Presentation at a meeting on the COPE Report arranged by Transparency International, Sri Lanka,  January 26th 2012
The First Report of the Committee on Public Enterprises of the Seventh Parliament has drawn much attention of a favourable sort. The speed with which the Report was issued, and the number of institutions which it covers, comprehensively and incisively, was seen as unusual, and a possible precursor to a better exercise of Parliamentary powers of oversight than we had seen in the recent past.

The principal credit for this must go to the Chairman, the Hon DEW Gunasekara, who chaired the Committee with inclusive dedication. But I think, as indicated by his suggestion that I be asked to represent him at this discussion, that he would also highlight the role of Liberal principles which I was able to bring to bear on the work and the attitudes of the Committee.

The first problem which we resolved was that of having to deal with a vast number of institutions, only a few of which had been covered each year in the past. The solution was obvious, and I could not understand, when I suggested that we divide into sub-committees, why no one seemed to have thought of it previously, when the work of the Committee had expanded. Perhaps the explanation lay in the objection of one of those members who had specialized in criticism in the past, that it was necessary for the Committee to function as a whole.

But my response, that the sub-committees could report back to the main Committee if warranted, was upheld by the Chairman, and he appointed three excellent chairs for the Sub-Committees, who competed against each other as it were to ensure that they fulfilled their responsibilities.

The principle, which would also help immeasurably in solving problems with regard to ethnicity, may be termed that of subsidiarity, which in this instance means breaking up big problems into smaller ones, and then dealing with them systematically.

A second principle is that of inclusivity, working to promote consensual approaches rather than confrontation. In this regard I must pay tribute to the principle participant in COPE from the Opposition, the Hon Eran Wickramaratne, perhaps the most outstanding example of how the National List should be used to ensure knowledge and intelligence in Parliament. He brings to bear his outstanding knowledge of financial matters and principles of accountability with a sympathetic understanding of problems that need to be overcome. He is also in constant attendance, and prepared to concentrate on the whole report placed before us by the Auditor General and the Treasury for consideration, instead of merely indulging in flashes of corrosive criticism.

This leads on to the next principle, which I can best illustrate through the characterization of the liberal perspective by the relatively enlightened Marxist philosopher Ralph Miliband, father of the far more obnoxious David. He wrote in Marxism and Politics:

In the liberal view of politics, conflict exists in terms of ‘problems’ which need to be ‘solved’. The hidden assumption is that conflict does not, or need not, run very deep, that it can be managed by the exercise of reason and good will, and a readiness to compromise and agree. On this view, politics is not civil war by other means but a constant process of bargaining and accommodation, on the basis of accepted procedures, and between parties who have decided as a preliminary that they could and wanted to live together more or less harmoniously. Not only is this sort of conflict not injurious to society, it has positive advantages: it is not only civilized, but also civilizing. It is not only a means of resolving problems in a peaceful way, but also of producing new ideas, ensuring progress, achieving ever greater harmony and so on. Conflict is ‘functional’, a stabilizing rather than a disruptive force.

We have adopted this principle in terms of our dealings with the officials who come before us. I was particularly concerned about this, because I had been on what might be termed the receiving end of the aggression of Parliamentarians when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights. Some members of the financial oversight committees were so rude and overbearing that some public servants were extremely wary of attending those committees. Indeed reading the papers in those days I had the impression that some Parliamentarians were simply posturing, to show how concerned they were about financial impropriety, and they were using officials as tools for this purpose, to scold and then to claim credit for having scolded.

The new approach we have adopted has been to try to work together with officials, to praise those who have done well, to find out what problems are and how we can set up procedures to minimize these, to avoid concentration on formalities that limit efforts to prevent actual abuse. In this regard I am pleased that I have had letters of appreciation from some of those who have appeared before us, and one of the most senior and respected public servants told me that the manner in which I had transformed COPE had been much appreciated by his colleagues still in service.

This does not mean that we should not be firm when there is wastage or abuse of public funds, and the Report makes it clear that we have highlighted areas in which improvement is required. This beings me to the fourth area in which I was able to make a difference, namely that of follow up, though whether we can do the same for the much more crucial follow up our Report demands remains to be seen.

The most preposterous element of COPE before the current Chairman took over was the lack of seriousness of its deliberations. Whilst at meetings instructions were issued, absolutely nothing was done to ensure that there was follow up. I discovered this only when, after a couple of months, I began to ask about reports that we had requested. I found then that, if such material was received, it was circulated to members, but if it was not received, nothing was done. Essentially the message that was conveyed was that it did not matter if nothing was done, and by the time the Committee realized that nothing had been done, at the next meeting at which the institution concerned was questioned, since it would happen several years later, all previous omissions were in effect forgotten.

This is a nonsensical way to proceed, though I should note that the absence of urgency in the Public Service, which is mirrored by many politicians, is one reason this country does not develop at the pace at which it should, and we cannot hold only COPE guilty. But it was clear to me that the staff of COPE had simply no idea about basic principles of management. I therefore insisted on a system whereby schedules were prepared of what had been requested from particular institutions, and reminders sent when they failed to comply, with provision to summon them again if there were lapses.

Why this had not happened in previous years I cannot explain, except in terms of what I believe was a consequence of the lopsided Parliaments of 1970 and 1977 and the failure of governments to train both politicians and parliamentary staff better, the feeling that the oversight role of Parliament was not a responsibility but yet another mechanism for scoring political points. I was horrified, and had to push my point, but the number of reports we are now receiving suggests that the lesson is gradually being learnt. In this regard though we must do better about the staff in the COPE office, who have coped admirably with what they perhaps see as an additional workload, but who have been unfailingly helpful when I make demands on them. They need strengthening and more initiative on our behalf must be encouraged.

But it is also essential to institute certain reforms in public sector management. I draw attention in particular to recommendations 12 to 14 which suggest the need for streamlining and the development of more comprehensive concepts of responsibility. It is imperative I think that Financial and Administrative Regulations be streamlined, with greater stress on outcomes rather than procedures, on transparency rather than elaborate, wasteful and time-consuming checks.

I have concentrated on the systems that we need to improve public accountability, and I believe this is the way forward. I believe there will be much concentration, in discussing our Report, on individual cases, and I would agree that, where we have drawn attention to lapses, these should be dealt with. But it is more important to set in place procedures to make such lapses less likely in the future, and to ensure that the public have access swiftly to relevant information that will limit both abuse and the carelessness that contributes to abuse. We need to move on this not in a spirit of confrontation, not through finger-pointing, for it is abundantly clear that waste and abuse are not the preserve of one side in politics, but with the understanding that systemic change is much more vital than tinkering with one or other manifestation of irregularity.

Daily News 27 January 2012