Institutions of good governance The foundation of good governance for the development effort is provided by the accountability and institutional framework. Accountability will be facilitated further by the nine Commissions, which will be enhanced, if adopted, by the legal framework of the Right to Information Act (RTI). Operational efficiency, however, will depend on the effectiveness [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Holistic view needs to be considered for development path


Institutions of good governance
The foundation of good governance for the development effort is provided by the accountability and institutional framework. Accountability will be facilitated further by the nine Commissions, which will be enhanced, if adopted, by the legal framework of the Right to Information Act (RTI). Operational efficiency, however, will depend on the effectiveness of the institutions of governance. It is well known that the Cabinet size, structure and composition are vital factors that affect the leadership role of the government in the development effort. The new Cabinet has been sworn in. Whatever views one has about it is of little value at this stage as it is a fait accompli. What is important is to think how to make it perform effectively and efficiently. Much depends on the organisational frame work and productivity of the Public Service. In the ultimate analysis, the public service becomes the custodian of good governance. As such it could mitigate the damage of arbitrary politics.

File pic of a bystander watching a budget speech by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The new regime needs to trim spending and be more transparent in budget -making.

Planning Council
In view of the complicated decision making process associated with the ‘paradigm of development’ and the required coordinated approach, the Cabinet of Ministers must have the benefit of advice from a group of professionals drawn from state institutions, private sector and civil society organisations. Members of the National Planning Council should comprise inter- alia ex officio members, renowned academics, researchers and representatives of various chambers of commerce and industry, as well as professional associations. There should be regular meetings, at least, once a month, chaired by no other person than the Prime Minister, himself. The Council should be serviced by a Planning Secretariat, headed by a renowned economist. The first Planning Council under the late S.W.R.D Bandaranaike was serviced by a Secretariat headed by the late Dr Gamani Corea. The Secretariat was later converted into a Planning Department, which finally came under the Ministry of Planning, with Dr Corea as Secretary.

The functions of the new Planning Secretariat could be performed by the present National Planning Department, which should, however, be strengthened through a thorough programme of internal capacity building and co-option of competent staff from other organisations.

Provincial Councils and Local Government
Before we enter into an analysis of the role of the public service it is important to consider how to enhance the contribution of the regional bodies- the Provincial Councils and the local authorities – to good governance and development. The 13th Amendment defines the role and functions of the Provincial Councils, similarly certain functions have been devolved to the local authorities. A principal question is whether they should operate in total isolation from the development perspective, tasks and functions of the central government, represented regionally by the district and divisional secretaries, or in consonance, of course without harming their legal rights to decision- making and management.

If there is to be a partnership for development, it has to be based on a solid understanding of each other’s role and constant dialogue. The instrument for this approach is what is called a ‘centre-periphery contract’, which has been tried and tested in some Asian countries, providing lessons of experience, indicating both positive and negative outcomes. The contract must be based on the outcome of a consultative process with the people, engaging them not only in the decision-making process but also in the implementation. As a result, the people will learn not only about the needs and opportunities but also about the constraints that will have to be addressed through a time bound programme which will include a gradual resource mobilisation and allocation process, including demarcation of functional responsibilities. The mechanism for constant dialogue and consultation between the centre and the periphery needs to be established by an arrangement whereby the Cabinet of Ministers meet the Provincial Council members, at least quarterly, to address their minds to issues based on a solid agenda and position papers. Much will depend, however, on the managerial capacity of the public servants who serve both the central government and the provincial councils.

Law, Order and Defence
This segment was included for comprehensiveness, as no development could take place without both internal security and defence against external threats. While we have no qualifications to make any worthwhile suggestions regarding this sector, it is perhaps worthwhile noting the ever growing sophistication of crime. This was highlighted recently in the case of the financial crimes investigations for which our defence establishments, particularly the Police, were not equipped to handle. This appears to be an area of urgent capacity building, for which foreign expertise would have to be acquired, where necessary, with adequate allocation of funds from the government budget.

Foreign Service
The Foreign Service, it is well known, has also a development role to play by creating conducive political relations with Sri Lanka’s development partners. To do so, the Foreign Service has to recruit competent personnel and assign them responsibilities using professional yardsticks. Basically, it must have the competence to identify opportunities, challenges and threats posed by the behaviour of major global players to Sri Lanka’s interests. This could be done only through a process of continuous collection and analysis of information about the behaviour of these players. It involves a thorough understanding of the role of the US, the European Union, China, Russia, India, and Japan, in the international arena and the response of other countries. Ad hoc collection of data and compiling of hurried reports is of little value.

This is what was expected of the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute, which, however, is facing a resource constraint, more than a financial manpower deficit. Instead of trying to recruit and maintain a large number of experts under its wings, the Institute must adopt a system of sub-contracting assignments of continuous research to outside researchers, based on policy needs and guidelines. The Institute must, however, recruit and train a small co-staff that could liaise with the external researchers, do quality control and disseminate information, appropriately to both government and private sector agencies that could benefit from such research output.

Public Service
There is a common perception that the Sri Lanka public service is too large, unwieldy, politically controlled, inefficient and even offensive. Generalisations, we know are not always true, could be misleading and even dangerous. Some pockets of excellence have emerged in recent years within the public service which challenges the common perception. Today, you can get a passport in one day, provided you have all the documents in hand. The Registration of Persons Office, the Motor Traffic Department and a number of District and Divisional Secretariats operate equally well. Yet there are stories of long delays, cumbersome procedures, harassment by officials and even solicitation of bribes in a number of other places. The worst offenders seem to be those institutions, in particular, local authorities that have to be frequented by the poor and the lower middle class. The story which goes around is that in order to get anything done by government, ‘you need to know someone, who knows someone, often a politician, who can move the papers’. Worst still you need to grease the palm.

This is with regard to the service delivery and regulatory functions of the government. The Ministries of Public Administration and Public Service Reforms, as well as, various Ministries, Departments, and Authorities are quite aware of these problems and a series of attempts, unfortunately ad hoc, have been made and continue to be made to address the issues concerned. However, the role of the public service does not end with the service delivery and regulatory functions. Equally or far more important are the development functions, which indeed subsumes them.

Development role
This does not mean that the government should produce all the goods and services, like what was attempted and failed miserably in the old Soviet Union, China and Eastern Europe. Only Cuba and North Korea are still following that path at high economic and social cost. The development role of the public service is to basically facilitate, as well as regulate, the role of the private sector. The regulatory function is often misunderstood as one of control. It should be there to protect property rights and ensure a ‘level playing field’ for competition among business entities; that is, avoid corrosive monopoly practices. The strength of capitalism lies in competition. It is the mechanism which induces innovative practices that result in better quality and cheaper products and services from which society as a whole benefits.

The mechanism through which the development function is performed by a government is policy formulation and, in the context of a developing country such as ours, through a process of planning, implementation, evaluation and feedback. It should be obvious, however, that the regulatory and service delivery functions too have to come into play and perform a crucial supportive role. The public service must be well equipped to perform these functions if there is to be inclusive development. This is the reason why the National Planning Department (not the ministry in charge of public administration) took the initiative in establishing the well known Wanasinghe Committee of Administrative Reforms in 1986. The Committee, we must remind ourselves, presented a holistic picture of the issues involved with recommendations for their resolution through a well coordinated approach.

Yet, this is exactly what all governments failed to do. Even though several attempts were made to deal with issues identified by the Wanasinghe Committee by appointing various Task Forces, Councils, Committees, Secretariats etc, the ad hoc approaches created more problems than solving them. One fundamental problem was that the recommendations involved structural changes in the administrative system, some of which were quite disruptive of the status quo and promised only long term benefits. Governments which were geared to meeting short term objectives were not prepared to take measures that would yield benefits only in the long run.

When the Wanasinghe Committee advocated a comprehensive approach, it did not mean the simultaneous implementation of all the reform measures. It advocated that the reforms be set in motion within a system of priorities. This meant giving precedence to measures that would be catalytic in their effects, paving the way for the progressive introduction of complementary measures.

While the approach to reforms was to be conceptual and holistic, with a clear definition of concrete outcomes, both Wanasinghe recommendations and experience indicate a strong need for acceptance of reforms by all the stakeholders-the political decision makers, public servants, as well as the business community and the general public. This requires that while the social benefits are clear and appreciated, stakeholders also see benefits that could accrue to them individually. For instance, public servants must have the motivation to participate actively in the reforms process through opportunities for personal gain. This is usually engendered through a performance appraisal and reward system. These rewards need not necessarily be pecuniary; they could be in the form of recognition for career advancement.

An equally important third condition for success is the availability of an organisational structure that is conducive to introduction and implementation of reforms. This involves administrative leadership, effective delegation of functions, with clear cut definitions of responsibilities within time bound programs, allocation of necessary resources – (financial, human), as well as systems of information flow, where necessary, for progress monitoring and course correction. The most critical factor among all these is leadership.

Leadership qualities have to be displayed at all levels of the administrative hierarchy that is charged with the responsibilities of introducing reforms. Qualities of leadership emerge from knowledge, self-motivation and ability to motivate followers. Thus a primary function of the reforms process is to instill knowledge in those who have to provide the necessary leadership. It is a cardinal mistake to expect administrators to simply follow circulars issued by concerned government authorities when the need is to exercise knowledge and conceptual skills. Secretaries of Ministries, as well as heads of departments nurtured in the old system of governance cannot be expected to promote innovation without new knowledge and motivation. Thus the administrative reforms process must start at the top.

There must be a system through which Secretaries and Heads of Departments have the opportunity of upgrading knowledge in a dynamic global setting. In some countries like Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea, Secretaries and Heads of Departments are provided with facilities for participating in short-term training programmes of their choice. In Sri Lanka, we had a cost-effective system of upgrading and sharing knowledge in the 1980s through frequent (weekly) discussions at the Committee of Development Secretaries, chaired by the Secretary to the Cabinet. He was assisted in the task by the Department of National Planning through the preparation of knowledge generating agenda and discussion papers. This is a system that will have to be revived and utilised effectively if the government is to earnestly promote system-wide administrative reforms. It is also an imperative for effective coordination of policy, implementation, progress monitoring and course correction.

Role of Secretaries and Heads of departments
There is, however, a fundamental condition for Secretaries and Heads of Departments to exercise leadership qualities. They must have the time to think. If they are totally engrossed in routine operational detail, without proper delegation of functions they will not have the time to engage in innovative thinking. It is important to examine the functions of Secretaries and eliminate the need to deal with files which could be easily handled by other senior officers. This is a matter which needs the urgent attention of the Ministry of Public Administration.

One of the primary causes of the lack of time, an increasing phenomenon in recent years, is the proliferation of mostly unnecessary but invariably unplanned large meetings, which Secretaries could avoid without loss. They could also reduce the number of meetings with their own staff if they learn to use IT facilities, particularly the e mail and Skype. The Ministry of Public Administration should do a time-use study and set out guidelines for the conduct of meetings.

The success of the Committee of Development Secretaries was due mostly to the leadership provided by the Cabinet Secretary and the technical service provided by the Department of National Planning in preparing a meaningful agenda and follow up of decisions. In the current context, the leadership will have to come from either the Secretary to the President, Secretary Cabinet or the Secretary to the Treasury, assisted by a strong secretariat.

Knowledge sharing
A viable alternative to the Committee of Development Secretaries, particularly in view of the large number of Secretaries today, would be a system of quarterly retreats, at least half yearly retreats, which will bring together all Secretaries, including Chief Secretaries to deliberate under a well structured agenda. To enrich the discussion and to promote “out of the box” thinking, appropriate academics and professionals, including from the private sector, could be invited to participate. There should be no protocol, chief guests, keynote speakers or lighting of oil lamps. In short, the proceedings should be strictly workshop style. The best results could be obtained when position papers (learning modules) are distributed, well in advance, among the participants. This approach dispenses with the need for the traditional lecturer. The emphasis will be on interactive learning through group discussions and exercises, a method that has been proved very effective at the Postgraduate Institute of Management, in the case of learning programmes for top level executives.

Second tier leadership
The Wanasinghe Committee considered it imperative to develop leadership qualities of second tier officers who are in the queue for promotion as secretaries of ministries. The National Administrative Reforms Committee, chaired by the former Secretary to the President discussed and approved in principle a short term programme of training to upgrade leadership qualities of officers in class I and the special grade. Participants in the training programme were to be selected through a very elaborate process which would include psycho-metric tests. At the end of an intensive course, based on learning modules, group interaction sessions, role play and problem solving exercises, the best performers were to be provided with opportunity to obtain wider exposure to contemporary knowledge, through short visits to reputed international organisations such as the World Bank Institute, the Kennedy Center, Brooklyn Institute, Lee Kwan Yew Institute in Singapore as well as the Asian Institute of Management and the Asian Development Bank in Manila.

This paper makes a plea for (i) a holistic view of the development problems facing the country, (ii) formulation of a collective vision to march forward (iii) implementation of policies through a coordinated approach (iv) employment of the best techniques of national planning led by a National Planning Council (v) laying a solid foundation for development intervention based on the principles of good governance, and (vi) developing a highly competent public service.
Sri Lanka’s experience is that what has been missing is not wisdom but political will and discipline.

(Lloyd Fernando is a veteran administrator who served in several ministries in the 1980s and as a former Secretary to a Ministry. These are extracts of a paper presented last week at a roundtable discussion organised by Marga Institute.
The first part was published last week.
He could be reached at

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.