Photo (C) Chris Montgomery

A Novel Concept in the Public Service of Sri Lanka

Working from home as a practice in global institutions dated back to the late 1970s. Since the introduction of its first formal legislature in the year 2000, this practice has been adopted by many countries in both the public and the private sectors. Sri Lanka’s public sector, however, has never had an established work from home policy or guidelines, despite having faced quite a number of total lockdown periods in the country during the past several decades.

The entire world was forced to adjust itself to the ‘new normal’ that emerged with the COVID-19 pandemic last year. All countries were struggling to strike a balance between maintaining health requirements and delivering essential services. When the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit Sri Lanka, the Government decided to declare a period of total lockdown of the country. However, the essential services had to be provided in full and the routine government services had to be maintained with a minimal staff. With no established guidelines or even simple practices as precedents to address such a situation, this was certainly a challenge.

Observing this need and the lacuna in the public sector to cater to it, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa instructed to draft the first ever work from home policy for Sri Lanka’s public sector.

Consultative Process

Drafting a policy and guidelines to cater to a situation that has never been experienced by the country before was an uphill struggle. It demanded the pooling of all the expertise in local administration. The process of drafting the policy, therefore, was a consultative one. It involved the contribution of over 50 officers of the Sri Lanka Administrative Service (similar to Civil Services of many other countries) from all tiers of work. They represented strategic, operational and tactical levels in the public service, central government and regional administration, serving as well as retired. The policy had two aims. First was to deliver both the essential and routine services of the Government without delay. The second and the most important was to fulfill the civic responsibility of public servants during this calamity, without compromising their safety and that of their close contacts.

As a global practice, working from home is allowed when the physical presence ofemployees’ is not required in the workplace. In Sri Lanka’s case, employees’ physical presence was compelled to be curtailed, eventhough the system did not have any means for remote work. Therefore, the proposed ‘Work from Home’ (WFH) plan took into careful consideration the need to deliver services without delay, limitations inthe infrastructure as well as the available skills under the present circumstances for remote work.

Institution-specific standards

The policy was based on three pillars of functionality. The first was setting up standards that were specific to the institution. Guidelines drafted under the policy gave freedom to the Head of each Institution to adopt institutional-specific WFH plans within the framework provided. It is him/her who knows the type of work that can be done, while being away from the office premises, and the availability ofthe necessary infrastructure.

Government employees are required to work between 8.30 am and 4.15 pm under the normal circumstances. WFH guidelines gave the flexibility to Heads of Institutions to define working hours according to the specific work requirement under the new normal. This allowed the employees to work at night instead of day time, provided that the deadlines are met. The guidelines also directed to have the maximum delegation of authority, encouraging employees to work in small virtual groups, based on the task assigned.

Ensuring efficiency and effectiveness

The second pillar was ensuring the efficiency and the effectiveness of work in the new normal. This was challenging since the human resource was restricted from being physically available at their places of work. WFH guidelines called for the Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) to create an internet-based pool of resources where Institutions could share information about their excess or scarcity of resources. This aimed at establishing an authorized platform where additional resources in one Institution could be shared with another that was facing a shortage of that resource. The policy encouraged alternative means of communication as opposed to the traditional ones such as letters, faxes and meetings in person. As a result, those that were not in practice in many government institutions as means of formal communication, such as whatsapp and zoom platforms got recognized as modes of official communication.Institutions were requested to establish call diversion facilities in office telephones to mobile phones of officers concerned. Every institution was also directed to have a special platform in their websites to entertain public requests and grievances without delay.

 A noteworthy feature of the new WFH policy is the directive given to all Institutions to conceptualize an organizational systems re-engineering during the work from home period. This aimed at revisiting the institutional legislative and policyframework, functional base, and the organizationalstructure among others in order to do away with the outdated bureaucratic red tapes and make the service delivery easy.

The effectiveness of any policy-based guidelines depends on their ability to grasp the nuances of different working environments. In addition to the common set of guidelines, the WFH policy also provided specific guidelines for regional administration and selected sectors such as education, welfare and public enterprises. This provided the formal coverage for practices that are usually not seen, but prove very useful in regional administration during an emergency such as re-assigning the office-based employees to field work full time.        

However, there was also a need to harmonizethe work in the ‘new normal’ with the existing formal set up. In order to cater to this, guidelines based on the new WFH policy called for all employees to maintain a journal to record instructions received and their daily work. Journal entries during the ‘new normal’ were to be considered as ‘file minutes’ in the ‘normal’ context.

High sense of civic responsibility

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa emphasized the need to prioritize service to the public over the need to adhere to established practices, when drafting the new policy. This was reflected in the third and the most important pillar; maintaining a high sense of civic responsibility among public servants. The general public, amidst the hardships that they were facing, continued to pay the salaries of public servants in full. This was given due consideration in the WFH policy.The guidelinesdrafted called for public servants to assist with quarantine activities in their areas of residence, during the lockdown period. The component that faced the biggest challenge in the public sector during the lockdown was the regional administration. The entire distribution network of essentials and maintaining the health protocol depended on it. The WFH guidelines also provided freedom for all public servants to volunteer in assisting the work of any other Institution than that of their own, especially thosein regional administration, with proper approval from their Heads of Institutions. This was a feature that was never seen in Sri Lanka’s public sector before. It allowed public servants to render their full service at the maximum capacity during this calamity.

Not all employees could work from home, either due to the nature of their work or due to the scarcity of infrastructure. A remedy was introduced for this as well. WFH guidelines gave the authority to Heads of Institutions to re-assign employees who were not on work from home made to institutions or task forces that required additional human resources. This opened a new avenue to make the maximum use of the entire work force in the public sector.

COVID-19 was a novel threat of which no one had a complete understanding. The new policy had to consider the home environments of workers as well, when getting them to engage in remote work. Child care and dependent care responsibilities of employees were especially recognized when drafting WFH guidelines. The President urged the public to take all measures to ensure the safety of their families. He also viewed the lockdown period as an opportunity to take the first steps towards self-sufficiency. Accordingly, the guidelines provided for government employees to utilize their time to look after their families, especially elders and children andencouraged them to engage in home gardening.It also allowed forenhancing their appreciation and literary skills as well as spiritual wellbeing through available means during the lockdown period.

Landmark in the local public service

The first ever WFH policy guidelines were released in the circular numbered PS/CSA/Circular/18/2020, dated 30.03.2020 of the Presidential Secretariat, with a series of follow-up circulars that detailed out additional provisions to suit periods when employees were called back to their workplaces in small numbers.

A fundamental feature of a workable policy is its all-encompassing nature. The work from home policy and its guidelines created a specific framework that was lacking hitherto. It allowed for the public servants to perform their civic responsibilities in a safe and secure manner, without neglecting their family responsibilities, during an unforeseen calamity such as the COVID-19.

The initiative taken by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to introduce working from home to Sri Lanka’s public service stands out as a landmark in its history, as an example of pragmatic thinking, teamwork and prompt action pooled together to overcome a daunting global challenge.

by Jeevanthie Senanayake

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