qrcode.30675367The last conference I attended was in the North East of India, where the topics encapsulated in the title of Prof. Hettige’s book loomed large. The same issues that bedevil development questions in this country were apparent there, and could be summed up perhaps in one word, namely consultation.

I was asked, earlier this week, to speak on the ‘Nexus between Development and Governance; a Sri Lankan Perspective’ at the launch of Prof. Siri Hettige’s latest book, ‘Governance, Conflict and Development in South Asia: Perspectives from India, Nepal and Sri Lanka’. This is in fact a collection of essays, co-edited by Prof. Hettige, bringing together the proceedings of a series of discussions on the subject.

I must confess that I went through only the essays on Sri Lanka, which is a shortcoming, but I should add that I thought it best to concentrate on this country, given the crisis we are going through. Prof. Hettige made some admirable points, though he did so with the detached dignity of an academic, whereas in the current context there might have been a case for a more aggressive approach. But since the essays were written some time back, and the book was a record of what had taken place, I must grant that it would have been difficult to be creatively topical.

And perhaps the worst aspect of this is that it might well have been asked, to what purpose? For the saddest aspect of our national polity now is the absence of conceptualization, the failure to apply established principles with regard to governance after consultation of both theorists and those with a practical understanding of politics. We are stunningly without think tanks, a factor I have repeatedly drawn attention to with regard to foreign policy. But we are also lacking in think tanks with regard to domestic policy, on the lines for instance of the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, an Indian organization whose deliberations I have been privileged to contribute to over the last couple of years, thanks to an introduction from the seminal thinkers at the Gandhi Centre in Sri Lanka.

The last conference I attended was in the North East of India, where the topics encapsulated in the title of Prof. Hettige’s book loomed large. The same issues that bedevil development questions in this country were apparent there, and could be summed up perhaps in one word, namely consultation.

That I believe is the key word with regard to Good Governance. The reason we are now suffering so much, despite the high ideals of January, when we had democratic change, was that Governance went out of the window. When I realized the enormity of what was happening, I asked a leading member of the UNP why his leader did not consult others, and was told laconically that that was not his style.

His is a style that could prove immeasurably dangerous to the country. It is a great pity that the public tradition of the UNP, as exemplified by the Senanayakes and by President Premadasa (with his catchwords, Consultation, Compromise and Consensus) has now given way to the top down approach of J R Jayewardene – which led to the lid being pressed down so firmly on the country that it exploded, in both North and South.

Consultation however must be serious, and cannot depend just on the willingness of the leadership to listen. Systems of consultation need to be entrenched, and this must also be accompanied by mechanisms for feedback. This must include not just responses, but the rationale for those responses. That is what is meant by accountability, which should not be only about finances – vital though that aspect is – but also about ensuring understanding with regard to policies and practices.

I hasten to add that this does not mean derogation from the responsibilities of governance. After listening to the perspectives of stakeholders, it is up to the elected or appointed executive authority to take decisions. But such decisions must be conveyed to stakeholders with reasons. So, when I proposed amendments to Standing Orders, with regard for instance to the oversight functions of the Finance Committees, I suggested with regard to reports that ‘The report shall be laid before Parliament and sent to the Minister in charge of the subject of Finance who shall within one month respond to the Report and indicate which recommendations may be accepted with a time frame for implementation. Explanations will be provided with regard to recommendations which cannot be implemented with a description of what remedial action will be taken instead to deal with issues raised.’

This made clear the distinction between the Executive and the Legislature, which the Secretary General too noted was important. Parliament should not make decisions about what is to be done, but since it is responsible for financing the Executive, it must monitor its activities and ensure that they are in accordance with law as well as budgetary provision. The recommendation, I am happy to note, was unanimously accepted, but unfortunately Parliament was dissolved before a Report was made to the House by the Standing Orders Committee and our changes ratified.

The same principles should apply to development activities Often I was told, at the Reconciliation Meetings I chaired in Divisional Secretariats in the North and East, that projects the people had agreed on at various meetings were forgotten. Of course not everything everyone wants can be done, but it should be the duty of the decision making authorities to take all proposals into consideration, to explain why they have selected some, and also to indicate the alternative solutions they propose for any pressing problems they cannot deal with as requested.

Going hand in hand then with the basic need to consult is the requirement for feedback, for explanations that make it clear governance is a matter of partnership not of patronage. Included in this then must be transparency, a sharing of information. This is vital with regard to financial information, but there should be transparency too with regard to advice sought and received, and also about potential conflicts of interest. Development must be based on confidence, the belief that decisions are made in the best interests of stakeholders, not through extraneous consideraations.

Finally, or rather to return to a point I made earlier, we need to ensure that planning is holistic. That requires expertise, whereas now decisions are taken on the basis of desires and political convenience, not professional and practical considerations. That is why I have long advocated a senior management consultation process at Divisional level, so that issues can be discussed from all perspectives, and decided on with full information available about the situation that is being addressed. Consultation, it cannot be stressed enough, must be thorough and based on informed and rational argument. For that purpose we need to train not only those who give professional advice, but also administrators in general, in problem solving and decision making skills on the basis of evidence, not just predilections.