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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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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 »

I have been deeply upset in recent months, at meetings of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings in the North, at the continuing failure to address the problem of teacher shortages in key subjects. While there is heartening appreciation of the rebuilding of schools, at much better levels than ever before, I am constantly told that there are insufficient teachers for English and Maths and Science. Of course I know this is a problem elsewhere in the country too, but that is no excuse. Given that it is those in rural communities who suffer most, I can only hope that those concerned with basic rights will at some stage institute legal action to ensure equity in education, and force government to look at alternative systems of teacher training and teacher supply, instead of sticking with the statist centralized model that has so signally failed for so long.

Significantly, I am rarely told about shortages of teachers for computing, but this does not mean that they are available. This was brought home to me graphically when I was discussing plans for use of some of my decentralized budget for education in Rideegama in Kurunagala. While I have over the last few years used part of the budget in the North, for entrepreneurship training for former combatants and this year for Vocational Training in Mullaitivu, and the rest in Ratnapura, where we concentrated on school education and English, I thought I should also do more further afield, given that the Liberal Party has a couple of Pradeshiya Sabha members in Rideegama.

I had wanted to do English classes, and these will now be conducted in three GN divisions, through the Sabaragamuwa English Language Teaching Department, which had done the teacher training in Sabaragamuwa. But to my surprise I was also asked for computer training, in particular for Ordinary Level students, since there are hardly any computer teachers in the schools in the area.

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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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The way in which government can be careless when there are no clear systems in place became clear to me last week, at a Reconciliation meeting at the Weli Oya Divisional Secretariat. This Division was allocated a year or two back to the Mullaitivu District. I gathered that some parts of it had been in that District previously, but had been transferred to the Anuradhapura District when Tiger attacks had left the Sinhala population there feeling defenceless.

I am glad therefore that the transfer was made, because the idea of provinces belonging to different communities is preposterous. It should be confined to racists such as the Tigers, as when they drove Muslim populations from the North. But in making the transfer government should also have thought of the services that should go along with such units.

Education for instance still seems to be run from the Kebetigollewa Zone. At a meeting next day with Northern Province Education Ministry officials, I was told that Weli Oya had in fact been transferred to a Zone in Mullaitivu, but the people of Weli Oya were not aware of this. They had sought question papers for term tests from Kebetigollewa, and been promised these, and then the offer had been withdrawn.

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Last week saw yet another example of the slow erosion of systems that makes justice so alien a concept for our people. In Parliament we received yet another Bill cointaining amendments to a previous Bill.  It will be taken up only later, so I was not surprised that the original Bill was not available, since anyone interested could look it up in the interim in the Parliament Library. But once again I found that the notes at the side of the document, which are supposed to sum up the content of each clause, simply noted that the clauses were amendments to previous clauses.

The summing up, I should note, had been included at the beginning of the Bill. This does not happen always, so one should be thankful that this time at least anyone looking at the Bill could find out at a glance what was happening where. But I fail to understand why a custom designed for convenience, to allow anyone looking at the Bill to see immediately the impact of each clause, is now ignored. The only place where it still prevails is in the last two clauses of the Bill, where a note on the side tells us exactly what is in the Bill itself. One notable piece of information thus highlighted is that, where versions of the Bill in different languages are different, the Sinhala text shall prevail.

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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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The unity of this country will be immeasurably enhanced by giving the regions a greater say in decisions made at the Centre – for even the proponents of maximum devolution grant that certain decisions, in particular those relating to national security issues, must be made at the Centre. That is why the Liberal Party has long advocated a Second Chamber, and that doubtless is why the President made that a feature of his manifesto.

Unfortunately implementation of the President’s manifesto has been left to politicians who exercise power by virtue to the current Constitution. This perhaps is the reason they have not moved on the President’s more imaginative proposals. The position of the Executive Head of the country will not be affected by the reforms this country so urgently needs, but Parliamentarians might think a Second Chamber would take away from their authority – though in fact, as the assessment of the role of Parliamentarians by a former Secretary General makes clear, they have no authority at all any more as Parliamentarians.

Given this lack of a role as far as legislation is concerned, it is not surprising that they spend an excessive amount of time and energy on constituency issues. This is well and good, but unfortunately, unless the MP is sensitive, this can take away from the role of local government. That in turn may explain why there has been no attempt to move also on another idea the President has advanced, which is to revive local government, in particular through the idea of Gramya Raj, village empowerment.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

October 2017
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