I was asked recently in an interview to mention seven areas of priority for the new Parliament. I began with Education and Reconciliation which have long been priorities for me. But then I also noted some other areas in which structural change was essential.
One of these was providing greater autonomy to the regions and local bodies with regard to decision making. But I did not by this mean a return to the old debate about devolution and sharing power between the Centre and Provincial governments. My stress was on more power to local bodies, and I also thought it vital to develop better consultation mechanisms.
I am glad that the UPFA manifesto notes this need, and I hope they will study the progress made in this area by the Ministry of Public Administration, working in collaboration with UNDP. A couple of years back the Ministry Secretary sent out a circular about regular meetings at Grama Niladhari level, and he also issued, together with the Secretary for Child Development and Women’s Affairs, a circular setting up Women and Children’s Units in each Division. Building on such initiatives, there was an excellent report prepared by Asoka Gunewardena on improving Service Delivery in the Divisions. This should be used to flesh out the manifesto, leading I hope to fulfilment of the President’s commitment in his January manifesto that ‘The Divisional Secretariat will be made the chief unit that performs the priority tasks of the area’.
All this of course requires good administration, and I suggested ‘A more effective public service through better training and greater responsibility and accountability mechanisms. We need to revise Financial and Administrative Regulations to increase efficiency whilst also ensuring systematic feedback to the public on matters that concern them.’ It is good then that the UPFA pledges to update regulations and remove outdated ones. In addition, it talks of the need to develop the skills of government servants, for which we need to upgrade training institutions.
When I was working in this field last year I realized that the then new head of the Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration had very bright ideas about how to move forward. He is now Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration but, as I have sadly noted, that Ministry does not have responsibility for District and Divisional Secretariats, which is where the most important structural reforms are needed.
We will need then to flesh out the training through brainstorming that identifies priorities. These should include identification of responsibilities and developing systems of coordination with the various agencies working in any geographical or subject area. But in addition to better understanding of what needs to be done, and the resources available for the work, there should also be attention to the methodology of delivery, with due attention to targeted beneficiaries That is why there should be system change so as to entrench accountability mechanisms and transparency, and also to ensure swift feedback to the public with regard to issues that are raised.
I had suggested to Karu Jayasuriya, when both he and I thought that the government was interested in reform, some lines on which we might have proceeded. These included
1. Consultation mechanisms should formally be set up at Grama Niladhari level, chaired by the GN but with clear responsibility for another official to maintain records and minutes and ensure follow up.
2. The minutes of Grama Niladhari Level meetings, with decisions / action points noted, should be shared with the next level up of government. Responses must be conveyed to participants at GN level, along with the minutes, at the subsequent meeting
3. At Divisional Secretariat level, there should be coordination mechanisms for groups of subjects
4. There should be regular consultative meetings of department heads at Divisional level, chaired by the Divisional Secretary. To facilitate this, all government departments should treat the Division as the basic unit of administration. This will require restructuring of a few Departments, ie Education and the Police. This has been pledged in the manifesto of the President, and making the necessary structural changes will be simple, and can be swift if there is sufficient will.
5. Regular discussions between the Divisional Secretary and the elected head of the Local Government Unit are necessary. Ideally the proposed Local Government Act will lay down specific responsibilities so overlap of responsibilities will be minimal, but coordination and agreement on priorities is essential. Making the Divisional Secretariat and the Local Government Unit (or Units) coterminous will facilitate coordination.
6. All government officials must understand the need to respond promptly to requests from the people. They must also ensure that records are kept. Telephone commitments should be kept to a minimum, since these can be forgotten. Officers who delegate tasks must ensure that these are performed promptly.
But it is not only the administration that needs to consult and respond. This should be laid down clearly with regard to elected officials too. At present there is no mandatory requirement for all local bodies to have consultative committees. Changes were anticipated when a new Local Authorities Act was being prepared, but they were not satisfactory. The Minister and Secretary shared the draft with me and I pointed out that, instead of the Authority appointing whom it chose to consultative bodies, these should be representatives of Citizens’ Committees, for instance the Rural Development Societies and, most importantly, the Women’s Rural Development Societies.
So one of the other principal areas I identified for the attention of the new Parliament was in relation to Government promoting equitable development through greater concentration on the regions, with targeted investment based on people’s needs. I noted that the last government did much in infrastructure, and the present government seems at last to have realized the important of this, but it was also necessary to ensure systematic development of the human resources to take advantage of this. I hark back in this regard to the telling moment when a WRDS representative in Mannar told me nearly 5 years ago that they were most grateful to the government for having restored so swiftly the facilities for agriculture to flourish – but they also wanted training in marketing.
The people have a better understanding of their needs than politicians or bureaucrats do. That is why regular consultation is essential, and also feedback mechanisms so that those who make decisions and implement them never lose sight of the people on whose behalf they exercise authority.