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Presidential Raids: Perhaps necessary but certainly not sufficient

Much has been said of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s unannounced visit to the Department of Motor Traffic in Werahera. For some it is a publicity stunt. There’s no denying the fact that efforts such as this to get people on their feet to serve the public have done his image no harm. Indeed anything that can even for a little while get things moving in any state institution would be considered good. Appreciated. 

What is sad is the indictment on public service that’s embedded in both act and assessment of act. Simply put, if there are jobs, there are job descriptions; if there are job descriptions the assumption is that employees would deliver on expectations. If they do not, it means there’s either a culture of impunity for sloth or the relevant leadership is ineffective. In other words, people can get away with being lax. They can be rude and they can give the public the run-around.

Does this mean that our entire public service is the pits? No. Understaffed and overworked in not-so-pleasant working conditions, the state hospitals offer much better medical care than any private hospital. The Registration of Persons Department and the Immigration and Emigration Department have streamlined operations to levels unthinkable a few years ago. There are committed public servants in almost all spheres, working tirelessly to ensure service-delivery. They think beyond salary and promotion. They think beyond the target group and encompass ‘the future’ in their deliberations. And for all the hosannas sung to the efficiency of the private sector few talk about how many companies go out of business every single day. 

Despite all this, we are far away from where we ought to be. The problem is that we aren’t close to where we can be. If some departments are efficient, it is hard to understand that inefficiency in other departments cannot be corrected. Sometimes it needs a push. Maybe that’s what the President believes. ‘Get one moving and the others will follow,’ is a decent enough plan. 

It is obviously not enough. A president is not a policeman or a work inspector. Clear rules, delivery-based rewards and an alert and even demanding public are what will make a difference. In most cases rules are probably in place. If they are not affirmed and enforced, they cease to count. Non-affirmation and non-enforcement should not go unnoticed nor without penalty. The active involvement of the public is also important. The President and the government can facilitate all this. If the Department of Motor Traffic can be moved to introduce a system where applicants are informed through sms that their license is ready for collection, it cannot be impossible to have people’s complaints recorded and acted upon.  

In all this, over the years, it is the public that has been least assertive. Cultures of sloth are fed by cultures of submission. Part of it is of course a sense of helplessness, but where there’s no contestation at all, helplessness and arrogance get strengthened even more. 

President Rajapaksa needs the officials. He needs the people too. Raids won’t turn things around, even if they start turning wheels. Turning wheels can grind to a stop if wheel-turners go to sleep. He can’t turn all wheels. It’s the rules and their application supported by responsible citizenship that will keep wheels turning. 

He wants a ‘working nation’. He wants to make the nation work. Well, the nation is made of all structures, all laws, all resources, all processes and all people. It is a tough ask to get all the pieces in place and have them all well-oiled and working. Sometimes a splendid example gives impetus. Example is an important aspect of leadership. A few honest, capable and determined people can do a lot. Given unfavorable conditions — weak laws, weaker enforcement, cultures of sloth, ingrained inefficiency and public apathy — we can quickly find solace in ‘something is better than nothing.’ Gotabaya Rajapaksa, however, doesn’t seem to be the kind of leader who is looking for consolation prizes. 

He has 6.9 million people behind him. Apart from them, there are also probably several hundred thousands who will appreciate the efforts he is taking. Their continued support is important. That support should be expressed in ways other than raucous applause. Easy to cheer, harder to work — it’s as simple as that.  

Anyway, he has made a point. He has put people on their toes. The message should be heard by all departments, all public officials and all citizens. 

He cannot turn things around by himself. We can turn things around. All of us. And that includes being honest with him. A wrong turn should be called ‘a wrong turn,’ instead of prompting silence or navel-gazing. 

Gotabaya Rajapaksa has ‘raided,’ if you want to put it that way. Well, we could raid too — no, not institutions such as the Department of Motor Traffic but the bad habits of our everyday. That’s where the true struggles must take place. That’s where we can engage effectively with systems and officials that are corrupt and/or inefficient. It’s not for Gotabaya. It is for ourselves. For now and well into the future.  

This article was first published in the SUNDAY MORNING (December 29, 2019)

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