The March of Folly Destroying Continuity
Posted on April 24th, 2018

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha Courtesy Ceylon Today

When I served on the National Human Resources Development Council, I chaired a committee to recommend new ways of working in the public sector. We looked at several issues, but amongst them one that resonated with the Organization of Professional Associations, whom I was asked to meet to take the recommendations forward, was mechanisms to ensure continuity with regard to public institutions. This was stressed with regard to Secretaries to Ministries, who are now changed with a change of government, but we also felt a similar principle should apply for all organizations working in the public interest.

I was particularly worried about this because, in the brief period when I was a State Minister, I heard from the Prime Minister a ridiculous assertion about such organizations. I had resigned because the Cabinet Minister, without consulting me, instructed the UGC Chairman to resign.

He had tried this game before, in 2002, when he was the State Minister, but the then Chairman ignored him, perhaps secure in the belief that the then President would back him.

Kabir this time lied in telling the Chairman that he acted on the instructions of the President, which the President denied when I took him my letter of resignation.

I could not understand then why he did not simply reject Kshanika Hirimburegama’s letter of resignation, but I now realize Maithripala’s principal characteristic is fear of rocking the boat, even when there is a swell rocking it dangerously and his hand is required on the tiller.

Kshanika had indeed asked me when I took office whether I wanted her to resign, and I told her not to, since unlike anyone else in office at the time I thought we were actually meant to do some work while also pushing the reforms in the President’s manifesto.

Given that we were a sort of caretaker government, with an election due soon, I felt it would be difficult for a new University Grants Commission to work itself in, and the reforms we needed could be best promoted through the existing personnel.

Meaning of Good Governance

So when Chandrika Kumaratunga called me and told me to sack Kshanika, I said I would not, though if there were allegations I would investigate them.  For Chandrika of course good governance simply meant having her own way, so she told me to wait and see who would be put above me.

Accordingly Kabir then did her bidding, though he claimed it was the bidding of Federation of University Teachers’ Association FUTA and their pressure could not be resisted.

Entertainingly Ranjith Devasiri, who also did not understand good governance in those days, and was as vindictive about Kshanika as Chandrika, had a taste of the same medicine when he was removed from the Board of the National Institute of Education.

Ranil characteristically denied they had succumbed to pressure, and claimed the dismissal of Kshanika was based on a principle, namely that such boards should be appointed by the new government, without continuing as appointees of the previous regime.

He even went so far as to say I could appoint anyone I liked but they had to know the appointments came from us. Kabir, I should add, modified this to say I could appoint anyone I wanted, from lists, in the Prime Minister’s office.

Obviously none of them knew what good governance meant. When one is responsible for State resources, which includes making appointments to positions that deploy such resources, one should have good reasons for all one’s actions. And if one’s appointments are sensible, they should last, with removal happening only if performance is unsatisfactory.

We asserted this by including in the summary of our recommendations that ‘Appointments to boards and so on should be on the basis of specified criteria, and should not be changed with a change of minister.’

Further to this we noted in the main body of the Report that ‘With regard to appointments to public bodies, the discretion of the minister should be subject to guidelines. Letters of appointment should be issued by the secretary, following recommendations from the minister which makes clear the rationale for the recommendation.’

The reason for this is that often ministers are under pressure to provide sinecures to those to whom they owe favours. When there are no checks and balances, they do not stop to think about suitability, but make appointments at will.

If they had to explain their choices, in writing preferably for the record, with the possibility that the secretary would suggest the need for second thoughts given the requirements of the position, they would have a reason to refuse, to give those begging them for places.

Such formal recommendations would also limit an even worse misuse now of what is termed as discretion, namely that appointments on the basis of personal predilections, with no regard to continuity, occur with changes of ministers in the same government.

Thus, when Chandima Weerakkody took over as Minister of Skills Development and Vocational Training, he told me in what doubtless he saw as a compliment that he planned to change all the Boards under him except mine.

I told him this was unnecessary, and indeed recommended a couple of people who I thought were contributing effectively for him to keep on, but this was ignored.

So one had to begin from scratch to explain the new directions in which the ministry had begun to move under Mahinda Samarasinghe’s leadership. Fortunately I was there to do this, but when everyone is changed there is no possibility of productive briefing.

For this reason, the first paragraph in out Report under the title ‘Independence and Continuity’ was that ‘Systematic handover procedures are essential.

A Code of Ethics for secretaries with specific guidelines on handing over (with predefined formats and timeline for such handing over) is desirable.’

Importance of hand over

Sadly even supposedly experienced public servants do not see the need for a handover.

When I was told, while abroad, that a new Chairman had been appointed to the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission, I promptly sent a message to say ‘I gather you have just taken over from me as Chair of the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission.

Please let me know if you would like some sort of handover, so I could explain recent initiatives, and provide suggestions in case you would like to take them forward. Let me take this opportunity to convey my good wishes for an enjoyable and productive tenure of office’.

I forwarded this message too to the secretary, adding that ‘I hope there will be continuity. My thanks to you too for your excellent support over the last two years, I hope your work continues effectively’.

I have had no response to these, but I suppose that is understandable in that often public officials are fearful to be in touch with someone who they think is not in favour with their minister.

But I was sorry that Austin Fernando did not take up my suggestion to the President, in acknowledging my dismissal, that ‘I should also note that, if you think it desirable, I would be happy to have a handover session with my successor to brief her on new initiatives that she might wish to take further.’

But not even Austin it seems understands the need for continuity. He has not responded at all to the NHRDC Report though earlier I was assured that, even if the President did not read it, he would understand its significance. Certainly, as a former senior public servant, he should have registered the importance of the recommendation that  ’It would also help if ministries had succession plans, with briefing sessions whereby senior staff and potential successors were aware of policies and plans for implementation. There are provisions at present, but they need to be enforced, with stipulations as to maintenance of records.’

The need for continuity

I felt this need deeply at the ministry since the secretary, who had also been my secretary when I was a minister, retires this May, and his principal additional secretary, also very capable, goes later this year. The next level down does not seem to me to be in the same league, and when these two leave institutional memory will fade.

But I suspect there is little incentive for ministers to think in terms of continuity, given their own state of flux. Since Chandima Weerakkody had the sense to vote for the No Confidence Motion, I cannot be generally critical of him now, but it is fair to say he did not study his briefs as did Mahinda Samarasinghe – who sadly voted on the wrong side.

Mahinda understood at once when I told him the need for the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission (TVEC) to work together with the University of Vocational Technology, and put me on its Council of Management, while in redrafting the TVEC Act, as we recommended its Vice-Chancellor should be ex-officio on the TVEC. Unfortunately, though Chandima initially said he would keep me on, he did not do so, offering the excuse that he had not realized he had discretion only over a few appointments, and there were other people he had to put in place.

He also removed some of the experienced professionals who had been serving there for years.

I should note though that two of his new nominees to the TVEC have been admirable. And he did there conform to another principle we laid down in our Report, that ‘Continuity should be ensured by retention of at least two former external members of boards. This requirement can be statutorily imposed, and should be acceptable since the rationale for the different members having been appointed will be available on file.’

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