The Cabinet of Ministers is headed by the President and Government policies are the decisions arrived at by the Cabinet, the highest decision-making body. Policies provide the road map for day-to-day operations. Without necessary policies and procedures we could see our country in complete chaos
Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher, had articulated in his masterpiece ‘Leviathan’ (1651) a government as a device for ensuring collective security of citizens. According to Hobbes the purpose of a government is to enforce the law and ensure the common safeguards for the wellbeing of the people. Our Constitution had laid down in Chapter VI, the ‘Directive Principles of State Policy’. It provides the standards that everybody should observe for the creation of a just and free society.
The Parliament, the President and the Cabinet of Ministers are duly mandated to be guided by the said principles. The Constitution demands that there should be no unfairness or injustice caused to any citizen. Article 42 (2) requires that “The Cabinet of Ministers shall be collectively responsible and answerable to Parliament”. It is therefore the paramount duty of the Cabinet of Ministers to achieve efficient and effective policy coordination and more timely and productive implementation of government policy decisions in line with statutory requirements.
Any government needs money to perform its role assigned to it by the people. The government therefore needs to collect and allocate its resources in an acceptable way from the economy in a sufficient and appropriate manner. The national budget is the main instrument through which these transactions are planned and carried out. Public expenditure management is a key instrument of government policy.
The Cabinet of Ministers
The Cabinet of Ministers is required to ensure better Public Expenditure Management (PEM) trends to promote the achievement of three outcomes, namely aggregate fiscal discipline (keep government spending within sustainable limits), allocative efficiency (spend government resources on the right things only) and operational efficiency (delivery of public services at a reasonable quality and cost).
The whole purpose is to ensure the whole population gets the best buy for its money. Does that happen in Sri Lanka? The past governments and their cabinet of ministers have totally failed in this aspect. The MR Government had the largest cabinet in the whole world, which was a Guinness record – a destruction of public funds without any mercy at all.
The Cabinet of Ministers is headed by the President. Government policies are the decisions arrived at by the Cabinet, the highest decision-making body. Such policies set out the procedures, rules, principles and guidelines for the Government. The policies should necessarily be drawn to enhance our lives, institutions, businesses, e.g. education, health, monetary, government debt, etc. Policies provide the road map for day-to-day operations. Without necessary policies and procedures we could see our country in complete chaos.
The general public expects services to individuals, business and communities to be tailored to their particular needs. The President has already outlined for the government to take full advantage of technology to do government business better. All these lead to the procedures and conventions which dictates the “how”, “where”, and “when” the programmes, duties should be executed in different institutions island-wide. The government must rest assured that the citizens will be taken care of if something does happen. Using a policy management software could also be a better option.
Achieving greater coordination
Ministers and the government should work across organisational boundaries to achieve shared goals. They should develop comprehensive policy proposals to implement government policies in an integrated manner. Achieving greater coordination in policy implementation should be one of their high priorities in public administration. This is totally unknown in our country.
As we know, there are numerous names to describe these priorities such as joined-up government, connected government, policy coherence, networked government, horizontal management and whole of government. This arrangement should necessarily cover the three levels: national, provincial and local. Challenges facing the government such as managing drug issues, environmental destruction, and other intractable social problems in remote areas. These are complex issues, which need better attention. This is a top priority in our country.
The distinguishing characteristic of ‘whole of government’ work is that there is an emphasis on objectives shared across organisational boundaries, as opposed to working solely within an organisation. It should encompass the design and delivery of a wide variety of policies, programmes and services that cut-across organisational boundaries.
Furthermore, public sector reforms on improving efficiency and effectiveness have been overlooked for several decades. This too had paved the way for mismanagement of resources and waste of public funds. Devolution of power is a universal phenomena. The flexibility fostered by devolution should also be harnessed to explore innovative solutions to complex problems. It is therefore necessary to include relevant skills and culture, an information-sharing infrastructure. This type of governance arrangements should necessarily ensure accountability on the whole government outcomes as well.
The ministries help the government to implement the policies based on the mandate given to the Government. The word “cabinet” derives from an Italian word “Cabinetto”, which means a small private room - an ideal place to discuss business matters, without being disturbed. James Madison, fourth President, a founding father of the USA, had used the term “the president’s cabinet”, for the first time.
A social contract
Why do we elect our representatives and invest all our powers and surrender our persons to a group of people? It is a “social contract”. They are bonded to serve the masters who elect them. Hence they are accountable to the electors – the citizens. As Leaders they should possess the vision to take the country forward. Unfortunately, the existing political culture does not permit visionary leaders to enter Parliament, for which the party leaders are totally responsible.
Abraham Lincoln had said: “Elections belong to the people. It is their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will have to sit on their blisters”. Haven’t we done that for decades? We have just concluded two defining elections. The government now needs to wage war and accelerate measures to find smarter solutions for achieving the sustainable development goals. We, therefore, need to break the walls of poverty, corruption, misrule, including the walls that divide societies to establish – one nation and one country.
Do the Cabinet of Ministers in Sri Lanka have the leadership, the resources and smarter solutions? In Australia, to enhance efficiency, effectiveness and productivity of the Cabinet, the entire Cabinet operation has been directly brought under the Prime Minister, who is the Head of the Cabinet. The Prime Minister’s office is called the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The identical system is in operation in New Zealand and many other developed countries. The responsibilities of the Cabinet office are far and wide.
In Australia, Prime Ministers for decades have undertaken the responsibility to promote efficiency and reforms across the territory through innovation, better procurement and project management and by transforming the delivery of services. A former Prime Minister Bob Hawke had said “We seek to strengthen the government everyday in every component of government machinery that needs improvements”. They also provide fresh thinking and sound advice to the government for running responsible governance, including the creation of an exceptional Civil Service.
The Executive President should take this responsibility on his shoulders. They should provide pragmatic solutions to problems so that Government policies can be effectively designed and implemented. They also work towards identifying and reducing financial losses through fraud and error; and reducing the cost of their administration. In developed countries, they have published manuals with all the guidelines for the Cabinet of Ministers. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in the Manual says: “As the primary decision-making body of government, Cabinet plays a central role in shaping the future of Australia.”
He had added that “Strong Cabinet government is integral for our success. Cabinet decisions should be the result of robust policy analysis, healthy debate and collaborative decision-making. We must also be steadfast in our shared commitment to the core Cabinet principles of solidarity and collective responsibility”.
He had also stated: “Our success will depend on continuing in the tradition of the best Cabinet governments. Ministers will hold themselves accountable for the decisions made by the Cabinet.” He had further insisted that the Cabinet ministers should always follow the policies and procedures set out in the Handbook. Shouldn’t our Cabinet Ministers do the same from now onwards? If so, we need not only the political will but also not for profit attitudinal change in our Cabinet Ministers. They may create strong resistance to change.
Our Ministers too are constitutionally accountable to the Parliament. As in the case of Australian Ministers, they too have been given all the necessary perks and benefits to devotedly carry out their duties for the benefit of the people. The Ministers are accountable for any overall adequacies of the decision-making process and the achievement of acceptable standards.
Could our Ministers ensure, at the very least, minimal standards of housing, education and health to the whole population? It means everybody is reasonably clothed, fed and housed. In harder times as present when Corona pandemic is causing endless misery minimum assistance for those in need. Can they upgrade the educational system – primary, secondary and tertiary- to produce people with required skills to run the society efficiently.
Could they ensure development that should encompass all aspects – economic, technological, organisational, and managerial? Could they, after all, ensure spiritual and material needs, both tangible and intangible? If all that could be done, we would then be able to remove the stigma - developing or the third world label from our country.
Are they aware of the ‘Flying Geese Pattern of Economic Development’ conceived by the Japanese Economist Kaname Akamatsu? The FG model teaches how to catch up processes of industrialisation in fledgling economies. The essence of the FG model encourages economic relationships with advanced countries as well. Furthermore, with extremely excessive debt rates, results are disastrous in our case. Debt has created added vulnerabilities and it has become a crisis.
Improving governance and public management
Improving governance and public management is crucial to promote economic efficiency and policy effectiveness. It is presently not going to be easy. When independent Ceylon was born, we were at a very much stronger footing. Our numbskull rulers have pushed us into very difficult circumstances. The Constitution we got in 1947 was democratic. It established a vibrant democracy. The challenge was to develop democratic practices under the Constitution.
What did our rulers do? The “democratic institutions, supposedly designed to secure the common good through the power of an enfranchised public, seem powerless to stop all these. The power of ordinary people over their own lives has eroded from the 1970s onwards. An era of privatisation, deregulation and austerity created – only to the citizens. A deadly war, conflicts and serious economic and debt crisis have been created. Underlying this systemic crisis is a deficit of democracy.
It must be mentioned that most of the institutions discussed here are not new inventions. They have been developed through generations of popular struggle all over the world. Nevertheless, in our country, our Ministers in the exercise of their administrative powers have disregarded the fact that they are subject to review by the Auditor-General and even in courts or other institutions such as Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (Ombudsman).
Such appeals for review, etc. could be arising from an injustice caused to aggrieved personnel. Ministers should therefore always fall within the scope of the power provided by legislation. If so, how do various types of crimes committed by the powerful go unpunished as a regular occurrence? Ministers in Sri Lanka go beyond their powers and change policies to suit their requirements to please their friends, relations and well-wishers. Ministers began pressurising the ministerial staff in the process of making complex or sensitive decisions. They did not allow due process. Ministers are therefore responsible for the break-down in the system. Shouldn’t they exercise their power with restraint to prevent organisational failure any further?
Owing to too many interferences, the entire governance system is flawed. It has been revealed that the intelligence personnel have duly informed the former President about the Easter Sunday explosions carried out on 21 April 2019 in three churches and three luxury hotels by suicide attackers. Nobody seems to have been made accountable to-date. Parliament, the all-powerful Cabinet of Ministers and rule of law have become impotent.
The Parliament and the Judiciary should be free from interference. They must be allowed to function independently in a democracy. Parliament as the representative of the ultimate sovereign – the people – must be free to set its agenda. Parliament should govern for the common good. Parliament and the Cabinet of Ministers are responsible for permitting running governance without the rule of law. They are the cause of our failure.
The rule of law
The rule of law signifies that everyone in society, irrespective of the position they hold, is subject to and is governed by law. The rule of law excludes the exercise of arbitrary power in all its forms. In a country without the rule of law and an independent Judiciary to enforce the law, there is no democracy. It is therefore obvious that the parliamentary autonomy and the rule of law are confined to the Constitution. It must be changed forthwith. Shouldn’t the government, therefore, commit itself to build a strong participatory democracy. It should be the core of our vision in our institutional building.
We now need leaders who know the importance of law. The rule of law strengthens society. It is a prerequisite to ensure growth. It must be mentioned Parliamentarians have been given special legal exemptions for them to carry out their duties without fear or favour and impartially. They are protected by parliamentary privileges. We have in present Parliament who voted in support of 17th, 18th and 19th Amendments in the Constitution. They are now arguing in favour of the 20th. This is deplorable.
Amending the Constitution and enacting laws to suit the government in power has become the order of the day. This kind of politics has ruined not only the credibility of parliamentarians but also the dignity of the Parliament itself. Who rummaged this country? The Parliament and the Cabinet of Ministers. Parliament had endorsed all inappropriate constitutional amendments, etc., under pressure – a rubber stamp for all purposes.
Sadly, none of these actors has been made accountable to the Parliament, the courts and the citizenry. There have been a series of botched projects and expensive failures. Last year on Easter Sunday hundreds were killed having exploded suicide bombs. The Central Bank was allegedly robbed during broad daylight. Nobody seems to have been made accountable. Parliamentarians have been given extensive immunities for them to do their duties right and to protect the integrity of the process, particularly to punish the contemptible. The Parliament has also been given the powers to prevent publishing what has been expunged by the Speaker. Parliament has the powers to summon any citizen in the performance of the duties in Committees, etc.
Besides, we have also experienced a Chief Justice and many other judges have been dealt with for rendering unpopular decisions by the Parliament. Interference with judicial independence threatens judicial impartiality and public confidence in the administration of justice. All these have finally threatened constitutional order. It has been observed that the Judiciary respects parliamentary privileges. Similarly, the Parliament, the parliamentarians and members of the executive should also respect the judicial process and judicial independence.
In Australia, an Act to guide the governance, performance and accountability and the use and management of public resources have been introduced. The relevant Act covers the entire public sector institutions. This act illustrates a carefully laid-down governance structure to support and strengthen an efficient and effective delivery of government policies and programmes. The key elements of the framework include:
- A well-defined governance structure;
- Comprehensive planning and reporting mechanism (including performance evaluation);
- Well established arrangements for monitoring financial and service delivery;
- Sound risk management practices;
- A strong framework of standards for ethical conduct;
- Commitment to engage stakeholders where appropriate;
- Monitoring of performance against institutional goals and citizens grievances
The Gotabaya Government should strictly follow and be guided by traditions of the highest quality Cabinet governments the world over. In our representative government, we must adhere to the constitutional principle that Ministers are responsible to Parliament.
Another key issue in the Sri Lankan context is the fact that ministers have private interests. Ministers should not give rise to a conflict of interest with their public duties. Ministers need to be instructed to declare if they have any interest concerning any such matter under consideration by the Cabinet. Ministers should resign from director boards and should not leave room in any manner to undermine public confidence in them or the government. Transfer of interests to a spouse or dependent family member is not an acceptable alternative.
Ministers should not accept any benefit which could be seen that the relevant minister is subject to improper influence. Ministers should not exercise their official powers and get undue benefit or advantage in any manner. Employing family members to personal staff should be discouraged. The relevant circulars must be enforced to the letter. Ministers should not leave room for criticism. They should set an example for everybody in the Public Service. They should not be allowed the acceptance of any payments, gratifications or commissions.
In Australia too, numerous facilities have been provided to ministers at public expense. It is to facilitate them to carry out their official duties with efficiency and effectiveness. They are not permitted to use official entitlements for private purposes. Susanne Lee, former Health Minister was compelled to resign for misusing her facilities for air travel. It had been revealed that she had flown from Canberra to Gold Coast on three occasions stating official business, costing 3000 Aussie Dollars to purchase a luxury bungalow.
Official vehicles of Ministers should not be misused. Steps need to be taken to curtail corruption. They must be given clear guidelines not to waste public funds. Medical treatment should not be allowed overseas as they have been given full medical insurance cover at public expense. They could if necessary get treatment in private hospitals using insurance cover.
Ministers and politicians should not request public servants to violate laws, rules, regulations etc. Public servants should not be involved in the political type of activities in any way. The Secretary to a Ministry is the Chief Accounting Officer. He is the chief advisor to the Minister on all matters about the Ministry. He is the CEO of the Ministry. He is required to be guided by Government Financial regulations. The question that arises is why the mandate given to the elected Government is not carried through after the elections are over.
In Australia, the Cabinet is a product of convention and practice. There is no reference whatsoever to a Cabinet of Ministers in the Australian Constitution. They have followed the conventions to the very letter and have prepared the Manual, which is a strict guideline for the Ministers for compliance. Manual specifies that the Ministers are accountable to Parliament and the people.
The Public Management Committee, (PUMA), which is the governing body of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, has identified how to make the public sector dynamic; how do we equip it to respond to the challenges facing governments; how to equip it to respond to the challenges facing government; how to ensure that it implements public policy effectively and efficiently. The PUMA had recommended four main components:
- Reporting and assessing new developments in public management;
- Effective governance and the role of the state. How to strengthen policy-making; decision making and coordination capacities; how to renew confidence in government; how to review the roles and functions of government;
- Performance and the management of resources. Benchmarking; programme evaluation; performance contracting; service quality; responsibilities across different levels of government; budgeting; financial management; management of human resources; public sector pay; and
- Regulatory management and reform: Improving the quality of regulatory systems; alternatives to traditional regulations; reducing administrative burdens
In our case, our supreme law spells out that the Ministers are accountable. Yet, they escape without being dealt with by the law. All developed countries the world over, are successful because their leaders and others are held accountable for their misdeeds. Essentially, it is a commitment to be honoured on what has been agreed upon and to take ownership of the outcome. This concept is integral to organisational effectiveness. To be more effective and successful, we should ensure that all elected representatives at the national, provincial and local level are held accountable and that they should ensure successful delivery of the mission entrusted to them.
Politicians since the 1970s, who were not made accountable for their misdeeds had jeopardised the lives of people in millions in the country. They do not recognise the relationship among democracy, parliamentary best practices, freedom of information, public participation, effective checks and balances, sustainable development, the separation of powers as well as effective and efficient government institutions.
They do not recognise that corruption gravely affects democratic political institutions and even the private sector. They have wiped out a large number of private industries that we had for many years since independence. They have destroyed the country’s most underprivileged groups. I would add, even the honest hard-working middle class.
The Cabinet of Ministers, the Parliament, the Judiciary and for that matter the entire Government machinery had failed to do their duty for the last several decades purely owing to poor quality political leaders. The choice is yours.