Originally appeared in the Daily Mirror
By Aneetha Warusavitarana
From a purely individualistic point of view, working in government can seem as a great choice. Government jobs come with perks; allowances of all natures and a guarantee that even if you underperform, the worst that can happen to you is a transfer – you will not lose your job.
Once you hit 55, the deal is sweetened. At the point of retirement, you are provided with a pension package that beats ones offered by OECD countries, hands down. The best part of the pension package? You don’t contribute a single rupee towards it.
Why? Because the Sri Lankan government currently runs a non-contributory pensions scheme. Simply put, the government provides a monthly pension payment from the point of retirement to the point of demise. The World Bank places this monthly payment between 83 percent – 88 percent of the employee’s final salary, to which the employee does not contribute. In contrast, the private sector is covered by two provident funds, namely the Employers Provident Fund (EPF) and the Employers Trust Fund (ETF). In the case of the EPF, employers contribute 12 percent and employees contribute 8 percent. Employers contribute 3 percent to the ETF. When looking at the public sector pension scheme from a purely welfare perspective, it is difficult to find fault – a benevolent state is providing its retired government servants with a generous pension plan.
Why should citizens be wary of such benevolence?
According to the World Bank Development Update 2019, the current cost of pension payments amounts to 1.4 percent of GDP, and it is set to increase in the coming years. This is a considerable financial obligation that the government has made – and it is clear that there is worry about how financially sustainable a scheme like this is.
The government has made it clear that reform in public sector pensions is needed, and has taken an initial step to stem the outflow. All government employees hired after the 1st of January 2016 are not included in the present pensions scheme. The government has stated that a new pension scheme will be introduced for all employees hired after this date, making it evident that they wish to phase out the existing scheme.
Apart from the unaffordability of this public sector scheme, the consequences of it are far reaching - it affects productivity in the government service and labour markets in general.
All the wrong incentives
Complaining about government inefficiency is a fond past time for many Sri Lankans. Some would say that nothing goes as well with a strong cup of tea than a good rant about the government.
Let’s put the cup of tea down for a minute (just a minute), and ask why the government is so inefficient? There is a general understanding that if you want efficiency, you should look towards the private sector, and not the public sector.
But why? Surely the government could hire the same sort of people and thereby achieve similar levels of efficiency. Part of the issue lies in the perverse incentives created by a culture of status, consistent increments which are not dependent on performance, and a guaranteed retirement.
It seems a bit cold blooded to say that guaranteeing someone a decent retirement is a bad thing – but the argument runs deeper than that. Providing employees with retirement plans is not inherently bad. However, these plans need to be structured in a way which incentivizes your employees to work productively and efficiently, while ensuring that the employee (the government in this case) is not crippled by the financial obligation.
Right now, in the government sector, part of the problem lies in the non-contributory pension scheme. Receiving a pension; receiving a good pension that you did not contribute towards creates a sense of entitlement.
A pension is now a right and not a benefit that is worked towards. After all, people are self-interested, and require the right incentives to be productive and efficient. The public service overall does not provide these incentives, and the pension scheme is only one contributor to this problem.
Pensions also affect the flexibility and mobility of a country’s labour force. The long vesting period (requiring a worker to stay in that firm or that sector for a defined period of time to be eligible to receive a pension) of the government sector’s pension scheme affects labour mobility as workers are less likely to move between jobs and sectors. While one outcome would be that skills and knowledge would not be transferred across sectors, a more economically damaging outcome would be the perverse incentive for people to join a sector simply for the pension benefit, reducing labour productivity and competition.
This can be seen in Sri Lanka where many university students only want to work in the government sector. There are routine protests against the government for their not being provided cushy government jobs, and in response the government provides 10,000 students around election time.
How does this impact labour markets? There is a continuous surplus of unemployed graduates, waiting for government jobs – and not considering other options.
Additionally, there is a significant opportunity cost that takes place - people join the government under the assumption that this is the best job available - the option of a job in the private sector is completely disregarded, even though opportunities for job progression, creating an impact, and better wages are all a possibility.
Prudent financial management could mean that one retires with greater stability than a government pension provides. It is only a shift in mindset that is required.
Nevertheless, the budget speech 2019 stated that a national pension plan would be introduced, implying that this plan would extend beyond the public sector to include private sector and informal sector workers. However, the greatest reform need lies with the current government sector scheme. A few small reforms could be implemented to ease the financial burden that the government currently has to bear for all government employees hired before Jan 1st, 2016.
The first would be increasing the age of retirement and changing the pension calculation to one that is based on the average wage over the best five years of employment instead of final salary. In order to make this reform more palatable, it is possible that these changes are introduced for the younger cohorts of employees and not those who will reach retirement age in the next five years. In conclusion, before acting on the promise of a national pension plan, the current one should be better managed and made