Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has expressed disappointment at the disinterest of both main political parties to debate and take action against the wastage of public funds detailed in the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) and Committee on Public Accounts (COPA).
A major opportunity to improve governance has gone a-begging because this Government has taken the same path as all the others in not using the reports to implement reforms.
The lack of clear-cut policy directives with regard to the management of public enterprises, failure to delegate decision-making to senior management, the absence of commercial consideration in business decisions, political interference in the appointment of staff, failure to adopt practical guidelines for the selection and failure to adopt practical guidelines for the appointment of management level officers have been identified as some of the key constraints in improving the performance of public enterprises.
Even Cabinet a few months ago decided it was a timely need to adopt a formal and transparent method in appointments and granted approval to a proposal made by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in his capacity as the Minister of National Policies and Economic Affairs to set up a selection criteria.
It has been proposed to adopt criteria on professional and management experience, maximum age limits, provisions for prevention of conflicts of interest and disqualifications, prepared by the committee appointed by the President in making recommendations for such appointments.
On paper the proposal makes much sense as public institutions are notorious for not holding their management accountable for mismanagement, wastage and corruption. Top officials of public institutions that have been making losses for decades are excused on the grounds that they are politically shackled and do not have the capacity to make decisions independently. Moreover, it is no secret that most are political appointments resulting in many offenders being given impunity and being protected under a system that wastes public funds but provides control to politicians.
COPE and COPA could be used to bring tougher good governance and efficiency parameters often used by the private sector into its public counterpart. Key performance indicators have to be implemented at the highest levels and directors and chairmen of public institutions must be held responsible for their losses. Only under such a system would every layer of the estimated 1.3 million-strong public sector actually see reform.
A strong auditing and accountability system has to be in place where parliamentary bodies such as COPE and COPA are empowered to take these top officials to task. Despite much talk by the ‘Yahapalanaya’ administration little has been done beyond taking statements of top public officials who have incurred billions of losses. Take for example SriLankan and Mihin Lanka which are nearly Rs. 1 billion in debt though top officials have not been held responsible for their actions at any level.
Another point is that when political appointments take place they should do so only under specific and extreme circumstances that are clearly outlined and approved by the public service commission.
In addition, once the appointments are made politicians should refrain from protecting the appointees and allow them to be governed under a legal and transparent system. Without such sweeping changes significant economic development will remain a challenge. Investigating corruption cases on the basis of COPE and COPA findings is also a distant dream.