In the last couple of weeks I looked at current problems with regard to Members of Parliament and put forward suggestions as to how things might be improved. The meeting for which I prepared the paper that was the basis of my last article was most interesting. There were clear areas of consensus, in particular that we needed a new electoral system. Indeed one very pleasant interlocutor asked why we were stressing this since it had been agreed that a change would be made. Sadly he had not followed the manner in which, for the last two and a half years, the Prime Minister has blocked electoral reform, despite the best will of both the President and the Elections Commissioner.

Interesting statistics were put forward during the seminar, including the fact that 94 current Members had not passed the Ordinary Level Exam, and 68 had not passed the Advanced Level Exam. 38 had passed that, but gone no further, which means we have only 25 degree holders in Parliament.

I am not sure if those statistics are accurate, and indeed one participant noted that academic qualifications did not necessarily mean one made a good member of Parliament. That is certainly true, but that does not mean that Parliamentarians do not need intellectual and analytical capacities. Given that obviously these will be very different in different people – and as a recent ILO study put it, our education system has failed in the development of cognitive skills – there is clear need for training for Members of Parliament, even the graduates. This should be done by parties with regard to candidates, as well as the administration of Parliament following an election, but of course nothing of the sort happens.

Another question put forward was why the Sri Lankan public, which is comparatively educated, vote for those with less education than themselves. The answer of course is that they have to vote for candidates put forward by parties, and it is parties who are utterly irresponsible in their choice of candidates.

But as I have noted, parties also have to function in terms of the existing electoral system, and it is that system that puts a premium on name recognition rather than ability, on financial resources rather than intellectual ones. I make no apologies for repeating that a system that requires candidates to canvass in an entire district and compete with members of their own parties as well as others is a recipe for disaster.

This is inevitable given that the system gives voters three preference votes, and these are used largely at random. Voters will generally vote for someone who works in the area they live in, but the other two votes are usually used only in terms of name recognition. The leader of the District list may do well, but voters are then likely to go for those connected with well known people, or those who feature in the media.

This explains why, as one question had it, the proportion of relations of existing politicians has increased. It also explains how the beautiful actress Pabha got in, or Palitha Thevarapperuma who had been jailed following an altercation with the personal staff of a political rival.

So we should not blame the people as opposed to the system, and those who select nominees without bothering overmuch about intellectual or administrative or conceptualizing capabilities. That is why I suggested that the media should draw up a schedule of desirable qualities, and then grade existing Members of Parliament on each of these. In the process they should also note how many have subject knowledge of areas of importance for national development.

Last week I attached a schedule of such subject areas. Those should contribute to selection procedures so that all parties have expertise in key areas. Once that is assessed, there would also be greater pressure to appoint those with expertise to the relevant Ministries.

Meanwhile last week our committee, appointed to make suggestions for new ways of working in the Public Sector, agreed on the Ministries the country should have. This is the list we proposed, though of course it needs ratification by the full committee, and our report will then have to be discussed by the National Human Resources Development Council. I appreciated the fact that the Chairman of that Council, who is so busy that he tends only to drop in on meetings, stayed for some of the OPA seminar, since he is one of the few votaries of the Prime Minister who is able to conceptualize. Whether even he however can penetrate that thick skin is another question. But that is where our committee also needs to work out ways of getting through to other decision makers, such as they be.

We proposed that the Cabinet be limited to the following portfolios –

  1. Justice
  2. Finance (inclusive of Economic Policy)
  3. Defence
  4. Foreign Affairs (inclusive of Foreign Employment)
  5. Health
  6. Education
  7. Agriculture and Plantations
  8. Trade, Commerce and Industry
  9. Fisheries
  10. Lands, Environment, Water and Mineral Resources (inclusive of Disaster Management)
  11. Transport and Highways
  12. Ports Shipping and Aviation
  13. Labour, Employment and Entrepreneurship
  14. Provincial Councils, Public Adminsitration and Home Affairs
  15. Housing, Construction and Urban Development
  16. Social Welfare and Empowerment (inclusive of Women’s and Children’s Affairs)
  17. Social Amenities (inclusive of Religious and Cultural Affairs, Archaeology and Sports)
  18. Reconciliation, Rehabilitation and Resettlement
  19. Tourism and Media
  20. Power and Energy (inclusive of Petroleum Resources)
  21. Posts and Telecommunications
  22. Procurement
  23. Plan Implementation and Coordination

We also agreed that the first and the last two Ministries above should not be entrusted to Constituency MPs, but should go to those without electoral interests or obligations. This is on the pattern of the proviso under the Soulbury Constitution that the Minister of Justice had to be from the Senate. This proviso, to make sure that someone in charge of an area requiring total objectivity was not subject to particular political pressures, can now be fulfilled through the National List (assuming that parties do use that List for the purpose for which it was intended initially, to put individuals of great ability into Parliament).

The other two Ministries we put into this category, of total detachment from electoral politics, were those for Procurement, and for Plan Implementation and Coordination. The first is in line with the proposal for a Procurement Commission, but we felt that that was a subject that should be in the public eye, and subject to ongoing public scrutiny. The problem with the independent Public Commissions, as they are termed, is that they tend to function without clear accountability, and there is no clear system for questioning them on their decisions. If there were a Minister subject to Parliamentary scrutiny however – and assuming Parliament did a better job of scrutiny than it does at present – the country would get better service.

The idea of a Ministry for Plan Implementation and Coordination was in line with a suggestion from someone now involved in training, who felt that there was need for monitoring the work of each Ministry, in terms of its own as well as national goals. For many years we had a Ministry of Policy Planning and Implementation, though it did not have enough teeth. Accordingly its Secretary, Dhara Wijayathilaka and I, way back in 2010 when that cycle of elections began and we thought that Mahinda Rajapaksa, having rescued the country from terrorism, would also engage in the developmental reforms he had pledged, sent the President’s Secretary a paper on how to strengthen the work of that Ministry.

We had not bargained for the rent seekers who had surrounded the President. Instead of a stronger monitoring Ministry, it was abolished altogether, and planning in general was entrusted to Basil – who is a good worker, but had very limited conceptualizing capability, and even less capacity to work together with other people. The result was development in particular areas, with no effort to build on such development or ensure that local populations received the benefits of this.

We have restored Economic Policy to the Finance Ministry, since that would be best for coordination. But monitoring this must go elsewhere, and we thought it best that there should be an independent Ministry, free of electoral considerations.

Our suggestions regarding this were as follows (given under two of the subheads under which our proposals were formulated; the others are ‘Independence and Continuity’ and ‘Efficiency’, under the last of which we included our suggestions for streamlining the Cabinet) –

Professionalism and Productivity

  1. A Ministry of Plan Implementation and Coordination is desirable to monitor productivity and performance against targets. Performance incentives are desirable, perhaps through recognition at a national forum – and inclusion in a schedule that Ministry should maintain of potential leaders.

  1. The Development Secretaries Forum should be revived and meet under the aegis of the above Ministry. It should include Chief Secretaries of Provinces, and in addition to monitoring and promoting policy implementation, it should advise on the shaping of policy.

  1. Senior positions should be advertised, and the selection board should have strong external representation, perhaps through a nominee of the Coordination Ministry or the Development Secretaries Forum.

Accountability

  1. Monitoring productivity, Performance Assessment, Progress Reviews are not carried out objectively. Performance reviews are perfunctory, with no provision for measuring excellence or commitment. This must be changed, with provision to recognize excellence. Progress reviews tend to be of outlay rather than outcomes. They need to include brief narratives and should be reviewed. They should also be sent to the Coordination Ministry which will review and comment on the progress of each Ministry.

5. Senior officials, and all boards, should provide a one page account each quarter to the Secretary / Minister as to what has been accomplished and what priorities are for the next quarter. They should also have a clear statement of goals and report in terms of their work towards these goals. These too must be reviewed by the Coordination Ministry.

Ceylon Today 8 Aug 2017 – https://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=27187

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