I was surprised to be told recently that the Secretary to the Cabinet Ministry under which I was supposed to work as State Minister of Higher Education had been dismissed. Eran Wickremaratne explained the reasons to me, but I will not go into those since, much as I respect Eran’s own integrity, there may be another side to the story, which reflects less well on the Cabinet Minister than the Secretary.
In particular, after the admission that Kabir Hashim, along with Malik Samarawickrema and the Minister of Finance, had been in the Central Bank to raise the issue of obtaining more money, shortly before Arjuna Mahendran’s fatal decision to take 10 billion by auction, I have my suspicions about what has been going on there. Thankfully, Eran said very clearly that he was not at that meeting and had known nothing about it, which I suspect would be true of the Secretary too.
I did raise with Eran the question of the failure of the 19th Amendment to address a fundamental principle of Good Governance, which is the strengthening of the independence of Public Servants. Certainly there should be provision to dismiss public servants if they do something wrong, but that should not be a political decision, it should be made by the Public Service Commission. And we must go back to the usual practice in parliamentary democracies where Ministers come from within Parliament, which is that Secretaries to Ministries are in effect Permanent, and not changed with every change of government.
As it stands, they vacate office when there is a new government. And appointments are the responsibility of the President alone. I had proposed that these be done by the Public Service Commission, but the politicians at the meeting were vehement that these should be political appointments – though Eran absolutely agreed with me. Unfortunately there was no proper consultation with regard to this. Dr Saravanamuttu said, when I upbraided him at the pusillanimity of Civil Society claiming to be proponents of Good Governance, that I was not aware of what they had recommended, that was in private and this vital issue was publicly highlighted by no one else.
This total neglect of one of the fundamental principles on which this government was elected, the independence of the Public Service, is regrettable. What is the point of an independent Public Service Commission if the most important appointments in the Public Service, the Chief Accounting Officers of Ministries, are not in their hands? And why has this not been highlighted, and those concerned with the public interest not up in arms about this? There seems to be a total failure of conceptualization in this regard.
But there is another dimension to this problem, namely the practical difficulties that arise. The Liberal Party had long argued for a professionalization of the Executive, and I was happy that Dr Saravanamuttu too referred to this idea approvingly when we last met on a television debate. Both Vasantha Senanayake and I had put forward this idea, of drawing upon professionals rather than politicians in constituting the Cabinet, but obviously that requires a more selfless approach to constitutional reform than most politicians are likely to evince. Besides it will be claimed that on a Westminster system, Ministers must be from Parliament – unlike on Presidential systems where, in the models such as the United States and France and Russia, experts can be brought in while politicians give up their parliamentary responsibilities when they take on ministerial office.
Even under Westminster there is room for experts since there are safe seats to bring people in, and second chambers. And we also have selectivity, whereas in Sri Lanka, where no one ever gives up and where the existing preferential system allows populists to claim they have a mandate to take up executive office, we cannot claim that a majority in the cabinet have the skills required to take policy decisions and implement them. Indeed when Eran mentioned some capable people in his party, he had no answer to my question as to why none of them were in the Cabinet – though I suspect he knew as well as I did that the reason had to do with the independent views they had all expressed about their Leader in the past.
Instead we have lots of individuals who have little understanding of the subjects they are supposed to handle – and little inclination to handle them, as will be seen from the fact that they do not spend much time in office. I hasten to add that this is nothing new, for in the early nineties I remember an Australian friend – when they were setting up Mobitel – telling me that the then Minister had no idea about the business. And one of my bosses at the British Council, who went to see a Minister, came back and said he had never, in any country he had worked in previously – and these had included comparatively less developed Third World countries – found such utter ignorance about both principles and practice in the educational sector.
But that is why we need professional Civil Servants with authority. We must build up professionals, at least in the public service if this is impossible with politicians, who have knowledge of the subject. In England Civil Servants join particular departments, and though changes occur – and more so now at top levels – this is on the basis of interviews and confirmation of suitability for the job, not political predilections. And we must encourage independent thinking and planning.
In the end, decisions are made by Ministers, and policy decisions on the basis of principles agreed on by the Cabinet. However Civil Servants are responsible for continuity, which is why they must contribute to decisions, and in particular maintain records so that any changes in direction are based on full knowledge of past policies and practices. It is for this reason that there should be regular consultation within the Ministry, a practice I instituted when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, so that my senior staff could all know what was going on in different areas of responsibility. This had not happened before, but it meant that they were in a position to brief my successor and the new Minister when there was a change.
Unfortunately, though this government is supposedly committed to Good Governance, there has been no exploration of the principles involved. I tried to persuade Karu Jayasuriya to have discussions based on some papers I sent him, and he seemed keen, but there was little interest elsewhere, and he too seemed depressed. So what should have been a golden opportunity for some conceptualization and establishment of processes has been lost. I can only hope that, when the mad rush for electoral success, which began in January, has exhausted itself, we will get back to serious thinking about the new systems this country so desperately needs.