The need for professional Ministers
Posted on May 28th, 2018

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha Courtesy Ceylon Today

Though I am no longer a member of the National Human Resources Development Council (NHRDC), I am still working with the Organization of Professional Associations trying to promote reforms that will give us a more efficient public sector. I could not attend the last discussion they had, to fine tune the recommendations our NHRDC Sub-Committee produced, but we decided on the telephone that they would concentrate on a few essentials rather than going for root and branch reform.

Amongst the most destructive practices that have built up over the last few years, is the compulsion Ministers feel to put their own people in place in institutions under their purview. This is a practice that has been creeping in, but its institutionalization took place under Ranil, who was brazen enough to tell me that I could even reappoint people to positions but they should all resign first, so that they knew they had received their appointments from this government and not from the Rajapaksa regime.


Appointments

A corollary of this was Ajith Perera, at the first group meeting of the government group I attended, declaring his supporters needed positions and should be granted appointments and the perks that went with them. Given that even someone relatively decent – and so I still think him though he has shown himself prepared to go along with inefficiency and dishonesty – made no bones about the fact that he thought executive and advisory positions were about perks and privileges, not work and results, it is not surprising that our whole public sector has become moribund, a tool of politicians and a place of profit for their friends.

Chandima Weerakkody, the SLFP equivalent of Ajith to my mind, a lawyer with greater intelligence and commitment to service than the majority of politicians, put into practice Ajith’s philosophy when he got ministerial office. A year ago he became Minister of Skills Development and Vocational Training, and informed me that he would keep me on but was changing all other officers in positions under his purview.

I think he thought I should be grateful for this, and seemed surprised when I told him he should reconsider and keep on the good ones, two of whom I specifically mentioned, the VTA Chairman and Nigel Hatch who had provided invaluable advice to the Board of the University of Vocational Technology.

Needless to say Chandima ignored me, and in fact he did not reappoint me to the UNIVOTEC Board though he had assured me he would. His excuse was that he had not realized he had only a few positions at his discretion and he needed to satisfy others. Obviously he could not understand the need for coordination between the TVEC which I chaired and UNIVOTEC, given that we presided over the first 6 levels of National Vocational Qualifications and UNIVOTEC over the 7th level.

Two month back, Chandima decided to have me removed, after first appointing an Acting Chairman while I was abroad and ensuring that a Commission meeting was held to push through appointments which I had resisted. I nevertheless hoped that he and my replacement would build on what had been achieved, but there was no sign of this happening, not before a new Minister took over, to repeat the new broom process.

I had not thought to get in touch with Chandima but he sent me a birthday card, which was a surprise. After much thought, I decided to respond, with some suggestions which I hope he will take seriously if he achieves success in politics – which comparatively speaking he deserves. Here is the letter –
Dear Chandima,
Thank you for your card and good wishes on my birthday. I had not expected you to get in touch after you had got me removed from the Chairmanship of the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission in March. But I thought I should respond since I appreciate the fact that you voted for the No- Confidence Motion against the Prime Minister, and were willing to give up Ministerial office.

I hope therefore that your political career flourishes. But I thought I should perhaps give you some advice with regard to how to ensure that it is productive as well as successful.

I was happy when you took over the Ministry since, though I had found Mahinda Samarasinghe a very effective Minister, I realized that you too cared about the subject. This is to be welcomed in a context when Ministers are appointed for other reasons and many do not think about contributing to the subject of which they are put in charge.

But though you had some admirable ideas, you did not initially study what had been going on. Thus the Skills Day pronouncements you made dealt with subjects as to which the Ministry was already engaged in innovation, but there were overlaps and contradictions.

I would suggest that for the future you begin by getting a thorough briefing from the Secretary to the Ministry, in addition to a setting up a handover session if possible with the previous Minister. Of course you may want to make changes, but that will ensure that previous efforts on the lines you wish to work on are not wasted, but rather you will be able to build on them.

This principle should also have been followed when you got rid of me and appointed someone else. It is of course your prerogative to appoint someone who knows nothing of the subject, and you have every right to assume that an experienced Civil Servant can turn their hand to anything.

But it would help them immeasurably if you arranged a handover session, so they could build on what was positive, and make adjustments, if they thought fit, to programmes they did not wish to pursue. What has happened now is that all the new initiatives we started are at a standstill, and nothing productive is happening in their place.

I also feel that the issue as to which you were most upset with me suggested a less than professional view of your responsibilities. You wanted me to make appointments that I felt were inappropriate. At the earnest request of the Director General I bent over backwards to allow your candidates, though their applications were late, to sit the competitive exam we had asked the Department of Technical Education and Training to conduct. And then we interviewed all of them even though many failed to get enough marks. But they were simply not good enough, with one exception.

I am aware that an active politician is expected to provide jobs for supporters, but this should not be at the expense of institutions required to serve the nation. For the future I would suggest that you work as my father did, which was not to make appointments as favours to positions requiring high capacity levels, but rather to coach prospective candidates to do well in examination and interview.

And even for minor positions, where I had told the Director General that I would not get involved and she could make appointments as requested by you, please make sure as I advised her that candidates have the required qualifications. And try to ensure that they are trained to respond well at interview and thereafter work productively rather than resting on the laurels of having been appointed at the Minister’s behest.

I was sorry to be told then when I was away that you had appointed the VTA Chairman to act as TVEC Chair and precipitated a Commission meeting which only made appointments. And then I was surprised to be told that I had been removed, and someone who worked for you previously had been appointed in my stead. Though I gather she is an able and honest public servant, you might at least have ensured that she understood all the innovative programmes we had embarked upon, the teacher training and soft skills in particular, as well as the increased commitment to work in the service sector, since these are important for the country’s progress and to enhance opportunities for youngsters.

I do however, acknowledge that I was at fault in not informing you when I went abroad. I had asked you for a meeting but you told me to wait until the crisis in government was resolved, and I thought this made sense since it had been reported that your portfolio might be changed. But I should nevertheless, when the crisis continued, have dropped in on you the week I left. Unfortunately I was so busy, since I had taken on additional responsibilities in bodies on which I served ex officio, that I failed to do this.

I have no regrets then personally about your precipitate action the week before you vacated office, and I am proud of you for the manner in which you did this last. But I am sorry that the work we had begun was interrupted, and I fear that progress in the field will not now be steady and swift. And given that the TVEC was punching above its weight at the NEC and NHRDC meetings, the fact that those initiatives too will now die away, with regard to making up for at least some lapses in secondary education and also promoting better ways of working in the public sector, is again most unfortunate.

I hope then that you will in the future adopt a more professional approach to executive office, which is very different in character from winning election. With all good wishes for the future.”

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