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A Heads of Department Meeting like no other

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By Susil Sirivardana

Members of his core group keep on returning to President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s voluminous legacy. It bears continuous re-visitation and reinterpretation. Today we reflect on a familiar institutional sutra. His regular and commonly-practiced Heads of Department Meeting, approached as a model or prototype. It’s more relevant than ever today.

About 30 heads of both sexes are seated at the meeting table well before the scheduled time. All secretaries are present. Exactly one or two minutes before the appointed time, the President arrives and takes his seat. All stand up. He looks round and smiles. One designated secretary keeps his opened large diary in front. Another designated officer places the day’s Agenda, and any other selected papers, in front of him. Turning the diary pages, he says the next meeting will be on … at … at … [the venue, this is often rotated from office to office]. We all note it. An important preliminary is done. 

On to the Agenda. Always the first item is a video review of the stage of development of selected projects, again handled by a designated team. The room is darkened and the video unspools, with a commentary on the screened images. Usually the Video Review is of urban projects and amenities at different stages of construction. Details are in close up and from different angles.

It takes eight to 10 minutes. There may be a question and a comment. The monitoring video is over. A spectrum of ongoing projects have been reviewed. At each meeting, progress, or non-progress, is tracked. Back to the Agenda. The lights come on. 

There are a number of Agenda items but he will call the para number and take up only particular items. Brief staccato comments are expressed. … the people have moved in … . The roof is fully completed... stage 2 has just begun … the contractor has been changed … [very important to note is that the President has come for the meeting after getting reports from multiple sources of each of the ‘problems’ in these projects.] So, there is no possibility for the officers to lie.

Cross questions are exchanged. Has that access road acquisition matter been settled? Has the fence at that end been erected? Has a watcher been appointed?

Going through two lists of Villages, where work is fully complete and ready for opening soon, or the second list of shortlisted projects that can be opened, sometimes within the next two months, is a regular and important Agenda item. The villages are in remote and distant undeveloped areas of the island. And there is a clearly understood premise by all concerned, that the work must be of high quality and that every part of every house and amenity, has been fully completed. Where these have not been fulfilled, serious sanctions have followed. Sometimes there are special issues of protocol to be discussed, where a foreign dignitary or ambassador may be coming for the opening ceremony. During evening meetings, sharp at 6:15 he excuses himself and goes to the next room for his light dinner. The officers relax and drink their tea. In 15 minutes, be is back and the meeting continues. Also, often he requests one or two officers to stay behind after the meeting for a one-to-one discussion with them.

The beautiful part of this is that the Heads of Department Meeting is usually done in under 60 minutes. A whole panorama of work has been critically reviewed in such a short time. [The conservation of working time and human energy is unimaginable]. And President Premadasa has fine-tuned this process into such an effective management institution. The positive outcomes are many: There is collective learning and awareness raising of many issues, including policy matters. Confidence building happens. Innovations are thrown up and they are encouraged and valued for emulation. Above all, the President is fully updated down to details. The meeting takes place in calm and quiet surroundings. One secret of success is the amount of preparation that is done before the meeting. 

No wonder. We were interacting with a change-maker of human settlements paradigms and a global initiator of the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless, a process leading up to 1987 and after.

(The writer is a Senior Adviser – Housing.)

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