Good Governance 9Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s defence of his taking a young man with him to New York was entertaining, but it was also very sad. Instead of concentrating on the problem of public funds being spent on private predilections, he engaged in a defence of what he evidently thought was a slur, if not on his character, on that of the young man in question. As a defence to charges he evidently took seriously, even if they had not been articulated, he claimed that the person in question was happily married and had a beautiful daughter.

This seems to imply that, had the youth not been married, or had he been married but childless, there would have been legitimate grounds for worry. But in thus diverting attention to what should be an irrelevancy, the Minister ignored the fundamental problem, which is that public money is spent on private convenience. This should not be acceptable, even when the person involved is a wife (whether with or without beautiful children).

Some years back I realized how absurd the situation was when I criticized the fact that a particular Minister had appointed his wife as his private secretary. The excuse offered was that he could then take her with him when he travelled, and that the cost to the country was less, since they could share a room. I do not suppose that was the reason for my predecessor as Minister of Higher Education appointing his wife to his private staff, or my erstwhile superior Kabir Hashim appointing his brother-in-law to his private staff.

 

Such individuals may be considered dependable – as was Kabir’s sister-in-law when he himself was non Cabinet Minister for Tertiary Education in 2002 (she was certainly honest, for she told me, when I complained about how the then UNP government was giving in to the LTTE at every turn, that they could not back out of the Ceasefire Agreement since that would be electorally disastrous). But the country should not have to pay for individuals a Minister finds dependable, unless they actually fulfil a task the country needs. And certainly the provision that a Minister can take one of his private staff with him when he travels is absurd, unless he can show that some public purpose is fulfilled.

During my brief career as a Minister, I was appalled at the perks that were available. I did not take all these up, and I believe the private staff I appointed did serve a public purpose. I had for instance, as Management assistants, two Tamil translators, in a situation in which the entire Ministry had only two people able to function in Tamil, and they at senior levels so they could not be used for day to day translations. As a result the Ministry website was functional in all three languages, which was I believe almost unique for any Ministry website.

But I realize that, for almost all other Ministers, the perks are invaluable to keep political supporters happy and active. This extends too to other appointments, as when Kabir changed his mind (whether at the behest of the Prime Minister or the Ministry Secretary, since he gave me two different stories) and kept Technical Education under him so that party supporters could be appointed to positions of authority. Such abuse however will be difficult to stop, unless we invoke the provision I have suggested that all important positions be advertised, with clear selection criteria, and the rationale for choices, even when within the discretion of the Minister, be publicized when appointments are made.

I have suggested that administrative regulations in general ensure this, but here I will concentrate on what is termed private office, where abuse is practically taken for granted. That being the case, it is understandable that all Members of Parliament, as my father once put it, only to be hauled up by the Privileges Committee, want ministerial office. What would make more sense, since they use the staff they can appoint for political purposes (when they are not travelling companions), is to give Members of Parliament more personal staff, and cut down the massive number now allowed to Ministers. And there should be clear job descriptions for these latter, who must be accountable to the Ministry Secretary for their work, not just to the Minister.

 

In order to introduce some rationality into the system, I have suggested that the Minister for Democratic Governance institute regulations on the following lines –

 

  1. Members of the Executive shall not use their offices or the equipment and services they are given for electoral purposes
  2. The personal staff of Ministers shall be limited to only such numbers as are essential for the fulfilment of their executive responsibilities. All such staff will be required to provide monthly reports on their productivity to the Secretary of the Ministry which pays their salaries.
  3. Recognizing however that Parliamentarians have personal and political needs, these should be fulfilled through personal staff of Parliamentarians, instead of Ministry payrolls being charged for such services. Therefor the personal staff of Parliamentarians should be increased as follows –

2 coordinating secretaries instead of 1

1 research officer as now

1 private secretary as now

2 drivers instead of 1

1 office aide as now 1

This gives them a total of 7 instead of 5.

They should also be given a vehicle for their use. This should take the place of the permits which are now readily abused.

  1. The personal staff of Ministers should be reduced as follows, and they must all be expected to report to work in the Ministry unless the Minister had given them leave, as informed to the Secretary

1 private secretary as now

1 coordinating secretary instead of 2

1 public relations secretary

No media secretary, the work should be done by the Ministry media personnel, who should be selected in accordance with clear criteria

2 drivers, without provision for a driver for a back up vehicle. If needed, such a driver should be taken from the Ministry pool.

1 office aide instead of 2, since the Ministry staff can be allocated if needed.

2 management assistants instead of 5. At least one of those should be functional in the Official Language which is not that of the Minister. Any further assistance may be provided by regular Ministry staff.

This gives them a total of 8 instead of 13.

 

The Minister should have at most 2 vehicles. Personal staff should have at most 2 vehicles rather than the 5 that are now available.

 

The qualifications of all personal staff paid by government Ministries should be made known to the public, along with the responsibilities entrusted to them.

 

Island 12 April 2015 – http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=123109

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