I am worried that the commitment of this government to Good Governance is being forgotten in the midst of the various other concerns we have to deal with. But I believe that addressing this issue promptly and effectively will help us also to approach other problems more sensibly.
Since I began work, I have addressed a number of letters on the matter to Karu Jayasuriya since he has been appointed Minister for Good Governance. He is a politician for whom I have the highest regard, and I think he will do a great job, but I believe he should be made aware that this is an area about which the people are deeply worried.
He replied to one of my letters, registering the need to get rid of politicization of everything, to say that this was part of the culture and it would be difficult to make a change. But I pointed out that we must make a start. I think there needs to be greater discussion though of the manner in which the change should be made, and so I have begun this column in the hope that it will provoke debate and discussion.
I will post these articles on my Facebook but I hope others will do the same on theirs, with amendments and changes to popularize their ideas too. In addition I would encourage everyone to write direct to Mr Jayasuriya, so as to strengthen his hand to effect changes.
In particular he must start immediately to draft a Code of Conduct for those who are supposed to serve the public, and who receive public funds. This was promised in the manifesto, and it is a great pity that the public do not know what is being done about it.
I have told the UGC to draft a Code for academics and administrators in academia, and they gave me a first draft but I found it woefully inadequate. If I am still involved and can get the UGC to function again, I will suggest that the next draft be put on their website for discussion. They have already, as I requested, put on their website the criteria for appointment to Councils.
The Committee on Public Enterprises had instructed some time back that this be done, but there was a delay. On my first day in office I inquired what had happened, and was told there was a draft. That did not seem good enough to me, and I told them that, since they had had sufficient notice, I expected a final draft within a week. That was forthcoming, and the Eastern University Council was appointed accordingly. Those appointments seem to have been welcomed, though I also realized there still needs to be fine tuning. It would be useful if those interested checked on those guidelines and commented, so that we can have an even better set of requirements to put into the act when it is being prepared.
But while I think we do need strict rules and guidelines for officials, they are even more essential for politicians. Most important amongst these is guidelines to prevent them believing that their main purpose in life is to provide jobs for individuals. Whether on the basis of friendship or of electoral considerations, this should not be allowed. Instead the culture that should be created is one in which there are transparent criteria for appointments, and when appointments are made, the rationale for them should be made available. That is certainly something we should incorporate into the Freedom of Information Act, and it would help both the cause of Good Governance, and also politicians who otherwise spend much time and effort on promoting individuals with no regard for whether their services will benefit the nation.
I should note though that this culture is nothing new. The practice of jobs being given on the basis of lists supplied by a Minister had begun many years ago. There is a 1997 circular from the UGC based on a Cabinet decision, but it is possible that this built on earlier practice, given that good governance began to fade in the seventies. Certainly the problem I connected with the statist approach of the Bandaranaike government of the seventies, which assumed that all decisions were the prerogative of the state. In a one-party state such an approach could have been seen as consistent with the prevalent principles of government, though we know now that that was a destructive approach. But in a multi-party democracy it was preposterous, because it paved the way for employment to become a political tool, and also an instrument of social polarization (and also ethnic polarization, given that dominant political parties were dominated by the majority ethnic group).
I immediately told two institutions which the Cabinet Minister had said should be gazetted under the State Minister to reverse the trend, and wrote as follows to Karu to urge swift action.
Dear Hon Minister
Further to my letters and worries about recruitment procedures, and the enormous power of the Ministry to send lists – which would generally turn out to be to the political advantage of the Minister – I find that the UGC circulars are based on a Cabinet decision taken way back in 1997 (though it is possible that this pernicious practice began even earlier). To quote from the Circular – ‘The Cabinet of Ministers has decided that all external recruitments to the following posts in the University system be made from a list of candidates compiled by the Ministry of Education and Higher Education’.
The resultant circular, issued on 31st January 1997, is preposterously complicated. As you can see, I have told the UGC to change the circular and similar ones issued subsequently. I believe autonomy should be given to the universities, subject to strict criteria (and I hope examinations where possible and relevant), and I believe I can do this without a Cabinet decision since it is acceptable to abnegate one’s own powers.
However in the long term interests of the country I think the Cabinet should absolutely repudiate the 1997 decision and lay down clear guidelines that are based on merit rather than any form of political predilection (or political prejudices, since these also play a large role).
Please do act quickly, I believe that will do much to restore faith in us which is now flagging, given the ruthless politicization that others are engaged in.