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Breadtalk with bureaucrats

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Friday, 7 July 2017 00:00

President Sirisena couldn’t contain himself when he said that anyone watching TV in the evening feels that there is no government in the country. He said the media turn the facts “about the peaceful situation, upside down” (5 July, Daily Mirror). 

He certainly laid his finger on an extremely sensitive vein – that of continuous public hue and cry about almost everything. There are protests about teacher transfers. There are protests about cutting a Bo tree. There are protests about the increase in lottery ticket cost. So the list goes on.

Of course SAITM and the garbage issue are two classic instances of mishandling of public information. These are two relatively minor issues which were allowed to be blown out of their feet by an inexorable point counter point. We have to go back to ‘58 to appreciate the resultant disastrous outcomes of continuous strikes and disruptions.

Today, the Ministers and the Government seem to accept responsibility for all failures in policy implementation. For they create platforms to defend themselves and in doing so they attack the opposition and so the opposition mount their own platform and send forth their fury more acrimoniously than what emanates from the Government. 

The Government opens itself to attacks from all sides because too many of its members take to the mike. Since there is no coordination amongst them, they would pronounce totally different points of view on the same subject. It is best if a parliamentarian who is expected to speak at an event, stays on the subject at hand. 

An excellent example is set by Premadasa. He is always seen inaugurating a project or handing out gifts and donations. When he speaks later, he excoriates the opposition, but this berating is camouflaged in relevance. One does not often hear the opposition criticising him. He is destined to be a leader one day. He is unostentatious and genuinely attempts to be with the people.

With all the give and take between the Government and the opposition, no sane person can, leave alone the President, see “a peaceful situation”. The press will of course report. They decide what to report and how to report and when to report. We are in the midst of a new concept ‘fake news’ and we are engulfed by social media. The only means of control of the media is not to give them the opportunity to publish. In a free country, this is achieved by not causing or creating juicy situations.

In order to tread the quagmire of political pandemonium let’s look at our system of government. Ours is the British system, modified. Parliament is a single chamber legislature. This is where laws are enacted and sent before the President for ratification. But before the President sees any enactment, Parliament will debate the proposal. These debates have often known to take violent turns resulting in stoppages of business, and naming of 

members. Parliament is expected to perform four primary functions.

1. Check and challenge the work of Government (scrutiny)

2. Make and change laws (legislation)

3. Debate the important issues of the day (debating)

4. Check and approve Government spending (budget/taxes)

Herein I do not see execution. This will be the work of public servants appointed to do this task. They have been given the term ‘Bureaucracy’. The term itself is a combination of the French “Bureau” (desk or table) and the Greek “Kratos” (to rule).

It was a German, Max Weber, who defined the role of the bureaucrat. He said that one character of a bureaucracy is its hierarchical composition. It has delineated authority in fixed areas of activity, which activity will be governed by written rules. Bureaucratic officials need expert training. Their careers will depend on their technical skills judged by an independent organisation. More recently Hague Harrop and Breslin defined bureaucracy as “the institution that carries out the functions and responsibilities of the state” (Political Science: A comparative Introduction).

What is to be deduced from these is that the implementation of the laws that come out of Parliament must be left to the bureaucracy. It is unclear whether this happens. If not it is best they are asked to implement the law so as not to “turn the peaceful situation upside down”.

It is best if Parliamentarians give the onus of responsibility to the bureaucracy. They need not take the responsibility for implementation. The bureaucracy is permanent. Parliament is elected only for five years. The bureaucracy has the duty to carry on programmes not heeding the life of a parliament. Such continuity will form the strength and backbone of the country’s development. 

Consider, the Port City project was in retrograde for two years and consider the loss. If the Port City project was approved by Parliament, a sovereign body, it must go on not mindful of people changes. The bureaucrat must advise the new rulers of work-in-progress and continue. Similarly the Uma Oya Project, similarly SAITM, similarly the garbage problem. The garbage problem was there all the time but the tipping point came this year. If the bureaucrat had empowerment for his work, when Meethotamulla collapsed, the Government could have taken him to task. Parliamentarians would then have been free to legislate, not take upon themselves needless blame.

We then come to the hallowed principle of Separation of Powers. A Member of Parliament by its very definition, is someone who is of a right mind, and right age to enter Parliament. There is no special qualification demanded of him. The bureaucrat on the other hand, must pass exams, must train and must have experience. He must take responsibility for execution of policy. Parliament must invest him with that responsibility. He must be called to answer for all failings of policy implementation. 

We see that most of petty protests are because of the lack of initiative of the officials. That may be because they are not empowered. Most protests can be and must be stopped at office level. Unfortunately if the current situation continues, the President himself would not be able to turn us right side up.

Upali Ratnayake


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