Efficient and effective institutions are integral to ensuring that any democracy is a well-functioning one. However, when institutions are undermined it becomes increasingly difficult to ensure engagement, draft good policy, and ensure that the priorities of a Government are implemented.
When this Government came into power in 2015, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM) was formed. But this quickly ran into problems, as President Maithripala Sirisena and other Cabinet members from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) felt that they were being left out of the decision-making process. They argued that having another body decide on key policies and projects and only put it before Cabinet to be rubber-stamped was undermining the role of Cabinet. Their view was that Cabinet should remain a space where discussions took place openly between the different Cabinet members, and the CCEM ran contrary to the collective nature of Cabinet meetings as well as the principles of collective responsibility.
The CCEM was also accused of engaging in closed-door policymaking where key projects such as the East Container Terminal (ECT) were considered, but despite calling for tenders and the lapse of many months the project never moved forward. There was little clarity on what happened to the bid process and why the CCEM eventually decided to put the project on the backburner. Some other projects such as the controversial Volkswagen plant, despite being approved by the CCEM and subsequently by Cabinet, were never implemented.
Eventually, President Sirisena intervened and demanded the CCEM be dismantled and a National Economic Council (NEC) be established instead. The argument was that it would provide a platform to bring together both policymakers and other officials to ensure that projects are evaluated on merit, and their implementation process tracked. But the NEC proved to as ineffective as its predecessor, with little transparency, and failed to counter questionable projects as well.
Now President Sirisena, who initially established the NEC, has submitted a proposal to Cabinet to dismantle the same entity, citing the absence of officials and its general inefficiency as grounds to get rid of it. In the Cabinet memorandum, he has stated that the official who headed the NEC was rarely in Sri Lanka, despite being paid a handsome Rs. 500,000 salary. With President Sirisena’s term also coming to an end in November, and the new President likely to prefer establishing his own systems of governance the disappearance of the NEC is inevitable.
But the fates of both the CCEM and the NEC serve as good lessons for policymakers. Inefficient decision-making and implementation processes have plagued this administration for years, resulting in the oft-heard refrain “what has this government done?” Closed-door decision-making, creating entities to undermine existing institutions, and reducing institutions into battlefields for political agendas needs to stop. Institutions and their powers have to be respected.
Political leaders need to appoint responsible and reliable officials to lead institutions, so that they carry out their tasks with transparency and accountability. This is the best way to increase government efficiency and reduce corruption. It is hoped that the respective presidential aspirants are taking note, because fixing governance is critical to Sri Lanka moving forward.