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… and coordinate responsibilities to cover all areas, in terms of subjects and locations

Dear Mr Jayasuriya

Further to my last letter regarding guidelines you should consider laying down to promote Good Governance, I would like to suggest some practical measures to improve service to the people. As you took office I wrote to you about the work we had been doing to improve service delivery to the regions, and hoped you could have a roundtable on the excellent report prepared by Mr Asoka Gunawardena following an initiative of the Ministry of Public Administration with the support of UNDP.

I was disappointed to hear from you that you had discovered that District and Divisional Secretariats had been combined with the Ministry of Fisheries, but I believe you can still lay down guidelines for Good Governance, to be followed by public administrators working for that Ministry, in addition to others. In the long term, you must work towards greater coherence in the allocation of departments to Ministries, which was a pledge in the Presidential manifesto.

In fact I was told that Mr Shiral Lakthilaka, Coordinating Secretary to the President, had replied when questioned about this at a recent seminar, that they had initially had a more sensible arrangement, but this had been changed. You should find out who did this and why, since such interference with a pledge of His Excellency is a sad reflection on the coalition that worked so hard to promote Good Governance.

Meanwhile I hope you can work on sending the suggestions in the attached schedule in the form of a circular to public officials who need to respond to the needs of people. With regard to grass roots consultation the recording officer could perhaps be the Samurdhi officer allocated to every GN Division, so I will copy this letter to the Hon Sajith Premadasa, who I know is also very concerned about an efficient and effective public service.

I should note that the 3rd suggestion took off from the Women and Children’s Units set up under the last government. Since the functions have been divided up, I have no idea whether those units are functioning. There should be no problem because they were coordinating mechanism, but given the difficulties of adapting when responsibilities are not clear, perhaps you will need to look into the situation and ensure that work continues. In the long term, again you need more scientific distribution of departments. I would suggest going back to one Ministry of Social Services, with departments for Women, Children, etc. There could be Deputy Ministers for these subjects, with specific responsibilities, though these should not be under the Prime Minister.

I can if you wish send you the text of the formal acknowledgments I have prepared for anyone who writes to a Ministry, together with the text of the letter I use to forward any query to the relevant official. I mention there that I expect the response to be sent in a week, and I tell the original correspondent to contact me if they have not got a reply within two weeks.

The point is that public servants must serve the people. This does not mean acceding to all requests, since decisions must be made in terms of the regulations as they exist (though interpreted with sympathy). But government cannot keep people waiting in suspense and anguish, and must ensure that responses are swift and clear and reasons for the decision are given.


Yours sincerely

Rajiva Wijesinha

CC. Hon Sajith Premadasa


  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, such as Social Services and Women and Children, Education and Training, Agriculture and Irrigation, Forests and Wild Life, Health and Nutrition. Officials should work as a team, and ensure attention to all GN Divisions. Individuals can be given responsibility for particular GN Divisions, with the coordinating committee at DS level looking into all issues and providing feedback.
  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.

Island 27 Feb  2015 –

Prince 3For good measure the provision about restricting the unlimited power of appointment by the President was repeated with regard to the Judiciary, with capitalization –

Appointments and Removals:

The Chief Justice, the President of the Court of Appeal and every other Judge, of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal shall be appointed by the President SUBJECT TO APPROVAL BY THE SENATE

One of the most worrying incidents that took place during President Rajapaksa’s second Presidency had been the impeachment of the Chief Justice. She had not been the best choice for the position and the Opposition had raised questions about the appointment and her conduct, after the appointment was made. But the impeachment was badly handled, and in terms of bizarre provisions in the relevant instruments, the Constitution and the Standing Orders of Parliament. The former simply specified that impeachment should be by procedures laid down by Standing Orders, and the relevant Standing Orders had been hastily formulated when President Jayewardene wanted to put pressure on the Chief Justice he had appointed, one of his private lawyers, who had nevertheless begun to speak out against government excesses.

The leader of the Opposition was to grant that only half the required Standing Order had been set up, and since that had worked and the then Chief Justice had been subdued, the other half had been forgotten. So the provision remained that Parliament appointed a Select Committee to investigate, which involved it acting as both prosecution and judge. In the intervening thirty years it had often been pointed out that these provisions were unjust, and commitments had been made that they should be changed, but nothing had been done about this.

The Select Committee appointed by Parliament made matters worse by behaving in boorish fashion and giving the Chief Justice no time to formulate a defence. It also gave her no notice of witnesses it proposed to call, and summoned them after she had withdrawn, as had done also the opposition members of the Committee. Rulings by the Courts that the proceedings should be stayed were ignored, and the motion was duly carried, with only a very few members on the government side refusing to vote for the motion.

Though government also realized how unfair the system was, and some members pledged to change it, even while arguing that what had been done was perfectly constitutional and so could not have been avoided, all this was forgotten after the Chief Justice was removed, and Mohan Pieris installed in her place. The Speaker showed his contempt for, or perhaps just his ignorance of, Standing Orders in failing to put my proposals to amend them to Parliament. The Standing Orders themselves mandated that any such proposal to amend should be put to the House and, after being seconded, be referred to the Committee on Standing Orders, but instead the Speaker said he would refer them direct to the Committee. Since he had avoided making clear the mandate Parliament would have bestowed, he failed to summon the Committee, and got away with this for over a year. Before that, despite repeated requests, though sadly only from me, he had not summoned the Committee for three years.

I regret that I was the only Member of that Committee to make repeated requests that the Committee be reconvened. Unfortunately the Opposition Chief Whip who was on the Committee had no understanding of the importance of Standing Orders, while the TNA Representative, Mr Sumanthiran, who had worked assiduously with me to redraft about a quarter of the whole in the first three months of the new Parliament, kept quiet when meetings were suddenly stopped, perhaps because we had been too efficient. Obviously it made sense for the TNA not to bother too much to increase the effectiveness of Parliament, since that might have detracted from their main contention, that Parliament was incapable of serving the interests of the Tamil people. Read the rest of this entry »

When the President put me on the delegation to negotiate with the TNA, in April 2011, I found that no response had been made to suggestions they had made a couple of months previously. I thought this was absurd, and urged a response. These are the notes I made.

Unfortunately there were no meetings of our delegation to review such matters. We could not take things further, even though I did manage, by insisting by dates for the next meeting being fixed whenever we met, to have regular meetings, whereas previously these were few and far between, and there was no continuity. It was perhaps because there was some progress that Sajin Vas Gunawardena stopped telling me about meetings. Read the rest of this entry »

This false optimism, which is based on the assumption, which is quite contrary to the indications he has given, that the President wants to do none of the things he promised, has extended now to assuring him that all will be well after the Indian election, and we ourselves do not have to do anything to improve our situation. I am reminded then of J R Jayewardene twisting and turning in the years between 1983 and 1987 as he avoided action, and was forced gradually to concede, but always doing too little too late. So I wrote once that he assured us that there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, during his discussions with India in 1986, but in the end the rabbit he pulled out of his hat was General Zia ul Haq. The idea that the Ministry of External Affairs has tried to convince the President that Mr Modi will play Santa Claus is preposterous, but I fear that that is the type of advice and advisors the President has to put up with.

All this is based on the assumption that somehow we can avoid implementation of the 13th Amendment. Because the advisors believe that subterfuge will win the day, no attempt has been made to analyse the 13th Amendment, see if anything in it is potentially dangerous, and then develop mechanisms to avoid those dangers. Instead we are doing nothing about the vast areas in which the strengthening of local administration – and concomitant local accountability – would immeasurably benefit the people.

The President I think understands this, for he was very positive about the ideas I suggested be discussed at the negotiations government had with the TNA. But the history of those negotiations makes it clear why we are in such a mess. The President put me promptly on the delegation when I pointed out there had been no progress over the preceding three months, and in the next three months we saw much progress, in part because I insisted on meetings being fixed on a regular basis. The government also put forward suggestions of its own, that I had proposed, whereas previously it had simply listened to what the TNA put forward, and then failed to respond despite promises.

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At the debate on the FUTA demands arranged a couple of weeks back by Eran Wickramaratne, perhaps the most telling complaint made by the FUTA head was about children in a distant village clustering in droves before dawn to get the bus to a school far away. That anecdote seemed to have nothing to do with the FUTA strike, though it should have been if the demand for 6% of GDP being spent on education was about results, rather than simply sloganeering. The failure to respond at all coherently to Eran’s simple question, what should be done with the 6%, made it clear that policy changes which would lead to a better education system for all was not part of the agenda.

This was sad, because I am sure that some at least of those leading the strike are idealists, not concerned with the massive pay hikes that are being demanded on top of already large salaries. But the failure to analyse the root causes in the decline of our education system that they have highlighted, and to suggest radical reforms that ensure greater accountability, simply plays into the hands of those in the government sector who are satisfied with the status quo. I assume therefore that the strike will soon be settled, with yet another salary hike on top of all those the current government has granted so readily over the last few years, with no effort to deal with the problems of children forced to travel endlessly, to distant schools and to tuition classes, to make up for the failure of government to provide decent schools even in small towns, let alone in villages.

One of the reasons for this failure is the absence of coordination between the providers of the various services essential to a society committed to equal opportunities. Sadly it has not yet registered with our decision makers that good transport facilities are an essential component of a just society. It is useless providing schools and hospitals unless access to them is easy.

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As I shall be away for a few weeks, I thought it best to bring this series to a close. I have tried here to discuss the need

a. for Parliament to be strengthened, through better use of Committees so that its legislative and oversight functions are treated seriously

b. of streamlining the Executive and making it more effective

c . to strengthen local administration

d. for much greater coordination between government bodies and also elected and unelected officials

e. to provide clear job descriptions and institute and enforce reporting mechanisms

f. of much better training programmes with assessments that privilege efficiency, effectiveness and initiative

I have noted some areas in which best practice is available, as with the Community Policing programmes in the East, or the regular discussions between Divisional Secretaries and Pradeshiya Sabha leaders in some areas in the North, or even the recording in Batticaloa of unused government buildings, in a context in which the thrust is to use more and more cement as yet another intelligent and able Government Agent put it.

I have also noted some areas in which reform is long overdue. A common theme of my suggestions is streamlining and targeting, as with the proposals for electoral reform that restore the link (and hence responsibility for and accountability to) between elected representative and the people; or the recommendation that the Cabinet be reduced in number with Ministers chosen for administrative capacity and planning skills rather than electoral success.

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Parliament excelled itself last week when it cancelled three Consultative Committees (of those I had planned to attend – there were others too that were cancelled). The third of these, which I think a vital Ministry though not many others share my views, that of National Languages and Social Integration, was cancelled on the morning of the scheduled day, apparently because the Minister had to go to a funeral outside Colombo.

This did not seem to me proper because, much as Ministers feel obliged to attend funerals, they really should not subject other Members of Parliament to their own convenience. Either they should attend the event at another time, or else they should instruct their Deputies or their Secretaries to go ahead with the meeting. This seems the more urgent, because in any case Committees meet rarely, the plethora of Ministers we have (raised to 69 last week when the Police were entrusted to a newly created Ministry of Law and Order) making it impossible to respect the Standing Order enjoining meetings once a month.

If my proposed Amendments to Standing Orders are accepted and implemented, this problem will be solved, but I gather that, the Speaker being away, the motion was not taken up at the Parliamentary Business Committee. Since Parliament is going to meet on only two days in September, it looks like I will now have to wait a month and more, though I have pleaded with both the Speaker and the Leader of the House to take the matter up in early September. Since statutorily the matter is not debated but simply referred to the Committee on Standing Orders, this will take up hardly any time, so I hope Party Leaders will agree to this.

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Earlier this month the Liberal Party sent some suggestions for reform to the Parliamentary Select Committee meant to recommend solutions to current national problems. They are based on a vital principle that should be followed in all discussions, namely that we should try to assuage the fears of others rather than seek to assert one’s own desires. Through sensitivity to the concerns of others, one can often also ensure sensitivity to one’s own concerns.

Our suggestions reaffirm the primary obligation of the State to fulfil the objectives detailed in Chapter VI of the current Constitution. Safeguarding the independence, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka are vital and all those wishing to broadbase the decision making process should recognize that these principles should be paramount. But equally those concerned with national integrity must also appreciate the importance of decentralizing the administration and affording all possible opportunities to the People to participate at every level in national life and in government. National unity should be strengthened by promoting co-operation and mutual confidence, while discrimination and prejudice should be eliminated.

To avoid concentration of power, the doctrine of Separation of Powers should be followed. The different layers of government should be sensitive to the needs of other layers and the People they represent, and this needs to be encouraged by structures that enhance accountability. Some suggestions below need to be entrenched in the Constitution. Others are more appropriately fulfilled through legislation, but the Constitution should direct that such legislation be put in place. I should reiterate here the importance of the first suggestion, since it is little recognized that we have the only Executive Presidential system in the world in which the Executive President is tied down to a Cabinet that is hamstrung by its Parliamentary responsibilities – which means electoral concerns in the main.

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I was quite flattered recently when I was told by a former public servant, for whom I had the greatest regard, that I was probably the first politician since S W R D Bandaranaike to be so interested in Local Government. I am not sure that this is quite correct, not only because I am not really a politician, but also because I think President Premadasa did a lot of work in this field. But nevertheless it set me thinking on why the subject has not had the attention it deserves.

This is sad because other countries have moved forward significantly in this sphere. Indeed some of the hot air now being blown about with regard to India and its role in our introduction of the 13th Amendment would I think be dissipated if we looked at what India has actually done, since that Amendment was introduced, to bring government closer to the people.

The 13th Amendment came about quite simply because centralized government had been too distant from the people. While this was obviously the case with regard to the needs of minority communities, which also suffered because of exclusivist language policies, we should also remember that rural majority communities also suffered because of a majoritarianism that did not take the concerns of the marginalized into account. Hence indeed the two Southern youth insurrections.

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After nearly 100 meetings at Divisional Secretariats, with the participation often of Pradeshiya Sabha representatives, I am more than ever convinced that the future of this country lies in strengthening local government institutions. However, if they are to do more, they also need to consult the local citizenry.

At present there are no formal structures to ensure such consultation. Some local bodies do have provision for Standing Committees, and I have been told that for Pradeshiya Sabhas there is provision for members of the public to participate, but this is not the case with Municipal or Urban Councils. The latter indeed do not seem to have provision for such Committees.

This is quite contrary to the premises on which the Mahinda Chintanaya is based, and I was happy to find that efforts to amend the Acts have progressed considerably in the last couple of years. Unfortunately the same old trend of simply amending earlier Acts has continued, instead of repealing previous legislation and replacing it with a clearly comprehensible new Act. This will mean that those elected to such bodies will find it difficult to understand what their powers are, and lawyers will have a wonderful time interpreting the Acts.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

February 2017
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