level view, this article offers a micro level assessment from the perspective of the public regarding the performance of the public sector and the government. The information presented is derived from an analysis of data collected by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Sri Lanka and the Department of Census and Statistics (DCS), in collaboration with Citra Lab, other UN partners, and UNDP’s SURGE Data Hub. The data has been made available to the public by the UNDP. The sample encompasses 25,040 households representing all districts of Sri Lanka. The survey has sought public perceptions on various aspects of governance through Likert Scale responses.

According to Table 1, there is a paradoxical sentiment among the majority of Sri Lankans. They believe that government officials are competent and protective of citizens during external shocks. However, there is a prevailing perception that these officials struggle to understand the everyday challenges faced by ordinary people.

The public perceives the public service as largely inefficient. They feel that it fails to effectively reach those in need, treats different social groups unequally and inadequately addresses legitimate grievances of citizens.

The public holds the view that public institutions are not managed efficiently and that public resources are not utilised satisfactorily for the collective public good, often resulting in wastage.

Moreover, there is a widespread belief among the public that both local and central government entities are not receptive to suggestions put forth by citizens.

Table 1. Public assessment on the public sector institutions: Score card

 % Response by the public (25040 Households representing Sri Lanka)
Assessment statement Strongly agree Agree Neutral Disagree Strongly disagree No response
Government officials are generally competent 5% 34% 30% 17% 8% 6%
Government officials don’t understand the problems ordinary people face 15% 38% 20% 17% 6% 4%
Public service delivery is efficient 4% 19% 24% 35% 13% 5%
Public service delivery reaches those who need it without a problem 3% 19% 26% 35% 12% 5%
Public institutions provide effective economic management 3% 18% 22% 35% 12% 10%
Public institutions are able to protect citizens from external shocks 5% 32% 21% 26% 9% 7%
Public resources are used for the ‘common good’ of the people, not for personal gain 5% 20% 19% 35% 12% 10%
Public institutions waste a lot of public money 19% 38% 14% 16% 6% 7%
Public institutions treat each group within society equally 4% 17% 16% 43% 16% 4%
Local government is open and receptive to input from citizens 3% 21% 23% 32% 11% 9%
Central government is open and receptive to input from citizens 3% 17% 22% 35% 13% 10%
The government presents facts to citizens and does not distort them 3% 15% 20% 40% 14% 8%
Public institutions appropriately deal with legitimate grievances from citizens 3% 15% 22% 38% 16% 6%

According to Table 2, the most trusted public institutions are the legal institution/system and the armed forces. The media and the police institutions are rather moderately trusted. Given the present circumstances of a deep economic crisis in Sri Lanka, a strong role of entrepreneurs is expected, yet the public trust in entrepreneurs is moderate. The trust in government sector, municipalities and trade unions is low. The least trusted are the parliament and the political parties.

Table 2.  Public trust on public institutions: Score card

Public institutions  % Response by the public (25040 Households representing Sri Lanka)
Strongly distrust Distrust Neutral Trust Strongly trust No response
Government sector 29% 26% 26% 14% 2% 3%
The legislative branch (parliament) 40% 29% 17% 8% 1% 5%
The judicial power (legal system) 11% 16% 26% 34% 6% 6%
The political parties 47% 31% 12% 5% 1% 4%
The media 12% 18% 37% 25% 4% 4%
The municipalities 16% 26% 31% 19% 2% 6%
Trade Union 15% 24% 29% 16% 2% 13%
Entrepreneurs 10% 20% 33% 21% 3% 13%
Police 17% 20% 30% 26% 4% 3%
The armed forces 5% 8% 22% 45% 15% 5%

The scientific and objective assessment of public sector and by and large governance is considered to be, to put it mildly, unsatisfactory. Sri Lankans do not assess public institutions as providing satisfactory services and do not trust major public institutions such as the parliament and the political parties. It is perhaps opportune to consider the possibilities of a well thought and planned system change that was demanded by the recent Aragalaya.