By Sam Samarasinghe and Chandrasiri Seneviratne
In the first three weeks of its tenure the Sirisena/Wickremasinghe administration has generally adhered to the principles of good governance in their effort to implement the One-Hundred Day Programme.
President Sirisena’s interview on Rupavahini TV last weekend further buttressed his good governance credentials.
Both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minster Ranil Wickremasinghe have, on more than one occasion, urged the public to constructively criticize their action.
This article is written in that spirit. It deals with two issues.
The first is the allocation of ministerial functions and appointment of ministry secretaries.
The second concerns provincial governors and provincial councils.
Government Gazette (Extraordinary) number 1897/15 dated Sunday January 18th, 2015 carries the names of 31 ministries and the respective “Duties & Functions, Departments, Statutory Institutions, and Public Corporations” allocated to each of them and a list of “Laws (major statutes) to be implemented.” In short, it is the structure of government that Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have chosen to set up to govern the country.
The One-Hundred Day Programme Promised to limit the number of ministries to twenty-five in comparison to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s sixty. But, the new government has 31 ministries. In practice Sirisena has kept for himself two Ministries, Defence and Mahaweli Development and Environment.
The Buddhasasana Ministry has been combined with Public Administration, Provincial Councils, Local Government and Democratic Governance. This reduces the number of cabinet ministers to twenty-eight, just 3 (12%) more than the promised upper limit.
Lack of Integration
The ideal cabinet must not only have a reasonable number of ministries but also a well-integrated set of subjects under each ministry to ensure efficiency of governance. There are a few ministries, the Ministry Power and Energy and the Ministry Ports, Aviation and Shipping are two examples, which are well structured with integrated functions. But it is not so for most other ministries.
A plausible excuse for this failure could be the very short time that was available to form the government after the election, and the fact that the “winners” were a broad coalition of parties in an existing parliament and not a single party or a coalition fresh off a parliamentary election. However, poltical expediency, lack of attention to detail, and disregard for efficiency in governance appear to have played a role in the poor structuring of the ministries.
One example of poltical expediency is the “legacy” ministry that has been created for Sajith Premadasa who got Housing and Samurdhi. The late President R. Premadasa made an indelible mark on Sri Lankan social policy with his housing policy and Jana Saviya Programme that later was renamed Samurdhi. The latter is an income supplement program that should have been in the Social Services and Welfare Ministry. Samurdhi is also a good programme to have from a poltical perspective because whoever the minister may be, he or she gets some kudos from the Samurdhi beneficiaries for distributing taxpayer money.
The Ministry of Policy Planning, Economic Affairs, Child, Youth and Cultural Affairs functions under Prime Minster Wickremesinghe with no less than three ministers of state, Nandimithra Ekanayake for Culture and the Arts, Bernadine Rosie Senanayake for Children’s Affairs and Niroshan Perera for Youth Affairs. Harsha de Silva serves as the Deputy Minister of Policy Development and Economic Affairs.
This ministry has, among other things, economically weighty institutions such as the Central Bank, Department of External Resources, Department of National Planning and the Securities and Exchange Commission. This ministry is also responsible for the vital subject of “Constitutional Affairs” although the title of the ministry does not mention it. Why Child, Youth and Cultural Affairs have to be coupled with constitution making, Policy Planning and Economic Affairs is hard to explain. This is all the more perplexing because a few ministers that have relatively light duties could have been given some of these portfolios.
Other examples of mismatch include Sri Lanka Telecom in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Fisheries in the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Ministry of Highways, Higher Education and Investment Promotion are three subjects that are disconnected from each other and should have been placed elsewhere. Highways with Internal Transport, Higher Education with Education and Investment Promotion with Economic Affairs would have been more rational.
There is one other very obvious problem in the ministerial structure that needs to be fixed although it cannot be done immediately. That is the removal of the large number of almost totally redundant and loss-making companies, corporations and other institutions that are largely a legacy of socialism from the 1960s and 1970s, and some other state entities that have overlapping functions. Today many of these serve no useful public purpose other than to give ministers an opportunity to provide jobs to their poltical henchmen at public expense.
Reliable sources that do not wish to be identified say that the appointment of Secretaries to the different ministries leaves much to be desired. One problem is that the previous administration had 60 Ministries in 2014 with an equal number of secretaries. The new government cut the number down to 36 (this includes ten State Ministry secretaries) resulting in about 24 layoffs. Those who are familiar with the higher echelons of the bureaucracy believe that some of the better candidates were left out for various reasons when the new appointments were made. As an example they cite the fact that three husband-wife couples are now serving as secretaries although not all six may be equally qualified and that better individuals were available for some of these slots.
President Sirisena as the appointing authority and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe as head of government have to take responsibility for both the allocation of functions to ministries and the selection of secretaries. Sources say that the Prime Minister acted mainly on the advice of four men, three retired SLAS officers who mostly lived abroad in the past several years and came back to Sri Lanka just in time to enjoy the perks of power and one other who held senior positions under Wickremesinghe in the past. No matter who advised, the end result does not serve the goal of efficiency and good governance well.
The second, area where the government could have done much better is in the appointment of provincial governors. The 13th Amendment does not lay down any qualifications for this position. The appointment is at the discretion of the president. Since assuming office Mr. Sirisena has publicly said on more than one occasion that he has been elected by the people as the “Chief Public Servant” to establish good governance. He has to appoint individuals who are suitably qualified to make good governance a reality. There is sufficient reason to believe that he has failed to meet his own standards in respect of some of the nine appointments, may be as many as six, he made to the position of governor. Perhaps, he was under political pressure to do what he did. But the final outcome is a disservice to the country for several reasons.
First, Provincial Councils (PC) are the only politically viable and constitutionally sanctioned instrument of governance available to address the ethnic problem in the north and east. A serious attempt has to be made to make the PCs work. Weak governors will be a serious impediment to such a strategy.
Second, governors are not ceremonial ornaments. Neither should the office of governor be misused to reward retired politicians and poltical henchmen. Under Sections 154C and 154F of the 13th Amendment, governors can perform some very useful functions to make PCs work to serve the people. In particular governors have the power to help conduct the administration of the province in a fair and efficient manner free of corruption. But the majority of the appointees appear to be not very unqualified to perform such a demanding task.
Third, the new government has a valuable opportunity to develop a viable provincial council model that will devolve power acceptable to a broad cross-section of the electorate from all communities. In particular, the issue of land powers and police powers under the 13th Amendment must be addressed. With a competent set of governors the new government could have made an attempt to do that.
Finally, in the mini-budget that Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayaka presented last week the allocation for “Other Goods and Services including Provincial Councils” for 2015 was cut by Rs 4.0 b from Rs. 163 b. in the Mahinda Rajapaksa budget to Rs 159b.
Treasury data show that Rajapaksa’s 2015 budget allocated Rs 190 b as transfers to PCs for recurrent expenditure and an additional Rs. 17 b as transfers for capital expenditure.
Devolution of power is important for both development and for resolving the ethnic issue. We hope that the expenditure cut in the Karunanayake mini-budget is not at the expense of PCs.
Both the appointment of some of the governors and the possible cut in the PC budget hint that the Sirisena/ Wickremesinghe administration may not be too concerned about devolution of power and the future of PCs. We hope that it is not the case. Efficient devolved government is essential for a stable and prosperous Sri Lanka.