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The public sector: The paradise where age is

a blessing in disguise

n disguise

Hollow treatment
Saturday, 13 October 2018

The Sri Lankan public sector is a symbol of equality, at least, in terms of
employees’ age. I would say that the public sector is a unique place to work.
Naturally, a public sector employee expresses empowerment and authority,
because he or she represents the State or the Government of the day. Is this
the reason that we often see stony-faced public sector officials? I don’t know.
However, what I know is that, in general, their communication style is
characterised with non-compromising vibes. The underlying message is that
“this is the way we do business here – either accept or leave”. Hang on …
‘Leave?’ Where? There are no alternatives. So, the customers have to bite the
bullet and stay for a long haul.

This is a service sector, of which an employee who delivers
more than satisfactory service to the public is treated the same way as an
employee who does absolutely nothing productive. Another brownie point
must be given to the public sector for upholding equal treatment. This is a
sector where one could move up the career advancement ladder to the extent
of leading a division, or even to lead the whole organisation, for just being
there, simply by counting the number of years at the seat.

What about the ability and capacity of the most senior person to do the job?
How dare I ask this question? They would reply that ‘who cares whether that
person did any productive work or not, as long as a few grey hairs appears on
eyebrows?’

The mess

An employee performance appraisal process is non-extant in the Sri Lankan
human resources management guidelines, if there is such a document in
existence. Whether the public like it or not, this is the reality. More precisely,
this is a situation administrators created. In my era, what was the quality of
the administrators? They were the non-professional products of our education
system who could cram books. They were not a bunch who had analytical,
mathematical, and scientific minds. However, they were given the task of
formulating administrative systems to manage public sector professionals of
educational, commerce, legal, economic, engineering, medical and scientific
fields.

Given their limited analytical knowledge and behavioural science, the
administrators could only come up with a formula with one variable – that is
the seniority based on the appointment date. There were efficiency bar
exams, which were just formalities created to mask their inability to develop a
proper system to assess the performance of the employees, especially the
professionals. Isn’t it pathetic to see the whole country’s affairs are managed
by personnel, including politicians, in the reversed order of professional
intelligence?

A country needs an administrative system to promote the right people to the
right positions. The current administrative system does not allow that. Hence,
this system needs to be changed. It needs a visionary leader who has the
mental toughness to cop trade-union attacks, and also a lot of will power, to
see through this arduous journey until the objectives are achieved.

The administrators can blame the British for leaving this mess with us, but I
am afraid to say that it is too late to hound them. As a matter of fact, there are
no complaints from the public sector employees on this. Is it because the
brightest have already left the public sector? Is it because this system works
for them, as they are confident that they cannot find another job in the
competitive market showing their skills? Apparently, they only complain
when an employee, probably a more deserved candidate, is appointed to a
position violating the “seniority list”. How about the perception of the general
public about this situation? Are they happy? I am often mistaken by taking
their deafening silence as a sign of approval. Maybe I am wrong.

Partners of the crime

Public sector employees are also a section of society. They may themselves feel
the pain when they visit another public sector office to get their own personal
affairs attended. Maybe, discreetly, they curse about the incompetence and
inefficiency of the other officers. It is a known fact that public sector officers
defend each other, and use personal relationships to their advantage to get
personal affairs attended.

I challenge them to move out a bit from the bureaucratic web, and to do a self-
reflection exercise on their own behaviour, to enlighten themselves that they
are a part of the problem rather than the solution.

Let me tell you a story. Once, a very senior Sri Lankan public sector engineer,
who was an employee of an Australian City Council, approached his manager
and bemoaned that as a senior engineer, he should have been placed at a
higher salary point with more employment benefits. The manager replied to
him that he was not a ‘senior’ engineer, but an ‘old’ engineer, and advised
him to apply for a ‘higher’ position by demonstrating knowledge, skills,
competencies and experience, without just relying on the number of years in
the profession. The Sri Lankan public sector needs a cultural change.

Solution

The immediate solution that comes to my mind is to develop a hybrid system,
which counts the number of years in the profession, as well as a performance
appraisal rating, to devise a seniority list. For an example, an evaluation
system can consist of a certain mark out of 60 for the number of years served,
and a similar mark out of 40 for the level of past and current performance.
Hence, the employees could be placed in a priority list in accordance with the
total marks earned at the common assessment time for the eligibility of
promotions. If two employees have equal marks, they could be placed in the
order of appointment date. This is easier said than done.

Developing an objective employee performance appraisal system is an
arduous task. The main risk is the possible abuse of the system by the
assessors, to promote own favourite employees by offering high marks, and
also giving low ratings for the troublemakers in their eyes. Apparently, this
happens in the private sector very often. Hence, the performance appraisal
system must be robustly developed by relevant professionals, with measurable
Key Performance Indicators.

Australian approach

The Australian Federal and State sector has struck the balance by restricting
seniority-based movement only within the grade and the class of the position,
using a combined method of counting the number of years served, and a
performance level (typically 1 to 5) through a structured performance
appraisal system. By the way, the public sector positions are in general
categorised under a grading system, and within a single grade, there is a
limited number of classes (typically 3 to 5). Jumping to the next grade is
completely a new ball game. It is an outcome of a new merit-based assessment
process for an employee, who should compete with external and internal
applicants.

In the Australian Local Government sector, the promotions are made more
liberally, but the movement within a grade is based on an outcome of a
structured performance evaluation system, without considering the number of
years served. Hence, the two employees who joined a city council on the same
day could move up in the employment ladder at different paces, based on the
levels of the performance, and the person lagging behind in performance has
no legal right to complain. Again, the securing of a job of the next grade is
dependent on the applicant’s ability to demonstrate the suitability at an open
interview, where the selection is made through a merit-based independent
assessment process.

Personal anecdotes

After serving four years in a reputed semi-government organisation reporting
to an international engineering consultancy entity, I entered the Sri Lankan
public sector expecting the recognition of my ‘once in a lifetime’ high quality
experience. I was mistaken. I was placed as an engineer equivalent to a junior
engineer just graduated from a university, and offered me half of my previous
salary. Fair enough, it was my choice, and I wanted to work for the public
sector to make a difference to the way they do the business. I was somewhat
successful as a self-motivated person.

Then, I migrated to Australia, and unwittingly faced the after-shock of my
initial Sri Lankan public sector entry experience. Interestingly, they also
asked me to start all over again, but for a different reason. They gave me two
options. Either start again from step one and prove my worth in the long run
to fast track career progress, or prove I deserve more. Basically, the
Australian public sector employers challenged me to prove my knowledge,
skills, and experience, without uttering experience in terms of number of
years.

I took option two. I demonstrated my experience in the Sri Lankan semi-
government and public sectors. They rated highly my semi-government
experience (different to the Sri Lankan treatment) and my public sector
experience was noted just as a footnote for future verification. Nevertheless,
the employers told me that my seven years of public sector experience would
be recognised in the long run, if I could apply my Sri Lankan experience at
the workplace to prove its absolute worth. I did exactly that.

The ongoing employee performance appraisal systems in the Australian
public sector allowed me to progress in my career, jumping from one class to
the next, and also moving to three higher grades by competing with others.
Their administrative set-up gave me the continuous motivation to do more
productive work and enjoy work-life balance, with a decent pay packet, of
course. The Sri Lankan public sector administrative system denied me this
opportunity. This system denies promotion opportunities for many deserving
individuals in Sri Lanka now.

The impact and the change

Sri Lanka has held on to this archaic seniority-based employee promotion
system long enough. As a progressive country, rather than continually citing
2500 years of seniority, Sri Lanka must show its maturity, at least now. The
immensely talented younger generation (better than my generation) is
running away from the public sector, which is the backbone of governance,
and some even flee from the country.

The one and only aim of the public is to send their children overseas for
studies and/or permanent living. Many interactions with Sri Lankans led me
to understand this common expectation, beyond any doubt. I get so many
requests from unknown Sri Lankans, seeking advice on fulfilling this dream.
This is a sad and also grave situation.

When an incompetent residue runs the governance machinery, what else
people should do? This residue does not know how to service the machinery,
and the result is defective outputs. The whole nation is paying the price for
maintaining this unrepairable and unproductive machinery. Sri Lanka is
running out of time and the change must happen now.

The Sri Lankan public sector needs a proper employee performance
evaluation system. This outcome must be incorporated into the seniority list
(currently prepared based on the commencement date of the employment),
and develop a new career promotion priority list for automatic selection of
staff for higher positions.
Ever-developing Sri Lanka cannot progress without having competent
employees at the key public sector leadership positions. The number of years
of experience is not a sole indicator of competency. How an employee applies
the knowledge and skills at the work place matters the most. How the
employee deals with challenges of the volatile work environment, without
violating legislative requirements, and how he or she makes things happen,
rather than hiding behind rules and regulations, is paramount. Such
performers deserve recognition and promotions over the ‘also ran’
performers.

A sound employee performance system would eliminate the incorrigible
performers and promote the best performers. It is emphasised here that the
employee performance evaluation system is not designed to discourage
average performers, but to assist them to understand what level of
performance is expected from them, and give them a chance to work hard to
reach the expected performance levels. Basically, this is not a tactical plan
designed to fail the employees.

The performance appraisal model

Any employee performance appraisal model is focused on three objectives.

1.) Innovative minds: promotes employees to think out of the box and find
solutions to problems hindering the provision of intended services.

2.) Career growth: this is a collaborative effort by the leader and the team
member to make the team member ready to fulfil allocated duties, and at the
same time to provide necessary support to develop a career progression plan.

3.) Organisational development: an organisation is only good as its employees.
Although employees carry out duties individually, they must perform as an
integrated team. This team performance will lead to developing a values based
organisation culture. Eventually, the organisation will prosper as an efficient
and effective entity.
Key elements

nOrganisation structure: In Australia, public sector organisations review and
re-set organisational structure approximately every four years, in line with
the political life cycle (elections). This is not to appoint political supporters.
This is to realign organisational vision, mission, and objectives, in line with
vision and policies of the government of the day, and to define roles of staff to
fulfil the achievement of the organisational objectives. This includes the
revision of all position descriptions by rewriting duties, responsibilities,
accountabilities, and financial delegations. All position descriptions would
contain the qualifications, competencies and skills needed for each position,
disregarding those of current position holders. The gap analysis would lead to
retraining of staff at employer’s cost.

nGoal settings: This is a collaborative process between the leader and the
team member, to develop goals in accordance with the position requirements.
This requires the employee to understand organisation, department and unit
goals. Also it requires him or her to understand organisational values, code of
conduct, policies and procedures. This discussion will identify the relevant
corporate goals, and the leader and the team member will develop individual
goals in line with corporate goals. These goals are linked to Key Performance
Indicators which would be used to measure the progress of achievement.
nTraining and development: The team member must possess specific
qualifications, skills, and competencies to carry out the duties. It is a myth
that after obtaining a formal qualification, a person can operate during their
entire career without any further studies. It is said in international circles that
even a university degree qualification has 10 years shelf life, as the technology
and the theoretical applications in a particular discipline are progressively
changed rapidly. It is a race against the advancement of global affairs. This
means that an employee should follow refresher study courses, training
programs, and skill enhancement programs continually, to keep up with the
career demands and to maintain updated knowledge.

A good performance appraisal model should produce a Training and Career
Development Plan for each employee. This plan should not only address
immediate position demands but also the employee’s career progression
demands. When a position vacancy is available, many of the internal
candidates must be ready to contest for the position, and the best performer
listed in the eligibility list should get the opportunity.

The way forward

The aforementioned details are just the tip of the performance appraisal
model iceberg. Individual organisations must develop a model suited to them
with above objectives in mind. The Sri Lankan public sector should find a
way to introduce such an employee performance appraisal system, in addition
to the age-based seniority list. This way, public sector employees would be
populated with positive-minded people who could deliver better services. Such
people are also employable in the private sector for at least a further 10 years
after their retirement from the government service.

In Australia, most of these systems are electronic-based (paperless) and both
the leader and the team member continually monitor progress of the
performance, and record constructive comments to bridge performance gaps.
This is a transparent, fair, constructive, and honest process, and the
assessment records are open for any legal challenge, if any conflict of opinion
arises. The annual performance appraisal outcomes are progressively sent up
in the organisational hierarchy for checking and signing off by each layer of
the management. Hence, these checks and balances lead to an objective and
unbiased performance appraisal outcome. Why should Sri Lanka not adopt
good practices of developed countries?
(Eng. Janaka Seneviratne is a Chartered Professional Engineer, a Fellow and
an International Professional Engineer of both the Institution of Engineers,
Sri Lanka and Australia. He holds two Masters Degrees in Local Government
Engineering and in Engineering Management and at present, works for the
Australian NSW Local Government Sector. His mission is to share his 31
years of local and overseas experience to inspire Sri Lankan professionals. He
is contactable via senevir15@gmail.com.)

Posted by Thavam