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qrcode.30693280An ambassador who seems to understand this country well said recently that he thought the greatest mistake this government had made was to let me go. I have to admit though that that was probably more flattering than accurate.  One can see rather that the greatest mistake was to ignore completely the manifesto on which the President had won the election, and instead assume it was about two things and two things alone – the abolition of the Executive Presidency and having an election after 100 days.

Unfortunately now the government will be remembered for just two things, one the laudable reduction in the authoritarian powers of the Presidency, the second the Central Bank Bond Scam. But there was much else in the manifesto that could easily have been implemented in the almost six months which the government had before Parliament was dissolve.

I have already looked at the seven broken promises with regard to reform that were mentioned in the 100 day programme, viz

1)      Electoral Reform

2)      Amendment of Standing Orders

3)      The Right to Information Act

4)      The new Audit Act

5)      A Code of Conduct

6)      A Cabinet of not more than 25 members representing all political parties in Parliament

7)      A National Advisory Council including all political parties in Parliament

The last three of these did not require a Parliamentary majority, and three of the others could have been passed with a simple majority. But the failure to develop consensus on issues of common national interest, and instead concentrate on Ministries for one party, and the perks that went with these, led to disaster.

Those blunders are obvious. For the next couple of weeks I shall look at some of the excellent ideas in the manifesto that were completely ignored. The total failure of this government to entrench better systems of government, based on ideas that had been canvassed for a long time but which had not been taken forward, must be registered, and I hope the government elected in August will move swiftly on such matters.

One of the most innovative ideas in the manifesto occurred in the section entitled ‘An advanced and responsible public sector’.  The second bullet point there read, ‘The Divisional Secretariat will be made the chief unit that performs the priority tasks of the area. It will coordinate all activities such as skills development and supply of resources pertaining to the development of the economic, social, industrial and cultural sectors of the area.’

Though I used the word innovative, in fact this represents a recognition of reality. A hundred years ago, when the British began to think of appointing Sri Lankan Government Agents, the Province was obviously the practical unit of administration. But as populations grew and the business of government expanded, the District became more important and accordingly Government Agents were appointed to Districts too. Now however, with so much more to do and for so many more people, it is the Divisional Secretariat that has to initiate and oversee action in most particulars. Unfortunately we are still stuck in hidebound systems, and Divisional Secretaries do not have the decision making powers they need. In addition, many government departments are not well represented in the Division, which leads to long delays with regard to action, let alone decisions.

After the problems I had noted in the North and East, I discussed the matter with those with experience in the field including the immensely knowledgeable Asoka Gunawardena and the Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration, Mr Abeykoon, who is now the Secretary to the President. We then approached the UN, which set up a consultancy, and last year we got a comprehensive report from Asoka on ‘Improving Service Delivery in the Divisions’. Unfortunately, when the election season set in, the Secretary put the matter on hold. Though Karu Jayasuriya was initially keen to take things forward, it turned out that he was not the responsible Minister, given the manner in which Public Administration had been carved up. I did mention the matter to the Minister responsible, but such reforms are not really his concern, and in the mad rush for elections the matter had been forgotten.

After the election I hope a concerted effort will be made to move forward in this area. It is important to make sure however that this is done with provision to consult the people, something the last President pledged which was not done. Mr Abeykoon had set the process in motion, through a circular that instructed Grama Niladharis to chair the Civil Defence Committee meetings in their GN Divisions, but this has not really taken off. Clear instructions are needed as to how the ideas brought up at consultative meetings should be taken forward (something that can be improved in Parliament too, where minutes are not promptly circulated and action points rarely recorded). This was planned, but elections intervened.

At the last meeting of the Home Affairs Consultative Committee in Parliament, this being the Ministry entrusted with District and Divisional Administration, I brought the matter up, only to find that the Minister and the new Secretary knew nothing about this. They had not been briefed, but the Minister promised to look into the matter, and I hope that he will find some time during electioneering to at least ensure that a position paper is prepared for him, or for his successor.

Meanwhile, nothing has been done in the last couple of years with regard to the other area of governance that is closest to the people. I refer to the work of elected officials, namely the Chairman of the Pradeshiya Sabha and his team. At present their functions are confused, because there have been significant changes in the manner in which these are organized – utilities for instance are supposed to be their responsibility, but both water and electricity require much central government involvement.

Because of all this a new Local Government Act was being prepared, and with the blessings of the Minister, the Secretary gave me a copy of the draft for comment. I found it a great improvement on what we have now, but thought there should be entrenchment of consultation procedures, with the advisory committees to local bodies being composed of representatives of community organizations, not appointees of those in political authority.

The Secretary, one of the brightest of our Civil Servants, Mr Ranawaka, took the ideas on board, but he was then entrusted with other responsibilities and the Act seemed to have been forgotten. But if good governance is to become a reality, the next government should study the current situation, with the help of Asoka Goonewardene’s comprehensive report, and set in place systems to ensure that people have ready access to the services government should provide at local level.

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As indicated in the suggestions I advanced in these columns for Parliamentacy Reform, I had had no great regard for Parliamentary Consultative Committees as they function now, because they rarely contribute to policy making, which should be one of their prime concerns. An exception initially seemed to be the Education Committee, which way back in 2010 began to consider the suggestions for educational reform that had been drawn up by a committee appointed for this purpose by the previous Minister.

Unfortunately, though initially the Committee attracted enthusiastic participation from several Members of Parliament, this tailed off as more and more stakeholders were brought to the Committee, essentially to say the same thing – that the situation was dire, and what had existed in their times was much better. The points made were usually admirable, but the Consultative Committee was not the place for them. They should have been asked to send in brief notes, and if necessary expand on them to the original committee, while a synthesis could have been presented to the Parliamentary Committee.

The Committee seemed by the end of the year to have meandered into nothingness, when it was given a new lease of life by the appointment of Mr Grero to monitor the work of the Ministry. He managed to synthesize very effectively, and a series of further meetings took place earlier this year, though unfortunately I could attend few of them because of other commitments.
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Transparency International recently held a workshop on how Parliamentarians could contribute to reducing corruption. Though it was mainly opposition members who attended, government too was represented, in the form of Rev Athureliya Rathana of the JHU, as well as Thilanga Sumathipala, Vidura Wickramanayake and Manusha Nanayakkara, apart from myself.

Much discussion centred around the oversight role of Parliament, following an informative introduction by former Auditor General Mayadunne. He noted that Parliamentary questions should be an important tool of ensuring financial probity, while there were several forms of Committees that could also do much to reduce corruption. Unfortunately, as almost all speakers noted, questions have little impact, since there are innumerable delays in answering most questions of consequence – while even more seriously, the Committee system in Parliament has almost completely collapsed.

We tried to correct the former problem in what proved the abortive attempt by the Committee on Standing Orders to amend them. With the full approval of the Speaker, we planned to introduce a provision that made prompt answers to questions mandatory, with a requirement that the Speaker call on the head of the Executive for remedial action if there were delays. Unfortunately this, like all our other suggestions, fell by the wayside when the Consultant Parliament had hired behaved foolishly, and drew an equally excessive reaction from a member.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

August 2018
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