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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Change in Government Priorities, Project Review and Public Information – Friday Forum

Friday Forum welcomes the new opportunities for good governance that dawned with the Sirisena administration, established in early January this year. An essential feature of a democratic society is that government share with the governed all information relevant to government except that which must be kept secret for reasons of security. Certain information pertaining to urgent decisions to be taken by government and affecting the people on a wide front now needs to be given to the public with as little delay as possible.

This is urgent in view of the decision taken by government to cut down substantially expenditure on infra-structure development, and to increase expenditure on education and health. Two particular instances have emerged already. The Uma Oya project has been suspended and there is much anxious debate about the Colombo Port City Project. Friday Forum’s concerns cover the entire spectrum of projects that will be affected by the decision of government to cut down and to change priorities regarding government expenditure.

An essential feature of good governance is that expenditure is planned, undertaken, and reviewed on completion, to ensure that resources are used efficiently. The recent revision of expenditure plans by government demands that when major changes are made, they are made with as good knowledge as possible of the consequences. For instance an arbitrary decision to cut expenditure on a bridge two thirds built in preference to a bridge for which only land clearing has taken place would lead to unnecessary waste of capital, avoidable with better management. This aspect needs attention in respect of vast projects such as the Uma Oya scheme, the Colombo Port City, and large highway and railway projects that had been planned under the previous administration.

The public also needs to be informed about all mega-projects that have been recently completed, including those in and around Hambantota, the construction of expressways and railways, the Norochcholai power plant, and the Nelum Pokuna theatre and Nelum Tower in Colombo city. The people have been kept in the dark by the last administration about the costs and benefits, including any ill effects, of these projects.

Friday Forum considers it vital that the present government put before the public all information relevant to these projects, whether completed, on the way or planned.

There is expertise in our universities and other institutions that teach management which is adequate to undertake the work involved in monitoring and reviewing such projects. Besides, students who collaborate with their teachers in such exercises will find most rewarding work experience otherwise rarely available to them. High quality output will produce case studies useful not only here but all over the world.

The work of research and analysis, as suggested here, will also need to be established on a regular basis to assist the Parliamentary Oversight Committees proposed to be set up to assist Parliament to fulfil more satisfactorily its responsibilities in matters of finance, entrusted to it in Chapter 17 of the Constitution. Friday Forum emphasises the need for Parliament to set up facilities adequate to advise these Committees with background papers to conduct their business. Ad hoc and casual arrangements as now will nullify the value of these oversight committees

Substantial changes in government expenditure on education and health pose equally difficult questions. Normally expenditures in a budget are the result of sustained background work extending back several months or years in the responsible ministries and other institutions. Unforeseen large changes in expenditure, denied the benefit of such preparatory work, pose problems of planning and undertaking expenditure that could result on the one hand in large scale waste and on the other in failure to meet genuine and urgent needs.

Friday Forum regrets the practice of several previous administrations to withhold information which was previously made available in White Papers and more definitively in Sessional Papers. One glaring instance is the failure to issue the report of the last Taxation Commission chaired by Professor W.D.Lakshman. All previous such reports were issued as Sessional Papers that, apart from informing the public of government policy, were useful to students and scholars engaged in research in these disciplines. Communications of this nature with the public will make a distinct contribution to good governance.

Dr. G. Usvatte-aratchi

Ms. Suriya Wickremasinghe

Dr. G. Usvatte-aratchi, Ms. Suriya Wickremasinghe, Professor Arjuna Aluwihare, Mr. Priyantha Gamage, Dr. Selvy Thiruchandran, Dr A.C.Visvalingam, D. Wijayanandana, Mr. Danesh Casie-Chetty, Mr. Saliya Peiris, Professor Gananath Obeyesekere, Mr. Faiz-ur Rahman, Rev. Dr. Jayasiri Peiris, Dr.Upatissa Pethiyagoda, Mr. Pulasthi Hewamanna, Professor Camena Guneratne, Mr. Javid Yusuf, Ms, Damaris Wickremesekera, Professor Gameela Samarasinghe, Professor Savitri Goonesekere, Mr. Suresh de Mel, Dr. Deepika Udagama, Ms. Manouri Muttetuwegama, Rt. Reverend Duleep de Chickera, Professor Ranjini Obeyesekere , Mr. Chandra Jayaratne


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