Lankan Bureaucracy Needs to Do More to Ensure Good Governance

P. K. Balachandran | 13 July 2022
No image

In developing countries, there is a deep-set notion that political leadership is the key to good governance and economic progress. For example, in Sri Lanka now, most people believe that a change in the political leadership will magically end existing problems of governance. Hence the loud and persistent demand for the exit of the President and the Prime Minister and their replacement by an all-party government. 

While it is undeniable that the political leaderships which Sri Lanka has had thus far, have been greatly responsible for the current mess, the island nation’s bureaucracy has also not played its part or has not been able to play its part, in guiding the top leadership along the right path. 

This could be due to a variety of factors, ranging from the feudal values that govern boss-subordinate relationships, unsuitable and outdated recruitment practices, the absence of necessary skills and the lack of opportunities for honing skills. There is no proper system of evaluation of work or a fool-proof and fair reward system to boost the morale of public servants. A fear of the consequences of taking decisions   prevents public servants from taking bold initiatives instead of playing safe and maintaining the status quo. The law may catch up with a minister eventually, but the first to be arrested is a lowly government servant. 

In his paper entitled Survival and Dysfunctions of Bureaucracy: A Critical Analysis of Public Bureaucracy in Sri Lanka, Mohamed Ibrahim Mohamed Irfan of South Eastern University, says that the Sri Lankan public service has heavy responsibilities, including development as well as routine administration, but it has become a byword for unresponsiveness, delaying tactics and corruption in collusion with political bosses. Overall public service performance is “low” in Sri Lanka, Irfan says.     

Hasna Munas and Nishan de Mel of Verite Research have come out with valuable findings about the Lankan bureaucracy through an examination of the agriculture sector. 20% of the Lankan population is in agriculture. The agricultural sector accounts for 23% of exports. But only 40% of information available to people on this sector is accurate. 20% are outdated or inaccurate. “Finding information about trade regulations is a significant barrier to improving the economy,” they point out. 

This is linked to the inadequacies of the Lankan bureaucracy. “The poor state of the bureaucracy is a more serious problem than it is perceived to be, and Sri Lanka has not yet figured out how to make its bureaucracy more accountable,” the researchers say. 

Agriculture has enjoyed political importance over the years. And yet, its contribution to Sri Lanka’s economy has worsened, not enhanced. Agriculture’s contribution to the Lankan GDP has remained stagnant at under 8%. Its contribution to exports had declined consistently from 16.2% in 2011 to 12.7% in 2016, the authors point out.

The Maze

The bureaucratic procedures to be followed by exporters and importers are a maze. “In Sri Lanka, there are about 21 key government agencies and 23 key legislative Acts that govern the export and import of goods. These Acts further outline a host of regulations published under these Acts which are administered by a multitude of government agencies. Difficulty in finding timely and reliable information about these regulations and compliance procedures is a significant barrier to trade. This is especially true of agricultural products, which are generally subject to more stringent regulations to ensure the safety and quality of the products traded.” 

“The limited availability of accurate and timely information increases both the cost and time of compliance. The lack of information and resulting delays in getting the cargo cleared are costlier for agricultural products, most of which are perishable in nature and require quick turnaround times to preserve the quality and commercial value of the product,” Munas and de Mel point out.

The complex and the plethora of regulations create opportunities for corrupt officials who could supply correct information selectively for a price. The researchers say that many ministries do not give all the information they have on their websites or update their content. Therefore, the solution is to make available accurate and up-to-date information on the internet. 

Earlier, in 2007, Sri Lanka Customs launched the Customs Regulatory Database with the assistance of USAID. A significant effort was made to collect, classify and digitize information on laws, regulations and Customs procedures. However, no initiative was taken to maintain and update the database. “The database is now no longer functional,” Munas and de Mel say. For this sorry state, successive political leaderships and the bureaucracy are responsible. However, a National Trade Information Portal (TIP) was set up in 2017.

Singapore Model

If Sri Lanka has the will, it can learn from Singapore, the most efficient country in South East Asia with the best administrative structure and culture. In his essay in Business Wire, economist and entrepreneur James Liang of the Group Ltd., says that tiny Singapore has a huge bureaucracy - 145,000 civil servants in 16 government departments and over 60 statutory boards, to be precise. But it is by no means a White Elephant. Every staffer is made to function meaningfully. 

Singapore’s public policies, such as housing, health care, and transportation, have achieved good results and have been praised by economists. Thanks to its bureaucracy as well its political leadership, Singapore’s per capita income is higher than all of Greater China, Japan, South Korea and even the US. In dealing with numerous global emergencies like the COVID-19 outbreak, the response of the Singapore government has been consistently rapid and effective, Liang points out.

Decentralization and Precise Definition 

Decentralization and distribution of decision-making powers have been the hallmarks of the Singaporean administration, Liang says. Each department has a clear mission and set of objectives, and each team has specific targets. There are clear indicators of good or bad performance. High-performers are rewarded. Apart from financial indicators (such as revenue and profit), a department has customer-specific and team-specific performance indicators. Even government ministers have performance indicators, both tangible and intangible. Ministers are judged by the Prime Minister on both counts.

The Singapore government’s staffers are not just pen pushers with paper qualifications, but are chosen for their talent. And they can hone their talents by availing of scholarships while being in service. The salary scales of public servants are not a disincentive as in some countries where talented men look askance at government service for its poor pay scales. 

The Singapore government expands its pool of talent by attracting mid-career professionals to join the Administrative Service and the Public Service Leadership Programme. Training and development opportunities are provided for public servants across all levels, including domestic and foreign programmes. 


Singaporean administrators apply rules rigorously, but they are not hide-bound as bureaucrats generally tend to be in the global South. Public servants, at all levels, are empowered to raise issues through formal and informal communication channels, to enable course corrections and re-sets. The government also values feedback from citizens, through “REACH”, a government agency that facilitates engagements with citizens. Other agencies gauge public sentiment and satisfaction through surveys. 

James Liang notes that Singapore has earned praise for its high level of transparency, maintained by the Auditor-General’s Office. The government also appoints external experts as consultants on good governance and efficiency.

P. K. Balachandran is a senior journalist. 

This article was originally published on Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.