I have written already about the inconsistency this government is manifesting with regard to strengthening the independence of the Public Service. It is patently ridiculous that much energy is expended upon ensuring a Public Service Commission that is not constituted according to Presidential or Prime Ministerial whims and fancies, but continuing to leave the Commission with no authority at all with regard to the seniormost positions in the Public Service. And it is obviously counter-productive, if one wants an independent Public Service, to have Secretaries to Ministries replaced when there is a change of government. This suggests that they are meant to serve the government in power, whereas going back to the practice of having Permanent Secretaries makes it clear that they are in office to serve the State.
Keeping them in office, instead of allowing this to be a matter of grace and favour, will also help to ensure continuity. When you have new Ministers – who often know nothing about the subject they have to handle, because we do not have a Shadow Cabinet system – and new Secretaries, understanding what has been happening becomes difficult. And even when the Secretary is kept on, since he will see this as a concession, he will be hesitant to expound the virtues of what the previous Minister has done. So often good initiatives are promptly forgotten, and wheels are reinvented, with little understanding of the road conditions.
One sad example of the probems that arise relates to an excellent initiative of the National Child Protection Authority. They had established a hotline for children, which has proved increasingly popular in the period after it was made operational for 24 hours. Now this may be cut to working hours, and the line transferred to the Ministry. Though the previous administration had obtained a grant from the South Asian body responsible for Child protection to improve the hotline, there is some confusion now about that money since it was for both Women and Children, and the Ministries have been divided up. I believe, given how dedicated the Minister is, that things may work out all right, but I worry lest children will be expected to ensure that abuse, or even worries, occur only during working hours.
Unfortunately the Minister has to work things out from scratch, as it were, since she had decided, in line with the UNP decision to provide to its loyalists the positions they had had to do without for years, that the NCPA had to be reconstituted. The Prime Minister, in claiming contrary to his Cabinet Minister of Higher Education, that the University Grants Commission had not been got rid of under pressure, told me that they had decided to reconstitute all official bodies. He told me I was at liberty to even reappoint the old people, but it was important that they should be aware they had got their mandate from the new government and not from Mahinda Rajapaksa.
This seems to me a cack-handed way of proceeding. Ranil has always been an expert in throwing out the baby with the bathwater, as we saw with ambassadorial positions, where extremely competent envoys were recalled along with the obviously unsuitable. And though in theory people could be reappointed, when you have even normally sensible individuals like Ajith Perera demanding positions for their supporters, obviously it is more likely that new people will be appointed.
What makes this worse is that there is no provision for handovers that will ensure understanding of what has been going on. That would ensure that anything good would continue. Unfortunately, with existing authorities being rudely thrown out, and their successors determined to wield new brooms, there is little chance of the consultation that takes place in less politicized administrative systems.
This is where having a good Secretary continuing in office would help. Rosy Senanayake did tell me that she had heard the previous Secretary, Eric Illapayarachchi, had been a competent person, and she hoped to get him back, at least in an advisory capacity. But of course that takes time, and meanwhile the damage has been done. Thus Eric Illapayarachchi might have been able to explain to her the great advances the NCPA had made under Anoma Dissanayake, who understood clearly its monitoring as well as its policy making functions. Then, even if Rosy decided that she wanted to get rid of Anoma, she could have decided which were the good initiatives that should have been continued. This would have helped whoever took over to understand the problems that were being addressed, and build on the work that had been done.
I had seen a disaster of a similar sort happen a couple of decades back, when, without even the excuse of a change in government, President Wijetunge had got rid of the University Grants Commission. That was when he was running riot, using the spoon in his hand, as he put it, to serve himself – and that was the first time my hope that Ranil Wickremesinghe had reformed was dashed, in that he failed to help Sirisena Cooray to protect the Premadasa legacy from Wijetunge’s rapaciousness.
Premadasa had appointed Arjuna Aluwihare as head of the UGC, and he had been magnificient, both in the manner he related to students and in his innovativeness. It was he who started Affiliated University Colleges, the reason I left the British Council and went back to working in government. As good as Arjuna was his Deputy, Prof Balasooriya, and in addition to my work with the AUCs, many of which were handled by Sri Jayewardenepura, they also appointed me to coordinate the pre-University General English Language Training programme (along with the indefatigable Oranee Jansz).
But Arjuna was sacked, and Prof Balasooriya was left in suspense. They did in the end reappoint him as Vice-Chairman, but he had a heart attack and died. His replacement was clueless about the AUCs, and said she was learning, but when this went on for six months with no decisions being made, it was clear that they were being destroyed. The new government that came in converted them into universities, but they had no idea about the vision Arjuna had had about transforming university education so as to improve employment prospects and general skills. Though some faculties continued innovative, by and large the new universities sank into pale shadows of the older ones, and it took nearly another decade for Tara de Mel to develop a new model at the Uva-Wellassa university, and get an imaginative corporate high flyer, Chandra Embuldeniya, to get it going. Sadly, I find now that Chandra, who had been Chairman of the Technical and Vocational Education Commission, and whom I had persuaded to stay on, has also been removed, and replaced by one of Kabir Hashim’s good friends.
President Sirisena knows that, though much went wrong in the last couple of years, much good work was done in several fields during the Rajapaksa years. It is a pity that he seems to have given total responsibility for government to a UNP that seems determined to use governmental positions as tools for electoral purposes. As he himself put it, we need to set in place systems to ensure that this cannot happen in the future. But he will need better advisers than Ranil Wickremesinghe to set in place the systems the country so sorely needs.