Perspectives of an Eminent Public Servant

An Exclusive Interview with Lalith Weeratunga Principal Advisor to the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa

Mr. Lalith Weeratunga, Principal Advisor to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa sat with Nilantha Ilangamuwa, Editor in Chief of Lanka Courier, at his tiny simple but neat office room at the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo to outline the needs of structural reforms in the Sri Lanka Administrative Service. He narrated his experiences as a young enthusiastic administrative officer in the late 70s Sri Lanka’s as well as the President’s vision for economic and social revival of the country, particularly in rural areas.

Mr. Weeratunga served as the Secretary to the President of Sri Lanka between November 2005 and January 2015. He entered the Sri Lanka Administrative Service (SLAS) in January 1977 and has held a number of senior positions in the public service as the Secretary to the Prime Minister, Additional Secretary to the Ministry of Education & Higher Education, Director General of the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission and Vice Chairman of the National Apprenticeship Board. He was also the Chief Technical Advisor/Vocational Training Specialist in the Regional Office of the International Labour Organization (ILO) for Asia & Pacific, and had worked as a Consultant of the United Nations Development Programme for the Government of Maldives. Throughout his career, he has served in a number of Governing Councils of Universities, and Boards of Directors of Public Corporations and Statutory Boards.

Mr Weeratunga received his primary education from Rahula College, Matara before entering the Royal College, Colombo for his secondary education. He holds a Masters Degree in Business Administration from the University of Colombo and a Bachelors Degree in Natural Sciences from the same university. Later, he attended the Pennsylvania State University for postgraduate studies. He is a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow of the Pennsylvania State University, USA.

Q.   Can I know what led you to join the Sri Lanka Administrative Service (SLAS) as far back as 1977 and what was it like back then?

A. I think it was because I had a liking to join the public service. I joined as a SLAS cadet through the open competitive exam. The administrative services at the time were well set so you knew the parameters under which you could work; one couldn’t do as they wished.

One inherits all that was established by the British including the system. My entry was on the notion that I could contribute more. I came from the private sector where I had more perks and higher salaries but I realized, being in the public service meant I could do more. At the same time, my parents were teachers and I hailed from a background which also led me to join the public service.

There is a saying that the private sector is the primary engine of growth, which may be true, but for it to be the primary engine, the public sector has to hold the system together. That is why in countries like India, the public sector is so strong that no person, politician or individual can tamper with it. Even to date people say it is the Indian Administrative Service which governs the country and not the politicians.

In 1972 when the Public Service Commission (PSC) was abolished, the then politicians at the time made the PSC, functionally retarded. The public service of Sri Lanka before then earned the reputation for being the best in the whole of Asia. But we lost it over time with political interference. Consequently it became something one could tamper with. I am not saying that the public service must be kept completely independent and aloof, but if the public servant does not respect the politician, and vice versa there is no harmony. It is this harmony that keeps the balance.  Politicians must also respect and realise that these are people who are capable and qualified. As long as that balance is there, governance of the country will be good.

Q.  What do you see as being the reason for this looseness?

A. I think both politicians and the public is to be blamed. If politicians begin to unduly interfere there is an issue. On the one hand, if development projects are being delayed by public servants then the politician has all the right to question. On the other, if the politician wants something done by violating an established procedure such as a recruitment based on loyalty, it  cannot be done. 

Q. Do you think the decades-long armed conflict has had an impact?

A. Somewhat. At one time Jaffna had a Sinhalese Government Agent, Trincomalee had a Sinhalese Government Agent and there were Tamil Government Agents down South, it assured that communities were blended.

But when you have a GA catering to one ethnic community, where is the harmony then? It sows division. I think the conflict would have had an impact because at the time of war Sinhalese could not work in the North or the East. Qualified individuals could not be recruited. There were unqualified individuals and entry requirements were relaxed only for the North and East. The training component was also compromised.

Now we have ad hoc programmes. You can be told how to do your work but you also need to be taught how it’s done. From birth to death, you need to deal with the government at every step. If I am rude to you, it may impact your impression of the government. Today, unfortunately, the public sector feels that they are the masters not the servants. When we received our letters of appointment at my time one condition was that we had to work wherever we were transferred. We could not even choose our place of work.

Q.  During your time you tried to reengineer and redesign the administrative system.

A. It was called the reforms council, although I don’t want to take credit, I was a pioneer in looking for a new system, and ways to modernize. What we inherited from the British was old, the internet was available and we had to make use of this technology. I was also the first Director of the re-engineering component at the Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA). We were able to do many things, like issuing a birth certificate within a few minutes. Governments need to enact reforms but changing people is difficult. We wanted to make things simpler, for instance the forms, why do we need so many forms? The government must know those details rather than asking the citizen for it. Attempts were made for change but there was resistance. You need an understanding of a modern government, to make an administrative system work better and faster. What the President wants to do is to have a digitized and modernized government that is also people friendly.

Q.  Many people talk about red tapes in the administrative system

A. The word red tape stems from the bureaucracy. It is a concept of who has power and not of delay. However, red tape is now linked with unnecessary delays. When they say there is too much of ‘bureaucracy’, it generally means too much of delay. If you go back to the time when people had to go to the bank to cash a cheque, they had to go in the morning and come back many hours later. Then they say it’s ‘bureaucracy’ but when you bring in technology, there is no delay. For the ordinary person at the village level, ‘bureaucracy’ means having to go to the government office multiple times to get one job done. Why can’t that officer once and for all, ask what needs to be provided? Even in the best system you can still have ‘bureaucracy’. Technology can remove these delays.

Governments are there to offer solutions and to also maintain a system. There is a commission appointed by the President which I am chairing, and we are tasked with seeing how we can streamline these processes.

Q.  You have worked with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Maldives and as the chief technical advisor/vocational training specialist in the regional office of the International Labour Organization (ILO) for Asia & Pacific, Thailand. How have those experiences been?

A. At a young age when you are exposed to international management it really adds to the exposure and it enabled me to get a global perspective. How one works with foreigners and in the international scene is very important to understand how we can improve our systems and the way we can contribute for national endeavors. I learnt new ways of doing things.

Q.  As you mentioned your international work gave you exposure, do recruits now have the same opportunity?

A. Certainly, there are enough and officers should seek them out. It is up to the officers to sharpen their skills. I am someone who believes that I don’t have any competitors. I always compete with myself. It all depends on how you do your job to the best of your ability. I think people must learn to set their own standard and reach it. That standard must come from reading and learning from others. I always say to sharpen one’s skills and not rest on your laurels. I think you need to keep on learning, but it’s not a matter of the number of Degrees that you have. It is learning, not about a piece of paper.

Q.  Tell us about your day. How do you schedule your day?

A. I am at an age where I try to take it easy. I am doing a job that is voluntary so I am relaxed. I walk for about 6 to 7 kilometers every morning. I am somehow working a lot at home, so I help my wife. I believe that the family is a joint effort; you must help each other under any circumstances to make things and situation comfortable to each other for a long and meaningful journey. I also enjoy gardening and it keeps me busy.

Q.  What is your advice to young public service officials and others in the public sector?

A. The first is to never have competitors but to compete with yourself. They also say to have goals, but I looked at the learning process. Once you build a family, let there be harmony, start building a house in a small way, try to live within your means. Have qualities that will make people want to approach you.

Q.  As a the Principal Advisor to the President, you are actively participating with the Gama Samaga Pilisandara (Dialogue with the Village). Can you outline the objectives of this programme?

A. The President didn’t suddenly wake up and decide to meet villagers. He has been doing it for the last four years. He would have gone to almost all parts of the island but in the process he realized that there are very remote villages with no proper schools, roads, and other basic requirements for a normal decent life.

A lot of barriers for irrigation, mismanaging the environment, acquiring of farming lands by the forest department with no prior notice. He realized the magnitude of the land issue. You can’t give lands to everybody but to at least those who cultivate. Having seen the existing mechanisms and issues, the President realized the expectations of the people that have not been met for a long time. Since independence to date, there had been villages that had not seen any senior politicians or a senior government officials.

This is a revolutionary development programme. The President can easily get all the Divisional Secretaries, Ministers together and direct them.

But how much of it will be done, how does he monitor? He gives people the opportunity to come and tell him directly what their needs are. These are what he needs to hear from the villagers so he can see the depth of it gravity of their problem. And the way we have selected the villages through the law enforcement agencies, political system, and divisional secretariats it gives him the chance to go to the most remote villages. And then we prepare the meeting with the people and give people free access to him (?).

There is an allegation that these questions are planted. You can’t plant questions like that. People are standing up randomly. If the question is planted by a politician it will be to his benefit but in this programme the people demand solutions and blame the politicians. When the President goes to the village, the Health Secretary goes and he sees the condition of the hospitals. It is the same with the other Ministry Secretaries such as Education, Agriculture or Irrigation. They see what needs to be done, first hand.

If the system works so well the President does not have to go to the village. So he goes there and gets it done. When you see ground level issues he can formulate policies better. If the President had not gone there at all, nothing would have happened. Not just in that Division but in the adjoining Divisions as well. For the Presidential visit, there is preparatory work done as well. Previously those who have gone to villages have done so with much fanfare, but it’s not the same here. All in all, there is a huge impact because of his visit there is so much that is achieved.

During the President’s first visit to Haldummulla we found out that there were many houses without electricity and now when we review the progress we find that so many have been achieved since his visit, including providing electricity. As soon as he gets into a the helicopter he gets a report which says what has been discussed. That is done by a team who goes there earlier. We are aware of what we are tackling. New issues may come up at the time. The President also decided to donate 500 books to schools during every visit, as these are remote villages. I personally select those. Gama Samaga Pillisandara is a revolutionary village development initiative where the President goes to the village by himself to listen and understand as well as take and implement the decisive actions to achieve a decent livelihood for all.

Q.  Tell us about the environmental issues that are in the headlines these days?

A. The President needs to go and see for himself what has happened to the village. There are instances where the Forest Department has taken over farming lands in the village. Even in the forest, you need to keep the core area but if people are not given the cultivation area, there is a bigger challenge. While maintaining the forest area, you need to allow people to do cultivation around those areas. Some people with vested interests have taken advantage and said that after this government came into power, deforestation has increased. My argument is that there are forest officials, wildlife officials who are tasked with looking after the forest. But the government has the responsibility to ensure that people’s lives are maintained.  These villagers are also not the ones who destroy the forest, people in the village look after the forest because they know the value of it. We can’t deny that the mass scale deforestation is that has been done by businessmen and corrupt politicians for many decades now. People want land for livelihood. Ordinary people in those areas protect the forest It is part of their tradition.  Colombo based pseudo-critics do this only on social media, and it goes viral but the truth is that people need something to live on. 

Q.   What is your message to people those who are using social media and other means to voice their negative criticism?

A. Everybody has fundamental rights to criticize after ascertaining the facts. If you can’t see it for yourself, send someone there to check it for you.  Then raise your argument to change for the better. 

Q.  In conclusion, we would like to have a glimpse of the President’s vision for the country since you are voluntarily offering your service as his Principal Advisor.

A. The President’s vision is very clear in the national framework, and it has so many activities which need
to be progressed by each of these ministries. His vision for the country is that he wants a country where people can live without any fear or suspicion and a country where we have minimized poverty and having a decent livelihood. He wants children particularly to be technologically advanced. No matter what school they go to, it is very important that they have the technology to update their knowledge. His vision, as he himself says, is a secure country. If there is no security, there is no development. He wants to build a country where there is a happy family.

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