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The recruitment conundrum: loyalty and competence are not coterminous

Few appointment to state institutions escape criticism. This is natural in a country where meritocracy spices rhetoric but rarely gets inscribed in recruitment processes. It is not easy for the right person to be place in the right position even when there’s no political involvement. People can move up the ranks. The years inevitably confer seniority. However, where training and assessment are absent or inadequate, being seniority cannot be taken as proxy for competence.  

Political appointments. Political appointees. That’s been the name of the game for decades in Sri Lanka when it comes to top posts in the state sector. A new government, naturally, would be wary of retaining the services of people appointed from outside the particular service. Such persons typically tender resignations when governments change. New governments naturally treat with suspicion officials within the particular service who have been promoted for reasons of political loyalty or who have compromised the integrity of the service by politicking.

It boils down to trust. Mistrust quickly slips to a preference for ‘our people.’ Competence becomes secondary.  Winning elections and obtaining control over the administrative apparatus are two different matters. The former naturally imposes a desire for immediate action with respect to the latter. And so, appointments are made. The fundamental problem of establishing rules to ensure competence and the promotion of the same take a back seat.

In this context, two moves by the new president are encouraging. First, he appointed a committee to examine applications for top posts in state institutions. Secondly, he promised that performance will be reviewed and that after the completion of a year delivery and not friendship will be what ensures tenure. One can argue about the competence of the committee itself, but it is certainly better for such a body to be vetting applications rather than a leader serving posts to political loyalists.  

Nevertheless it is but a stop-gap approach to the business of recruitment. Even as the President does the best he can in a poor political culture, it would be good to consider a full overhaul of the system. 

We have  salary structure which does not encourage the best minds to apply for state jobs. That’s something that has to be revisited, but that’s not enough. As of now we have various exams to recruit cadres to various services. Thousands apply. A few get selected. We can reasonably assume that those who do get in are better in terms of IQ, language skills and subject knowledge than those who do not, or else that they prepared better. Impose a cut-off mark and it’s easy to separate the two categories and call those who do get in ‘the top of the class.’  

How tough are these exams though? Are they all complemented by interviews where the candidates are tested on language competence, disposition, knowledge of the world and of the land, history, heritage, new discoveries etc? Well, it used to be that way at least when people were recruited for the Ceylon Civil Service. There have been cases where people who scored high in the exam failed the viva. 

Provided that the salary structure issue is sorted (and that’s easier said than done!), we can have a single recruitment system for all services. India, for example, does not have separate exams for the administrative and foreign services. Candidates’ choice is taken into account after the full cadre complement is selected. We could have a single exam for administrative, foreign, planning, inland revenue and other services.’ Choice, cadre requirement and other factors could be used to slot the successful candidates to the various services.  

Then comes training. Off and on governments recruit graduates and willy nilly distribute them among various institutions. Naturally, they can’t be expected to have a reasonable understanding of the social, economic, political and other factors that relate to the work of the particular institution. Time does that. Training too.  

A few months ago, over 100 ‘Graduate Trainees’ attached to the Department of National Community Water Supply were put through a rigorous training program in Passara, Badulla. Resource persons from the Department, officials handling the Water Safety Plan of the Water Board, the INGO Solidaridad  and UNICEF lectured them on various aspects related to their work such as safe drinking water, climatic conditions, water quality, conservation of water sources, issues related to ownership of water sources, and alerted them to the importance of economic, social, cultural and environmental factors. They were then divided into groups and sent to communities in the area and tasked to map water sources and obtain relevant information pertinent to the subject. Finally, they had to share findings with colleagues and trainers. 

Such things happen, but not across the board. Typically it is the initiative of the head of the particular institution that counts. It has to be systematic and comprehensive. It cannot be one-off affairs. We need to put in place long and tough training program that creates a cadre of knowledgeable, committed and empathetic officials in all services, and regular upgrading of skills through re-training. This has to be coupled with a solid system of key performance indicators tied to promotion and salary increments. It would help take ‘ad hoc’ out of the recruitment equation. 

The easier path is what successive governments have adopted: The ‘Our People Method’. ‘Our people’ are low on delivery and high on sunshine stories. ‘Our people’ make sure ‘Their people’ aren’t able to scuttle things. However, scuttling things is not a ‘their people’ preserve. It comes from arrogance, incompetence, ignorance and the sloth produced by comfort zones. It would be far better to review performance, identify the doers, retain their services and impose delivery-driven systems of reward.

The issue I believe is the fact that ‘our’ has been mis-defined. ‘Our’ for any government should be about people capable of delivery and certainly not political loyalty. There’s a manifesto. There’s a mandate. Loyalty is a fine trait. It is useful, however, only if it comes with particular competency for particular tasks.  

Gotabaya Rajapaksa seems to be determined. He wants a working nation, not a slothful one. He wants to do things differently. Let’s see.

This article was first published in the DAILY MIRROR on December 26, 2019.
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