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FeaturesNewsSri Lanka has perhaps the most dysfunctional structure of government – Rajiva Wijesinha

Sri Lanka has perhaps the most dysfunctional structure of government – Rajiva Wijesinha


The Structure of Government, Cooperation of Government Machinery and the Role of NGOs – 1 by Rajiva Wijesinha

I plan in the three hours of this workshop to cover a lot of ground, which I hope will lead to much discussion, and to some understanding of the principles of government, and actual practice in Sri Lanka. This will require being direct, but the criticisms I make will I hope provoke thought, and encourage efforts at reforms that are essential.

Of all countries that have a long democratic tradition, Sri Lanka has perhaps the most dysfunctional structure of government.

If you look at constitutional dispensations elsewhere, there are essentially two. The first, springing from Britain, and known as the Westminster model, combines the Executive and the Legislature. All Ministers come from Parliament, and report to it directly.

The second is based on the doctrine of Separation of Powers, and was first put into practice in the United States of America. The Executive is entirely separate there from the Legislature. A directly appointed President selects a Cabinet to run the various Departments of Government. Parliamentarians, in addition to passing laws, also however play a role with regard to the executive, in that they are in charge of the budget that finances the work of the Executive. They are also meant to monitor its work through the financial controls they exercise, and to contribute to policy through Committees.
Our Constitution is a hybrid of these two systems. Though it is claimed that it is similar to the French, where there is a Prime Minister in addition to a President, the differences are immense. Though the President in France must appoint a Prime Minister in terms of command of a majority in Parliament, he can appoint anyone from outside Parliament to this post, and to any executive office. Anyone who comes from Parliament, including the Prime Minister, must give up his Parliamentary position before becoming part of the Executive.
Thus the Executive concentrates on getting things done, without the demands of legislation or constituency requirements. And it has no role to play in oversight. Correspondingly, at Parliament can exercise its oversight function without being dominated by the Executive branch. In Sri Lanka all aspects of Parliament are controlled by Ministers. They chair all Committees, whereas even in Britain, though members of the Cabinet are obviously more equal than others, Committees are left to backbenchers.
Given the influence of Ministers and the lack of influence of non-Ministers, everyone in Sri Lanka wants to be a Minister and it is difficult for a President, dependent as he is on a Parliamentary majority in a country with several examples of crossovers, to resist requests. In the United States the number in the Cabinet is fixed in the Constitution, which makes sense for an Executive President who can thus allocate responsibilities systematically. But in Sri Lanka we have a proliferation of Ministries, which sometimes requires areas of responsibility that should go together to be divided up. To give you some examples of the wanton multiplication that takes place, we have
Ministries of Plantation Industries and of Minor Export Crop Promotion and of Coconut Development & Janata Estate Development,  Ministries of Culture and the Arts and of National Heritage,  Ministries of Local Government and Provincial Councils, of Public Administration and Home Affairs, or Productivity Promotion and of Public Management Reforms.
Despite the many issues on which such Ministries should work together, there is no formal system of coordination. It was in recognition of this, I thought, that the President, two years ago, established a system of Senior Ministers, with responsibilities to coordinate. But there seems to have been little logic when the Senior Ministries were demarcated, and overlap almost seems to have been institutionalized, with for instance four Ministers supposed to coordinate work in Education (which has been allocated amongst others to the Minister for Urban Affairs, but not to the Minister for Rural Affairs). I can see then why, though the Consultative Committee of the Ministry for Public Management Reforms proposed to work out subjects that should be addressed by each Ministry, this was not taken further.
Though all ten Senior Ministers have been active in various ways, only one of them seems to have developed a National Policy and to have worked on an Action Plan. Unfortunately, this function does not seem to have been included in all job descriptions, and perhaps it would have been impossible, given the overlap, with for instance one Minister responsible for Consumer Welfare and another for Food Security. And there is no one with responsibility for coordination with regard to legal matters or administration, where Justice and Prison Reforms need to work together, as well as Public Administration and Local Government.
But the setting up of Senior Ministries seems to have been yet another ad hoc measure, designed more to ease the process of retirement than contribute to administrative efficiency. There was no planning, or decisions based on principle, which is perhaps why Sri Lanka has achieved yet another first, in having a Senior Minister who is also a Junior Minister, when it was recognized that Sarath Amunugama, far from being ripe for retirement, was essential for financial management and explication.
The process that was initiated when Senior Ministers were appointed should have been based on a clear identification of sectors, on a practical basis. For this purpose we could have taken a leaf out of the Indian book, in terms of the way in which they have structured their Departmentally Related Standing Committees in Parliament. Whereas we have one Consultative Committee for each Ministry making over 50 altogether, the Indians cluster theirs, so that matters requiring coordination are discussed together. So Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution come together, as do Science and Technology, Environment and Forests. Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice are together as are Social Justice and Empowerment, and Transport, Tourism and Culture.
India, like most other countries whether they follow the Westminster Model or the Presidential one, does not have Ministers chairing Committees, and indeed I do not think they are members of these either. In Sri Lanka however such a situation would be unthinkable, for most MPs think Committees are where their individual problems must be solved. Thus much time is spent on particular appointments, while there is hardly any discussion on general issues and policy.
Some of my colleagues seem to understand this lacuna, for when I was being criticized last week for not having voted for the impeachment resolution, on the grounds that this was the duty of a National List MP, one of them noted that I made great contributions in Committees. But I can also understand why MPs who have to keep vast numbers of constituents happy under our preposterous election system, have neither time nor inclination to think of principles.
In a more functional system, there would be time set aside for MPs to meet Ministers or their Secretaries in their offices to sort out individual problems. The Consultative Committee would decide on policy, and suggest legislative and other reforms, based on common problems that need to be resolved. Ministers would not be members of the Committee, but they or their officials would attend for clarifications that are required. They would also attend to introduce legislation they propose or policy changes they wish to implement, and only go ahead with these after thorough discussion.
But let me now encourage some input from you, through analysis of the present situation. I will give you a list of the Ministries we have, and I want you to decide which can be combined. I will also give you a list of the Senior Ministries we have, and I want you to decide whether these make sense, or whether there should be different ones, and if so which Ministries should be coordinated by each of them.

  1. Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs
  2. Irrigation and Water Resources Management
  3. Health
  4. Petroleum Industries
  5. Livestock and Rural Community Development
  6. Water Supply and Drainage
  7. Traditional Industries and Small Enterprise Development
  8. Local Government and Provincial Councils
  9. Industry and Commerce
  10. Power and Energy
  11. Construction, Engineering Services, Housing and Common Amenities
  12. Justice
  13. Economic Development
  14. National Languages and Social Integration
  15. Higher Education
  16. External Affairs
  17. Public Administration and Home Affairs
  18. Parliamentary Affairs
  19. Postal Services
  20. Technology and Research
  21. Environment
  22. Child Development and Women’s Affairs
  23. Labour and Labour Relations
  24. Education
  25. Plantation Industries
  26. Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development
  27. Lands and Land Development
  28. Social Services
  29. Private Transport Services
  30. Agriculture
  31. Mass Media and Information
  32. Transport
  33. Youth Affairs and Skills Development
  34. Co-operatives and Internal Trade
  35. Rehabilitation and Prison Reforms
  36. Indigenous Medicine
  37. Minor Export Crop Promotion
  38. Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare
  39. Coconut Development & Janata Estate Development
  40. Culture and the Arts
  41. Disaster Management
  42. Resettlement
  43. Public Relations and Public Affairs
  44. Sports
  45. State Resources & Enterprise Development
  46. Telecommunication and Information Technology
  47. National Heritage
  48. Productivity Promotion
  49. Public Management Reforms
  50. Civil Aviation

Senior Ministries

  1. Good Governance and Infrastructure
  2. Human Resources
  3. Rural Affairs
  4. Food Security
  5. Urban Affairs
  6. Consumer Welfare
  7. National Resources
  8. Scientific Affairs
  9. International Monetary Co-operation
  10. Social Welfare                                                                                                                                                       (Text of lecture at a workshop at the Kotelawala Defence University – 20 January 2013) RW 
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