The manner in which our Executive is constituted ensures that administrative or professional capacity are not taken seriously when portfolios are allocated. Of course many Members of Parliament have skills that will allow them to contribute to formulating policy and making decisions, but that is not a prerequisite. Given too the need to continue in Parliament by ensuring popularity in their electorates, Ministers naturally see their constituency responsibilities as more important than the claims of the Ministerial responsibilities they are given.

I suppose this is a necessary part of the Westminster system, but in Britain and other countries where that system continues, there are systems to ensure that capable people with understanding of the ministries to which they are appointed can also be selected. Most countries having a Westminster style system, of allocating portfolios to Parliamentarians, have a second chamber to which proven administrators can be appointed – as with for instance Manmohan Singh or Kapil Sibal in India. In addition, on a first past the post system, competent people can be allocated safe seats, and do not have to worry unduly about electoral considerations in fulfilling their Ministerial responsibilities. And some countries such as Thailand have gone beyond this, in allowing for portfolios to also be filled by those with proven executive capacity without them having to enter Parliament.

The other factor that has ensured reasonably good government under the Westminster system of allocating portfolios to Parliamentarians, even when such Parliamentarians have no administrative or conceptual skills, is the existence of a professional civil service. Though the manner portrayed in ‘Yes, Minister’ of how politicians are controlled is exaggerated, administrators in Westminister style democracies function in accordance with established rules of procedure, and their professionalism is respected. Anyone dealing with Indian bureaucrats knows how skilled they generally are, and the training they undergo, with regular refresher courses, justifies the authority they wield.

This does not mean they make decisions contrary to the wishes of their political masters. As I would tell my Minister when I was a Secretary, it was my business to do what he wanted. But it was also my business to find out legitimate ways of doing what he wanted, and to refrain from doing anything that was wrong.

I was fortunate in that I had a very civilized Minister who understood the position. But that is not always the case, and the political imperatives of Ministers who feel they have to satisfy the demands of large constituencies make their demands less easy to resist. It is also more difficult for Civil Servants to stand firm when they know that their peers give in readily.

One way of ensuring that standards are maintained is through better training, and opportunities for administrators also to meet and exchange ideas and establish systems of ensuring conformity with principles as well as national interests. But our training systems have gone by the board, and we do not ensure regular updating.

Recently I was reproached by one of the new graduate trainees who told me that their time was being wasted, because they had not been given a satisfactory grounding in the work they were supposed to do. Indeed in many cases they did not have sufficient work to do, and it seems the scheme that was implemented had no objective except simply giving jobs to the unemployed – or rather those thought to be unemployed, because I find that some employed in the private sector gave up their positions for what they thought was the convenience of a pensionable government position that did not demand too much effort.

Many have ended up – I should note that my experience is limited to those in the North, and perhaps things are different elsewhere – being asked to collect statistics about Grama Niladhari Divisions. But I saw no evidence of analysis of what they found, and the formulation of plans to improve things. Some of the graduates certainly seemed capable, and worked systematically, but I did not see systems in place to ensure follow up of their work.

While then several felt they did not have enough to do, there were many cadre vacancies in the Divisions in fields where much more concentrated effort is needed. Even though the qualifications required for permanent positions in fields such as Child Rights Protection or Women Development were lacking, it would have made sense to instruct Divisional Secretaries to appoint the trainees they were given to at least look after the responsibilities of such officials. But since the responsibilities too are not clearly laid down, and there is no system in place to monitor performance, this opportunity too was missed.

Unfortunately there is little coordination at the higher levels of government, where policy should be discussed and efficient and effective means of implementation devised. For this purpose there should be regular meetings of Ministry Secretaries, but I found that these were sporadic, at the time I was a Secretary, and in any case largely useless, given the large numbers involved.

Even if we cannot soon move to the reduction in the size of the Cabinet that is desperately needed, we should set up a Committee of the principal Ministry Secretaries to restructure the administrative system and ensure the development of the skills needed at all levels. This should properly be the responsibility of a Ministry of Policy and Plan Implementation, but unfortunately that Ministry was abolished in 2010. Some of its tasks were given to the Finance Ministry, but with the Secretary to that Ministry also having to be Secretary to the Ministry of Economic Development, the conceptualization with regard to administration that was needed went by the board. And even though we think we can survive, because of the remarkable capacity of some individuals, we must realize that systems need to be put in place to ensure continuity, whatever the caliber of those in responsible positions at any given moment.

Daily News 26 April 2013 –