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CaptureIn the midst of continuing dysfunctionality, increasing evidence of financial corruption, arbitrary decisions at education, abrupt changes of personnel initially introduced with great hype, it was good last week to receive some positive news. This was in the form of a circular issued by the Secretary to the Ministry of Home Affairs with regard to Divisional and District Secretariat Development Forums.

This is the first indication that there is at least some concern with regard to the commitment in the President’s manifesto, that ‘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.

I had hoped for some input from Mr Abeykoon, since he had been Secretary of the then larger Ministry of Public Administration and Home Affairs when we had tried, with support from the United Nations Development Programme, to introduce some order into the functions of regional government agencies. It was following the excellent report on the subject by Asoka Goonewardene – whom I was glad to see the Prime Minister had subsequently roped into his little committee to suggest reforms for the public sector – that I suggested that idea for the manifesto. I was delighted that it was accepted, but then all interest seemed to lapse.

I had been particular worried about this because there was simply no coordination at all with regard to service delivery. The staff in the Divisional Secretariat had not been briefed properly about their responsibilities, nor how to work. This was perhaps understandable since many of them had been taken on for government to win political points by giving jobs to unemployed graduates – including those with external degrees, which seemed even madder than usual – and there had been no attempt to train them properly or ensure that they understood their dual responsibilities, to the line ministries to which they were attached as well as to the head of the government administration in the area in which they were deployed, namely the Divisional Secretary.

The problem was further compounded by what were termed Coordinating Committees, which did nothing of the sort. They were chaired by politicians, generally Basil’s favourite. Since the man’s idea of administration was to empower sycophants, in the North and the East he gave enormous authority in this regard to Rishard and Hisbullah, both of whom made an effortless transition to the new regime.

Neither cared overmuch about consultation or coordination, so I found that in many places the Coordinating Committee had not met for months. I suggested then to the Divisional Secretaries, who suffered from this, that they should hold the meetings on schedule, and politely tell the Chair, if he was busy and suddenly asked for postponement, that this was not possible. But to keep him happy they could tell him that decisions would be subject to his concurrence.

Unfortunately they were too nervous to do this. Now however they have been specifically told that ‘After the dates for the Divisional or District Coordinating Committee are finalized on the calendar, unless it be a national reason, the fixed dates shall not be altered and although it is difficult for certain representatives to attend the meeting, the committee shall have the authority of convening the meetings and taking action accordingly. At a time when the Co-chairpersons fail to attend a certain committee meeting, the proceedings of the meeting should be continued by adopting a proposal for a temporary Chairman. Accordingly the proceedings held in such a manner shall be equally valid as the proceedings of the meeting chaired by the Co-chairpersons.’ Read the rest of this entry »

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10 Jan 2015The most important issue facing the new President is to restore confidence in the governmental process.

For this purpose it is necessary to establish systems that work according to the Rule of Law, and with full accountability to the people. In this respect it is vital that Parliamentary control of legislation and finances be restored.

This does not mean strengthening an Executive based in Parliament, but rather strengthening Parliament to be an effective check on the Executive. This means strengthening the power of ordinary members of Parliament, both government and opposition.

Measures to ensure this were the principle component of the Standing Order changes I had proposed last year, changes which the Speaker ignored in contravention of the existing Standing Orders. My main purpose was to strengthen Committees of Parliament by streamlining them and ensuring that they were not chaired by members of the Executive. In the case of the Finance Oversight Committees, the PAC and COPE, the chair was to be a member of the opposition.

But ensuring open discussion in committees is not enough. It is also necessary to give them teeth, and for this purpose we should ensure that the Executive either follows their recommendations, or else gives reasons in writing as to why this is not desirable or possible. The same would apply to the petitions committee, the directions of which are now simply flouted by the Executive.

I would take this principle further, to promote consultation as well as accountability at local levels. The Local Government Act should be amended to ensure involvement of People’s Representatives in Committees of Pradeshiya Sabhas and Local Councils. I have already suggested amendments in this regard to the Secretary of the Local Government Ministry who had consulted me about the Act. It will also be necessary to define clearly the areas of responsibility of local government bodies, and to give them powers to work effectively in these areas.

In addition, given the number of administrative decisions made at Divisional Secretariat level, there should be consultation mechanisms at Grama Niladhari level, with mandatory feedback at the decision making level. This is the Divisional Secretariat, and I am glad that Mr Sirisena’s manifesto declares the centrality of this level, and the need to ensure coordination of services. With regard to this I have been working together with several Ministry Secretaries on a UNDP Project to improve delivery of services, and I hope the next government studies the excellent report produced by Asoka Gunawardena and implements its recommendations. Certainly we must get rid of the ridiculous system introduced by Basil Rajapaksa, of handing over development funds to Members of Parliament to spend virtually at will, with no coordination and little reference to the plans of the Line Ministries.

Line Ministries should be strengthened, and this requires reducing the size of the Cabinet in accordance with clear rationales, as pledged in the opposition manifesto. We cannot have many ministries dealing with similar subjects, and we cannot have ministers doing what they want – and in particular accepting unsolicited bids for projects, which has become a feature of the way the present government runs things – without adherence to well developed plans. It is imperative that a Ministry of Policy and Plan Implementation be set up, and given teeth on the lines of the suggestions the Secretary to that Ministry and I forwarded to Mr Lalith Weeratunge at the end of 2009.

I have stressed governance issues, because these seem to me the most important in terms of safeguarding democracy and promoting equitable development. For this purpose it is also essential to pass the proposed Freedom of Information Act, and to give it teeth through ensuring public accountability at all levels of government. In addition I hope we will also introduce the Bill of Rights which was promised in the 2005 Mahinda Chintanaya, and which the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights had got drafted by the end of 2009, but which has since been ignored. Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.26476270During my visits in the last couple of years to all the Divisional Secretariats in the North and East, I realized that little had been done to implement the proposal in President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s manifestos regarding more consultation of the people. Regular meetings did not take part at village level, and the supposed Divisional Development Committees met sporadically. Their conclusions were not recorded systematically, and there was no provision for follow up. Indeed in one area it was reported that the Member of Parliament, who chaired the meetings, ignored decisions and did what he wanted, and this was confirmed by the Government Agent. Elsewhere the Committees had not met for months.

I wrote to some of my colleagues and suggested they should take their responsibilities more seriously. I also suggested to the President, in my end of year report as Adviser on Reconciliation, how systems could be developed. But there was no response, except once when he told me, when I spoke to him about the need for better consultation, to talk to Basil. I told him I could not, since Basil never listened, as I had learnt from previous experience, so the President told me to write to Lalith, which I did, for the umpteenth time. Nothing happened, and instead I discovered this year that the chairmanship of the DDCs was being used to give MPs massive sums of money, over Rs 600 million in some cases, to spend on what they saw as development.

I brought the matter up at the Consultative Committee on Public Administration Reforms, and got details of the wheezes Basil had dreamt up to give funds to members involved in elections. It transpired that no one had known about this officially before I asked, and the opposition as well as more responsible members of government welcomed the relative clarity we established, but it was pretty clear the whole process was absurd.

Not least to prevent such abuse, we must set in place mechanisms to ensure that the voice of the people is heard before money is spent on their behalf. Fortunately there did exist a consultative mechanism in the form of the Civil Defence Committees, which I found well organized in the East. Unfortunately these had no official status, but we were able, after discussion with the Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration, to improve the structures, primarily by his asking the Grama Niladharis to chair the meetings. This established a link with the formal administrative process, and in some places where there were able officials – such as the Nittambuwa OIC, who explained how he had taken things forward when spent some time in his office – files were systematically maintained. Still, the process requires fine tuning, and in particular provision for follow up, so the following administrative reforms are suggested –

  1. Consultation mechanisms should formally be set up at Grama Niladhari level, in line with the current Civil Defence Committees which are now chaired by the Grama Niladhari. There should be two committees, one for Development, which should discuss projects and allocations, and the other for Social Action and Service Delivery.
  1. The minutes of these 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
  1. At Divisional Secretariat level, on the pattern of the Women and Children’s Units that have been set up, there should be coordination mechanisms for groups of subjects (ie Education and Training, Agriculture and Irrigation and Forests and Wild Life, Health and Social Services). Officials should work as a team, and ensure attention to all GN Divisions. For this purpose individuals can be given responsibility for particular GN Divisions, with the coordinating committee at DS level looking into all issues and providing feedback.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

Colombo Post 4 December 2014 –  http://www.colombopost.net/columns/op-ed/item/285-a-reform-agenda-administrative-reform

Rajiva Wijesinha

June 2019
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