The old adage Look before you leap means nothing to the present government. It pauses to think only after taking blind plunges which more often than not land it in hot water. Then it immediately backtracks to extricate itself from the mess it gets into, trotting out lame excuses. And in the process it cuts a very pathetic figure. Neither this kind of temerarious conduct nor vacillation does a government or a country any good.
It is only on the military front that the government has acted with a single-minded will to win and the results are there for everybody to see.
Recently, a special gazette notification came like a bolt from the blue announcing some Public Service Commission (PSC) recommendations including certain restrictions as regards state workers` efficiency bar examinations and the exemption of trade union leaders from regular duties to engage in full time union work. The ink was barely dry on that gazette when the government withdrew it on a presidential order following a howl of protest from trade unions.
Why the government got cold feet is only too well known. That gazette could not have come at a worse time. Its release almost coincided with the WPC postal voting. The Opposition lost no time in making political capital by claiming that the gazette was part of a plot to downsize the State service and curtail public workers` freedom.
Regrettably, successive governments have, instead of reforming the State service, chosen to pamper it, expecting votes in return. As a result, the country has come to be burdened with an oversized and inefficient public service gobbling up huge amounts of funds that could have gone for something productive. The UNF government had the courage to try its hand at reforms but it did so in a ham-fisted and haphazard way. Predictably, its experiment proved to be counterproductive.
The public sector must be slashed and steps taken to render it more efficient and productive. Let`s face it! The State service maintained at a massive cost to the public purse cannot remain a source of employment for party supporters, their progeny and unemployable university products. It is disastrous for the country to allow loss incurring or non-profit public institutions to function for the sole purpose of generating employment.
Political interference with the State service has cost the country dear in terms of funds and quality. This is perhaps the only country in the world, where poverty was considered a qualification for entering the teaching profession. Under the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa`s watch, a large number of Samurdhi beneficiaries were recruited as teachers on a priority basis. They were paid Rs. 1,000 each a month and therefore came to be known as `kilo` teachers.
The same goes for the clerical service etc. Reform must begin with recruitment to the State service itself. Political affiliations must cease to be the entry criteria. Leniency that characterises the present-day efficiency bar examinations needs to be done away with and those who fail to clear those hurdles repeatedly must be allowed to have the pleasure of doing without promotions and salary increments until retirement. Performance of each and every worker paid with public funds must be properly evaluated.
The Salaries and Cadres Commission must be restored to its pristine position. Today, every Tom, Dick and Harry interferes with its work. It proposes and the political authority disposes. The same is true of the Public Service Commission. Its recommendations must not be compromised for political expedience. However, no commission is perfect and its decisions cannot, therefore, be considered sacrosanct. Should it appear that commissions have erred, their decisions must be examined at proper fora and remedial measures adopted. That should not be left to political charlatans playing to the gallery for a few more votes.
Trade unions are a necessary evil. While workers rights should be respected and safeguarded, restrictions need to be slapped on trade unions. Giving them the freedom of the wild ass is a luxury no country, not even an advanced democracy, can afford.
In this country, trade unions are notorious for irresponsibility and abusing their freedom. Trade unionists find themselves more on water towers or on the street or at Railway or bus stations shouting themselves hoarse than at their workplaces. Thus, they fight for their rights or against perceived injustices much to the neglect of their duty. Has any trade union ever launched a campaign to enhance its members` productivity?
In the aftermath of the tsunami disaster (2004), the otherwise lethargic railway unions sprang into action in a rare moment of patriotism. They sank differences and joined forces in the name of the tsunami victims. And their unity and spirit worked miracles!
The damaged railroad, which many thought, would never be restored, was repaired in record time. Telecom and CEB trade unions did likewise and the tsunami-hit littoral bounced back to life. Unfortunately, that sterling performance was only a flash in the pan.
If that spirit could be rekindled and sustained over a few years, developing this country won`t be so difficult a task. But, the question is who is going to inspire and rally workers.
This shows that trade unions have the potential to inspire their members to step up their output but they don`t care two hoots about the national interest, the main reason being that trade unions are affiliated to political parties and their hidden agendas are at variance with workers` interests. The unions linked to the ruling party would support any government move irrespective of its fallout. And the pro-Opposition unions will go all out to shoot down anything that the government proposes even if it is beneficial to workers.
If it is an efficient State service that we seek, we must be ready for bold action to make State employees and their unions deliver. Similarly, politicians blessed with a touch that turns anything into a mess must stop interfering with the State service.
The remedy is believed to be the full implementation of the 17th Amendment in spite of all its flaws so that the State service will function under an `independent` and more powerful Public Service Commission. But, what guarantee is there that the trade unions that are running riot today will comply with its decisions?