Political and civil society leaders campaigned for good governance in Sri Lanka and on January 8, the people agreed. We now have a new President. Then again the people spoke on August 17, and confirmed that the country needs to continue in its journey towards Yahapalanaya. We will soon have a new Parliament. But is this enough to achieve Yahapalanaya? Can the public rest now and await our new political leadership to deliver to us a better tomorrow?
Cabinet to set up advisory panels, comprising retired public and private sector leaders of high caliber as well as civil society leaders, to headhunt potential institutional heads and where necessary even to motivate or challenge prospective leaders to take up public positions
It has been the past pattern that once an election is over, Sri Lankans consider their civic duty to be over and simply wait (‘Ohe Innawa Syndrome’) for governments to deliver on their promises. When they fail, we criticize them and boot them out of office to herald in a new which we treat similarly. Of course that is the safeguard democracy provides. But a maturing democracy should build safeguards that would keep a government accountable to its people at all times – not just at election time.
We have seen how the restoration of the independency of the Elections Commissioner, the Judiciary and the Police led to the conduct of the most peaceful election in recent history. But can we be complacent? Can we expect that the entire State machinery will continue to be reformed and deliver what the public expect of them?
As the Constitution of Sri Lanka provides, the President and the MPs are elected by the people, ministers are appointed by the President in consultation with the Prime Minister. Here onwards the public have little control or even interest over other appointments to public offices. Secretaries to ministries, chairpersons and directors of corporations are appointed by the relevant ministers in some instances with approval from the Cabinet of ministers. In recent years, it has become necessary for the President’s office or the Prime Minister’s office to endorse such as well.
Statutory institutions are the means by which public services are delivered to the people. The Road Development Authority, the Ceylon Electricity Board, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation the University Grants Commission and Sri Lanka Transport Board are examples of several hundred State institutions in charge of key sectors of the economy. Each ministry has a handful of such institutions. They are empowered by their respective Acts of Parliament with the legal and institutional machinery for delivering public services and for developing their respective functional areas of society and the economy. A large proportion of the national Budget is spent through these institutions. In order to ensure that competent leadership is provided to these important institutions, the Acts of Parliament under which corporations are set up, have safeguarded the rights of the people of Sri Lanka by specifying general qualifications for the appointment of chairpersons and directors to these institutions. However in the past, there has been blatant disregard in this respect with ministers giving preference to (a) family or (b) political colleagues who were unsuccessful at elections or (c) business or personal friends. Such offices have sadly been mostly used as rewards for political patronage or to be used as an extension of a minister’s power base to provide jobs or contracts.
We saw in the past how these institutions in the hands of those selected on the sole criterion of ‘political trustworthiness’ only looked after the interest of their appointing masters. In many cases, the institutions suffered irreparable loss in the willful dismantling of systems and processes that had been operating for years just in order to accommodate these narrow political and personal objectives. These institutions have become corrupt and lethargic to public need and have thus lost public credibility. Above all they have also become incapacitated to deliver the intended public services efficiently.
Rebuilding Sri Lanka will only be possible if these key institutions are properly reinstituted. They need to be safeguarded from a continuation of the past practice of political abuse. The government should be accountable to the people as to how and who is appointed to lead such institutions. In fact, in a serious rebuilding effort the most capable people Sri Lanka can offer should be head hunted and requested to lead these institutions. Private institutions and investment alone cannot develop a country. The role of the public institution is pivotal in planning, regulating and directing the investment and development of any sector. The restoration of the ability for such institutions to function freely in the pursuit of its goals and objectives must be prioritized urgently.
In this process it is timely to provide a transparent process of selecting chairpersons and directors for public institutions. My suggestions are as follows:
1. Cabinet to set up advisory panels, comprising retired public and private sector leaders of high caliber as well as civil society leaders, to headhunt potential institutional heads and where necessary even to motivate or challenge prospective leaders to take up public positions. It is likely that the most capable people would be otherwise engaged and to agree to head a government institution would have to be a personal or even professional sacrifice.
2. To assess such nominees with respect to their (a) institutional leadership record (b) relevant professional and/or technical competence (c) integrity and (d) understanding of the specific institution, its functions and the vision for its future.
3. For the relevant minister and the secretary to then interview the relevant nominee before making appointment or recommending appointment to the Cabinet.
There may also be some good governance practices that should be adopted that would bar unsuccessful politicians and relatives of the relevant minister from being appointed. It would also be a desirable practice of good governance and accountability to publish the credentials and qualifications of all such persons selected to head public institutions, so that the public could recognize those entrusted with such responsibility.