Taking the COPE call full distance

Thursday, 28 October 2010 05:32 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

THE Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) has decided to summon all past and present heads of loss-making State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) to divulge the reasons behind this gross wastage of public funds. However, it is questionable whether this move alone will provide the long-awaited incentive for making profits and lessen the burden on the common man.

Let us be perfectly honest and pragmatic, here. The chairmen, board of directors and finance managers of these institutions are partly responsible for the loss, but it must be remembered that they are not the policymakers, nor are they the people who have politicised the system to such an extent that profit-oriented running of SOEs have become next to impossible.

They are not the only ones to make arbitrary decisions, stuff these organisations with their political lackeys, take ill-advised loans, issue insupportable subsidies and implement unfeasible projects just to make the powers that be look good or to earn a quick buck. They are not solely answerable to the people for bad decisions made without consideration on returns, because they too in most instances are political tools and too far down the pecking order to object to what corrupt ministers and top Government officials demand.

The entire system has become so politicised that no matter how many speeches are made on the importance of professionalism, everyone knows that at the end of the day it is the central political figure and the ministers et al that make the final call. So while COPE should be commended for taking on this gigantic task, it must also go the distance and call the ministers who were in charge of these respective SOEs and question them on why these ill-advised decisions were taken so that the full gamut of accountability is ascertained.

Sri Lanka is famous for half measures and COPE itself is no different. Regardless of the numerous investigations it has held, little effect has been seen on the ground. In the first instance COPE must be empowered so that it is taken seriously and its findings can legitimately punish offenders. At the moment it seems largely restricted to churning out reports and this does little to quench the massive corruption eating into the development drive daily.

The mandate of COPE must be enlarged and given teeth to actively deal with corrupt politicians as well as public servants. Operational powers of the committee must also be expanded so that they can conduct inquiries and complete investigations in a shorter period of time. It was reported that of 249 audit reports that COPE was supposed to analyse before the end of this year, it has to date only managed to complete 54. Only 12 audit reports were investigated in 2009. With such delays, it is impossible to prevent justice being denied.

On the third point COPE must also evolve processes to implement the lessons that it learns through this investigative process and issue report cards to the current chairmen of SOEs so that they are held accountable for the steps that they take. It is not fair to make the SOE heads scapegoats for mistakes policymakers and politicians make. Therefore, when they are incapable of protesting the implementation of certain decisions, they must have the freedom to state this clearly to an impartial body that can address this issue without political manipulation – Clearly a utopian ideal given that most top public servants are handpicked for their jobs because of their blind allegiance to certain politicians.

True professionalism and responsibility can only be achieved through empowerment. The order-givers should be held more accountable than the order-takers.