Text of a presentation at the Seminar on Changing Social Dynamics in South Asia:  Prospects and Challenges for India and Sri Lanka, conducted by the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies and the observatory research Foundation.

August 17th 2012


I am grateful to the Bandaranaike Centre and the Observatory Foundation for this opportunity to speak on governance. I was not sure initially what the topic entailed, nor how it fitted into the theme of this Seminar, but in the last few months I have understood how desperately we need better principles of governance if we are to benefit from the victory over terrorism that we managed to achieve three years ago.

I realize too that I am perhaps uniquely qualified to talk on this subject, given the wide range of experience I have enjoyed. I say this because sometimes seminars such as this are criticized on the grounds that they present only theoretical frameworks. In my case however, in addition to having studied political philosophy, and also political and social history, I have been Secretary to a Ministry with particular responsibility for coordinating the work of other Ministries, as well as now being a Parliamentarian. I have written from a theoretical perspective on principles of governance, in ‘Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka’ (CUP, India), while more recently I have been advising District and Divisional Secretaries, and the Grama Niladharis under them who provide the first interface with governance to the people, on systems that better fulfil basic principles of governance.

What are these principles? I was thinking that they could be summed up, in an acronym I just invented, as a CART to take us in the right direction, but I then decided that TRACKS would be better, and more thorough. What we need is Transparency, Responsibility, Accountability, Coherence and Knowledge, and of course also Skills to fulfil these principles. These last however do not require explication, though we need to understand that continuous training is required to develop these to sufficient levels, together with practical experience that is both supervised and on occasion analysed to improve performance.

That being understood, it is the principles on which we should concentrate now, since what these should mean in practice is not always understood coherently or consistently. I realize of course that my definitions may not be universally acceptable, but the point is the qualities that will be indicated, not the suitability of the definitions.

Transparency, I would then assert, is about making clear what we are doing and how we work, at the widest possible levels. The key principle should be that all the business of government should be known to the governed, unless there are compelling reasons to maintain confidentiality. Responsibility is towards the people and the areas we govern, which means we need to be aware of their needs and maintain lines of communication to ensure these are understood. Accountability is to those people as well as those we report to, and should involve narrative accounts as well as financial details. Again, maintaining regular communication is essential for this.

Coherence is of the policies we are carrying out, as well as the different instruments fulfilling them. This again entails communication, so that, whatever our different spheres of action, we are all working with similar aims, even though particular objectives may differ. In addition, we must make sure that the different instruments of government do not waste resources by doing the same work, and more importantly we must make sure they do not impede each other by not appreciating and supporting each othe’s priorities. Finally, Knowledge is of the resources available for action as well as the aims and objectives of the policies being carried out. It cannot be stressed enough how all this requires constant communication, not only to ensure Transparency, but also to obtain and develop understanding of our aims and objectives.

Unfortunately the structures through which we now work seem to have been expressly created to make good governance impossible. Several factors contribute to this, but worst of all I believe, and the root of much if not all evil, is our current electoral system. When combined with the proliferation of different levels of government with overlapping functions, we have a recipe for disaster.

The current system destroys the concept of responsibility by making the political masters at all levels responsible for far larger areas than they can handle. It destroys coherence by introducing different priorities through those different masters. It limits accountability because political decision makers are accountable to diverse groups at diverse levels, while administrators have to report to a range of authorities, many of whom have different perspectives. The proliferation of authorities makes transparency difficult while there is no clarity about the resources available for particular functions.

The first point is obvious to all, which is why everyone agrees that we need electoral reform. Despite this agreement in principle, we have failed over fifteen years to achieve this, beginning with the efforts of G L Pieris in the mid-nineties to introduce what he then described as the German system of election. I remember when the Liberal Party commented on this at the consultations he had instituted, we pointed out that his proposal twisted the system to make it unrecognizable, and he modestly admitted, as he characteristically does, that there had been some slight adjustments – the adjustments being designed to ensure advantages to the ruling party that took away from the essential proportionality of the German model, though that of course was not admitted.

Seven years later I remember telling Karu Jayasuriya that the then UNP government should hurry up with the electoral reforms that were planned. He agreed that this was urgent, but there was no progress and soon enough that government fell. I should note that they too wanted to create advantages for themselves by tinkering with the system, but by then I felt that any reform that restored individual responsibility in the form of separate constituencies was better than what we had. Most recently there has been another effort at electoral reform, beginning this time with elections to local bodies, but inconsistencies in the proposed legislation and other inefficiencies, led to delay, and the matter seems now to have been forgotten.

Though governments may feel that the present system gives them electoral advantages, that the country is damaged by it is obvious. The massive expenses demanded of all candidates, as they compete against others on the same list as well as other parties, obviously leads to a perversion of the selection process, and necessarily entails efforts to recoup such expenses subsequently, with corresponding problems for governance. What is not so obvious is the necessity for all those elected to function all over the voter catchment area, with confusion of responsibilities and corresponding headaches for the government officials concerned. And, if governments were not so concerned about immediate electoral advantage, they would realize that the system also impedes coherence, for it leads to the emergence of petty Caesars whose principle purpose is to repeat their electoral success, not contribute to the programmes of government, which may have other priorities.

Matters are made worse by a lack of clarity about duties, plus the absence of statutory provisions about consultation. Grama Niladharis, for instance, still get officially only the diary based on British practices, which gives them 12 responsibilities as follows –

Initial responses to illegal activities

Assistance in emergencies

Land formalities

Excise duties

Valuations of less than Rs 5,000

Timber concerns

Provision of IDs*

Census duties*

Provision of Certificates*

Pension responsibilities*

Registering of persons*

Election responsibilities*


As can be seen, these can be divided into formal duties (the last 6, marked with a single asterisk), and those requiring discretion. With regard to the latter, there are generally other government departments which formulate regulations to guide action, but procedures for consultation and consistent responses have not been laid down clearly. Recently UNDP has issued a Handbook which gives further advice on how functions should be fulfilled, but this has not been distributed islandwide as yet. It seemed very helpful, but I found that, while Amparai and Trincomalee knew about it, Batticaloa and the Districts in the Northern Province I inquired from had no idea of its publication. I was worried that this was because there was not as yet a Tamil translation, but I am assured by UNDP and those who knew about the book that the Tamil version had also been published last year.


But, helpful as such a book might be, it is no substitute for coherent reformulation of Grama Niladhari duties in accordance with contemporary needs. In particular there should be incorporation of the role of the other government institutions involved, with clear understanding of where policy is formulated and how it should be implemented.

After looking together with the Grama Niladharis and Rural Development Societies at problems that occur, during the Divisional Secretariat level consultations I have set up for Reconciliation purposes, I have suggested, in a proposal sent to the Minister for Public Administration, that the duties of Grama Niladharis fall into two categories, which cover first Development and Livelihood issues, and then what might be termed Protection problems. These require regular consultation of stakeholders, in accordance with which the original Mahinda Chintanaya had suggestions about advisory bodies, but this has not been followed up coherently. Some meetings do take place, but they are irregular and do not lead to practical outcomes. I have accordingly advocated regular meetings as follows, though not all suggestions are generally relevant as some relate specifically to matters of concern in the North –


  1. Livelihood and Development: This should involve Rural Development Societies and Women’s Rural Development Societies as well as youth groups. Rural Development Officers should attend and representatives from the Ministry of Economic Development should be invited, along with Agriculture Extension Officers and others working in relevant areas. Aid organizations contributing to livelihood development should be invited, in particular representatives of the UN Development Agencies and IOM.

Issues discussed should include infrastructural development, technical support, training needs and micro-credit provision. Government officials should make clear what has been provided and future plans whilst encouraging prioritization of requests. The focus should be on ensuring that support is directed towards ensuring the economic empowerment of the population rather than perpetuating dependency.


  1. Protection: This should involve Women’s Societies and the police, with the particular involvement of Women’s and Children’s Desks (which should be established in at least every DS Division). Officials involved in social services should be invited, and the DS should assign at least one such official (from Health, Probation, Women and Children’s Ministry and Organizations, Social Services, Counselling) to each GN Division. Schools should be represented and should provide schedules of drop outs and possible problem cases. Religious personnel should be asked to participate and contribute to support groups actively. Aid organizations contributing to protection should be invited and should share the impact of their work with government so as to fine tune and develop it. UNICEF and UNFPA should be invited on occasion.

Issues discussed should include the provision of adequate awareness raising programmes, at schools and elsewhere, with particular attention to alcohol, drugs and sexual issues. The creation of support groups, for counseling as well as protection, should be considered, with the meeting taking cognizance of those in vulnerable situations. The meetings should lead to closer cooperation with the police, ensuring swift redress in cases of criminal activity, but also advice and warning when dangers are anticipated. Particular attention should be paid to former combatants to promote their active integration into community life.

The meeting should be followed by reporting that highlights action points. In some Divisions weekly reports are submitted to Divisional Secretaries, but to ensure action they should be short and in point form. I believe the Reports could begin with statements of


  • Grave problems that need urgent action

  • Priority developmental needs that require a project proposal

  • Vulnerable areas that need monitoring

with just one item in each category each week, on the basis of community discussions. In my meetings in the North for instance there were many requests for irrigation or road or power works, or better health or educational facilities, but discussion and clear proposals would help officials and the people to understand priorities, and also why all facilities cannot be provided to every area immediately.


  1. In addition to these basic responsibilities, I believe there should be opportunities for local initiatives to promote social and cultural activities. A regular meeting for this purpose could involve Education as well as Cultural officials. Youth and Sports Groups and the police and Civil Affairs officers from the army may also be invited.

Issues discussed should include the provision of extra-curricular activities in schools and ensuring that education is comprehensive and not confined just to academic learning. Sports and cultural activities should be provided in all schools along with societies contributing to socialization such as Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, Cadeting, St John’s Ambulance Brigades and Interact and other similar clubs, including one that deals with Disaster Prevention and Management.

The GN Division should also promote voluntary language development classes, with the police and the forces contributing to Sinhala conversation classes whilst also learning conversational Tamil themselves. It should also promote entertainment including regular performances at Divisional Cultural Centres (using school buildings where separate Centres are not available), the development of Public Libraries, and regular film shows, with organizational input from students.

In short, the GN Division should provide a focal point for the people to put forward proposals, receive responses, and also engage in socially productive initiatives themselves. For this purpose we will need much more active Grama Niladharis, but selecting them more carefully and providing good training will benefit the country enormously. I should note that we also have a ready resource available to assist them in the form of the Graduates who have recently been recruited and sent in massive numbers to Divisional Secretariats. Instead of allowing them to be used in diverse ways – including by politicians, who have requested that they be allowed to allocate their duties – they should be given specific responsibilities in geographical or functional areas. They should also be required to prepare performance reports based on action plans they formulate in consultation with the Divisional Secretaries and the other officials with whom they work.

In order to promote better planning there should however be clear guidelines as to who is responsible for policy and for administration. At present we have a whole heap of both politicians and officials functioning in all areas. To take the issue of social service, which we have been looking into in the Divisions, several Ministries are involved, and twice over, since there are Central Ministries as well as Provincial ones. I believe Probation belongs in its entirety to the Province, but this may be too simplistic an assumption, and in any case policy is or should be made centrally, insofar as the protection of children is concerned. With regard to women and children the Provinces as well as the Centre appoint officials, and this applies to Social Services too.

Of course neither can appoint enough officials to cover properly the geographical area for which they have responsibility. In addition, we have signally failed to produce enough Counsellors to deal with the problems caused by modern social trends, let alone the war. Though I should note that the Ministry of Health copes valiantly with a range of problems, a constant complaint I hear is about a paucity of personnel, and doctors have to deal with everything because there are shortages of trained support staff. But if we could have the responsibility for social services clearly allocated, I am sure that the type of satisfactory situation we have developed with regard to maternity care, where midwives and clinics function effectively islandwide, can be replicated in less obvious but equally crucial areas of concern.

Concerted training for Counsellors is essential in the modern world, where the old family support systems no longer obtain, but this has been woefully neglected. At the same time the Counsellors we produce should be familiar with community support systems, for these could provide the best support for the difficulties individuals face in a world in which they might feel themselves isolated.

I was told by one Governor that coordination with regard to social services of all sorts is intended to take place at Divisional Secretariat level, and I believe this makes sense, for that is the basic unit of governance where decisions can be made and resources allocated in terms of local needs. While the Grama Niladharis should be a sounding board to find out and report what is needed, they cannot obviously decide on competing claims and needs. The institutionalization of coordination at DS Division has not however taken place as yet, and I found in many areas that the Women and Children’s Desks at Police Stations had no contact with the Child Protection or Social Service officers. Regular meetings for discussing and arranging work plans for the whole DS Division must be made mandatory, with minutes that should be submitted to the DS as well as to the NCPA and the supervisory officials at Police Headquarters.

Regular meetings of personnel with responsibilities in each area do not take place as a matter of course. I was told that what are termed Civil Defence Committees meet, but these meetings are not structured and do not include many of those who could contribute. We should insist then on weekly meetings at GN Division level, in which representatives of the Women and Children’s Desks at police stations should be present, along with at least one representative of the Divisional Secretariat social service officials. I have been told that now the police have allocated one or two officers to each GN Division, and these should not only attend all meetings, but should be in regular contact with the Grama Niladhari as well as officials at the Divisional Secretariat who are responsible for protection issues. I should note that the Women and Children’s Desks, at least in the North, seem much more active than previously, but regular consultation is a must. And while the police, along with others, do conduct regular awareness programmes, the need to develop professional and readily available counseling must be seen as a priority.

In other areas too coordination is weak. In Mahaoya I had a long disquisition about problems that could readily have been looked at by Agriculture Ministry officials – either central or provincial – but it turned out that they were not active in the area, even though I had been told that graduates had been appointed as consultants, who should have been able to provide readily the expertise needed. And there has been little consultation about training needs, as I found from the Women’s Rural Development Society in Musali, which asked for training in marketing. I would have thought it obvious, given the excellent harvests even despite drought that the infrastructure government put in place facilitated, that training in marketing and also value addition would have been desirable, but the compartmentalization which we live with seems to have precluded this. Similarly, though there is a burst of construction in the area, which will continue in the near future, there has been insufficient training at the higher levels of the industry, for plumbing and wiring and utility repair.

Consultation of needs and aspirations would have helped with this, given the knowledge of local conditions evinced by RDS members and others with local influence such as school principals and religious leaders. But I should note that elected representatives should also be included in such meetings, and they should also be trained in formulating plans for the area they cover, with understanding of national trends as well as resources available. Incidentally, in the North I found that, while some members of Pradeshiya Sabhas were more interested in scoring political points than development, the leaders I met from the TNA seemed responsible and thoughtful, chosen for their social standing rather than political commitment. It is a pity that government did not, as soon as elections were concluded, provide initial training to them, with brainstorming about the areas in which local government could, and should, make a difference.

The same, I need hardly add, goes for all elected representatives, and I found it sad that the introduction provided to newly elected Members of Parliament was perfunctory, concerned more with the perks and privileges they had, rather than their duties as legislators. Of course this may well have been because in fact they have no duties. Over the last few decades parliamentary practice has collapsed completely, with the perversion of the Committee systems that are the essence of Parliament. My colleagues in the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats used to ask me what Committees I was on, and I had to answer that allocations were made by the Whip’s Office on what seemed an entirely arbitrary basis, and that in any case it did not matter because the Committees rarely met. When they did meet, they were taken up largely by Members asking about particular problems or projects in the Districts they covered, and it was rarely that policy matters were taken up.

The Speaker has tried to change this, but his efforts have not been successful, I suspect because almost everyone has lost sight of what a Parliament should be. The idea that we should discuss policy issues and suggest legislation to take things forward is unknown, in a context in which decisions are made outside Parliament. But this means there is no opportunity to fine tune measures that are desirable but that may be unpopular if not tactfully handled. And so we have the situation where some of the best ideas in the Government manifesto, pensions for all workers, alternative methods of delivering education, electoral reform, have sunk after some vocal opposition, whereas serious consultation would have avoided this.

The virtual abolishment of the Committee stage of legislation is symptomatic of this. When people complain that Parliament is indisciplined and noisy, I note in mitigation that that is the case in most Parliaments (though I grant that we are sometimes particularly bad, which is why the Speaker has set up a Committee on discipline). Debates in Parliament sitting as Parliament are political in nature. But those who shout at each other meet quietly, in other Parliaments, to iron out problems about legislation. The legislative work of Parliament, once government has made known its policy decisions, is done largely in committee, where compromises can be reached, and drafting and other errors that everyone realizes should be changed are overcome.

All this is very sad, because the 2010 election brought into Parliament a number of bright youngsters who would have benefited from training, to enable them to understand how a legislature should work, and how the representatives of the people should contribute to this. Now however they are left to their own devices so, as we saw in the recent petition sent to the President, they crave executive office. Since no efforts are made to provide them with a constructive role as Parliamentarians, they see nothing else to do, and so will doubtless soon have to be accommodated in office, thus adding to the confusion as to actual responsibilities that has developed apace over the last 35 years, with the proliferation of Ministries. Incidentally, while there are many complaints about an excess of Ministries, the obvious consequence of this, that functions that should be carried out together are divided up, is not sufficiently highlighted. The inefficiency that this has led to, given the general lack of coordination, contributes to failures of governance. And, sadly, what seemed the original conception of Senior Ministers, to introduce regular consultation, and coordination on the basis of consistent policy, has fallen by the wayside.

Provincial Councils I suppose are better in this regard, since the limit on the number of Ministries means that the few Ministers there are can do their work without confusion, while the majority of members know that they cannot aspire to office. But that does not mean they concentrate therefore on their role as legislators, or regulators, since the 13th amendment does not enable them to work with confidence in areas in which decisions are much more practical at provincial level. This of course applies also to the Ministers, which is doubtless why we have not heard, since the days of Jayawickrama Perera and his innovative work in the Wayamba Province, of Provincial Ministries that have significantly contributed to the welbeing of the people in their charge. Because of the absurd manner in which concurrence is defined, and the number of areas allocated to the concurrent list, we have not seen the innovations that a dedicated provincial administration could introduce.

I would argue therefore that we need to actually rethink the whole business of provincial administration if we are to fulfil the purpose for which it was introduced, namely to enable decisions to be made by those best acquainted with the problem to be solved. This means, I should add, that much more should be decided at an even lower level, which was what Pradeshiya Sabhas were intended to do. However it must be stressed that such decisions should be administrative, and policy decisions should be the preserve of the centre or the province.

What the province should concentrate on is contained I believe in the areas I referred to above, where local consultation is essential. Within the large scale infrastructural development that central government provides, provinces should ensure maximum benefit to their populations, through better training and education, through encouraging commercial activity (including ensuring connectivity by enhancing transport facilities), through regulations that protect the environment.

For this purpose, it makes no sense to have a large Provincial Council. It would be preferable to have instead a directly elected Governor who would be the Executive Head of the Province, with Secretaries chosen from amongst experts to supervise the Provincial administration. They would work in clearly defined areas, which would be limited, but within which they would make decisions. The ambiguities inherent in the concurrent list, and the exceptions created by concepts such as National Schools, would be abolished. Legislation and regulations that are required would be passed by a body made up of the chairs of the Pradeshiya Sabhas. This would both reduce expense and facilitate legislation on the basis of accountability as well as clearcut responsibilities. Monitoring performance would be in terms of the wards and areas they represent, but regular meetings would develop understanding of the general needs of the Province.

I should note, not simply in passing, that a similar system of separating the executive from the legislature would make sense for central government too. With parliamentarians now seeing no distinction, and therefore hankering after what seem the more important executive positions, with concomitant neglect of legislative responsibility, it is much more difficult to make objective decisions. It is also much more difficult to exercise the oversight functions for which Parliament must take responsibility. The difference that has been made in recent years by an active Committee on Public Enterprises, because of a Chairman who understands the real responsibilities of the legislature, has been remarkable, but I fear that little will come ultimately of the COPE recommendations because Parliament is simply unwilling to exercise the powers it has in this regard. The suggestion that AR and FR be amended to promote results based management has been ignored, and we are muddling along as before, with the Auditor General’s Department, excellent so far as its traditional interpretation of its duties goes, bogged down in red tape without devoting its expertise to helping us identify and correct abuses.

Many blame the current failure or governance on the Executive Presidential system, without acknowledging that it was a top heavy executive even when we had the Parliamentary system that began the rot. While it is possible that returning to a Parliamentary system may help, I think it unlikely given that Parliament will, on the Westminster model, still be obsessed with executive functions, and its leading lights will concentrate on achieving and holding on to executive office. We should rather think seriously therefore of what obtains elsewhere in Executive Presidential systems, whereby those holding executive office are outside Parliament, but can be held strictly accountable, by legislators who are not more concerned with their own executive functions. At present the executive is accountable to a body that shares its executive functions. Of course things would be better if we had a strict cap on ministerial portfolios, but that is less likely a reform than full separation – sadly the JVP ruined its one opportunity of radical reform when, in 2001, they simply recommended a ceiling on cabinet numbers, and insisted only on the 17th amendment, another example of confusing Westminster and the Presidential system.

I should note, incidentally, that the 18th amendment does to some extent fulfil the essential function of limiting executive discretion as to high level appointments, but sadly the opposition does not take it seriously. One of our best Parliamentarians declined accepting appointment to the monitoring body, and those on it do not discuss suitability publicly, which is how proper checks are maintained. It is true that giving such a body a veto power would be better than simply advisory responsibilities, but it is the secrecy that now surrounds the process that prevents the public awareness as to the rationale for high level appointments that is the best check on a powerful executive.

I am aware that many of the suggestions made above are radical, and introduce political theories that have been ignored in this country. But I see no other way than such measures to resolve the problems we have brought upon ourselves by creating layer upon layer of government, at great cost, with those who exercise power rarely understanding the scope or purpose of their responsibilities. In rationalizing the system however, it will be necessary to engage in careful consultation with all stakeholders, and define very clear lines of both communication and accountability. The basis should be the principle of subsidiarity, whereby decisions are made by the smallest possible unit that is affected by such decisions, though taking into account the interests and even requirements of other connected units. Politicians will therefore need to understand that power should belong to the people, and disputes about the power that will accrue to the different tiers of government are meaningless in a context of proper responsibility and accountability.

Part 1 – Island 17 August 2012http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=59338

Part 2 – Island 18 August 2012http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=59414

Part 3 – Island 19 August 2012