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Sri Lanka mis-use of public funds from ending Permanent Secretaries: Auditor General

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s widespread corruption and financial indiscipline had come from destroying a once-independent public service and the appointment of political henchmen who bent the rules, Auditor General Gamini Wijesinghe said.

Root of Evil

"Actually that is the issue," Wijesinghe told reporters. "The ending of the institution of permanent secretaries from Sri Lanka (thuran karala) and creating facilities to appoint one’s henchmen as ministry secretaries is the main issue. (pradanathama karya).

"A situation has arisen where he dances to the tune of the minister (amathiwarayater owner vidiyerter nutterner), going above the law (neethiyer abhibabawar yunner).

He said Article 52 of the constitution which says that a secretary to ministry "shall, subject to the direction and control of his Minister, exercise supervision over the Departments of government and other institutions," had been used as an excuse in recent court actions to explain why money has been illegally spent.

However he said the article does not allow secretaries to carry out illegal orders.

Wijesinghe pointed out that the public service in India was still more independent than Sri Lanka.

When Sri Lanka got independence and until the 1972 constitution, ministry secretaries were appointed by an independent Civil Service Commission, and also transferred them and took disciplinary action.

Scholar Bureaucrats

Civil servants were recruited from the best of the university students and were career officials.

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The British copied a system they found in China (Guozijian) and also Vietnam ((Quốc Tá»­ Giám)), where Mandarins or scholar-bureaucrats were appointed from the cream of the Confucian "Schools for the Sons of the State’ who earned what were the world’s first doctorates.

The Chinese system was improved and formalized and the British Civil Service was set up as recommended by the (Northcote-Trevelyan))Report.

This later gave rise to the term ‘Whitehall Mandarins’ in reference to top civil servants.

In their 1853-4 report, Northcote-Trevelyan observed that frequent changes of public officers was a "matter of sufficient notoriety".

"…[T]he government of the country could not be carried on without the aid of an efficient body of permanent officers…duly subordinate to…Ministers…yet possessing sufficient independence, character, ability and experience to be able to advise, assist, and to some extent, influence those who from time to time set over them."

The career civil servants – ending a previous system of granting so-called sinecures – helped end corruption and mistreatment of ordinary citizens through arbitrary action first in Britain and later in the Empire.

However independent rulers of Sri Lanka did not know the history or reasons behind the system they inherited from the British broke it claiming that ‘bureaucrats’ obstructed them, when they attempted to engage in arbitrary actions

The 1972 constitution abolished the Civil Service Commission, and cabinet made the appointments. Outsiders were also brought in. The system still worked to some extend as career officers dating back from before 1972 were still in the system.

Abitrary Rule

In 1978, the power was vested only in the President, and impermanent secretaries now serve at the pleasure of the President just like a cabinet minister in a free country completely breaking the public service.

Analysts say after the institution of permanent secretaries was broken, "public servants" of the British system were turned into "rulers’ servants".

Anyone who defies a wrong order from the minister is sent to a ‘pool’, where they were kept without duties.

"Actually a public officer should be willing to go the pool," Wijesinghe said. "They can get the salary and read the book of past lives of the Lord Bhudda (Pansiya panas Jathakaya).

Wijesinghe said there was no legal protection for an officer breaking financial regulations

Analysts say President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had engaged in wholesale transfer of impermanent secretaries since coming to power.

Though a Constitutional Council now appoints some public servants, ministry secretaries are not yet covered. Analysts say corruption cannot be rooted out until permanent secretaries are appointed again.

The institution of Permanent Secretaries also prevented new ministries from being created and handed out like the corrupt ‘sinecures’ of Britain, analysts say.

President Sirisena had asked that the Central Bank Governor also be appointed by the Constitutional Council after the latest bondscam.

Wijesinghe said in the last decade the secretary of the finance ministry had systematically fudged fiscal data and window dressed them to hide borrowings and the real budget deficit. (Colombo/Feb08/2018 – Update III)

 

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