The Machinery of Administration Under Parliamentary Government


by Leelananda
De Silva


The Jennings Constitution of 1948 lasted for 25 years until 1972. The new 1972 constitution abolished Sri Lanka’s Dominion status, removed the Queen as Head of State and also removed the provisions relating to the autonomy of the public and judicial services and made Sri Lanka a Republic, although the parliamentary system, with the Prime Minister as Head of Government remained unchanged. The new constitution of 1972 lasted only six years, that being replaced by a new Presidential system of government. The 1972 constitution brought many changes, but the administrative machinery experienced no great changes. Although the focus in this article is on the 1948 constitution, and the period up to 1972, its influence largely continued until 1978. The Jennings constitution was a marvel of simplicity and legal clarity, with about 100 provisions running to about 25 pages, concentrating on matters that require constitutional determination. The provisions of that constitution were hardly questioned in courts of law.

There were several provisions in the 1948 constitution which had a direct impact on the administrative machinery of government. As Walter Bagehot, the authority on the British constitution of the 19th century said, "a Cabinet is a combining committee – a hyphen which joins, a buckle which fastens the legislative part of the state to the executive part of the state". What the Cabinet also did was to link the political executive (which is the Cabinet) with the "permanent administrative executive", in other words the public service. It was the Cabinet which provided leadership to the administrative machinery of government. The Cabinet under the 1948 constitution, created Cabinet Ministers and also Ministries, which were run by individual members of the Cabinet.

Although there was no specific provision under the constitution for particular ministries to be established, with one exception, by tradition the Prime Minister appointed about 20 Cabinet Ministers at any one time. The one exception was regarding the post of Prime Minister, who was also constitutionally required to be the Minister of Defence and External Affairs, until this was changed in 1972 and practically discontinued in 1977. Others might disagree, but it can be argued that the best Ministers of Defence and External Affairs were the Prime Ministers who held that job. They allowed the Foreign Department and the Defence Department to be run by professionals without day-to-day management of these services as is the practice today. Under this arrangement, professionalism flourished without political interference. Other provisions in the constitution which affected the public service related to the appointment of Permanent Secretaries as heads of Ministries and as their chief accounting officers, and the Public Service Commission (PSC) which ensured a large degree of autonomy for the public service.

The Ministerial System

The system of organizing the tasks of government on the basis of Ministries was new to Sri Lanka. Between 1931 and 1947 under the Donoughmore Constitution, there were Ministers but no Ministries. Now under the new constitution, several departments were grouped together to form a Ministry of which the political head was the Minister and the administrative head was the Permanent Secretary. During this period between 1948 and 1972, Cabinets consisted of about 20, or a little more, members at any one time. While all Cabinet Ministers were equal, some Cabinet Ministers held more important portfolios than others. Between 1948 and 1965, it can be argued that the most influential Ministry was the Ministry of Finance (the Treasury). Its influence gradually declined, with some of its early powers being removed to other bodies. With the establishment of the Central Bank in 1950, monetary policy became the responsibility of the latter. In 1965, with the establishment of the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs, the capital budget and the external resources budget were removed from the Finance Ministry. Now there was a countervailing authority to the Finance Ministry in the field of economic affairs. Then in 1970, the responsibility of the Ministry of Finance for the public service was removed to the new Ministry of Public Administration.

Apart from the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs had a central role in the years 1965 to 1977. This was headed by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister therefore by 1965, headed three powerful Ministries – Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Defence and Planning and Economic Affairs. What were the other more powerful Ministries at the time? Power depends on two factors – the importance of the tasks under a Ministry, and the political importance of the individual Minister. At this time, Sri Lanka was largely an agricultural economy. The Ministries of Lands and Irrigation and of Agriculture were powerful Ministries. They were also headed by high profile political personalities (Dudley Senanayake, C.P. De Silva, Maithripala Senanayake, M.D. Banda, J.R. Jayawardena, Felix Dias Bandaranaike). Ministries of Health and Education, although high spending Ministries, did not attract high profile political personalities. One notable feature during these 25 years was that relevant departments continued to be grouped within the same Ministry, enabling a close working relationship to be developed within each Ministry. This enabled easy coordination and great familiarity in the workings of a related group of subjects, very much unlike the administrative mayhem of today.

Under the 1948 constitution, a provision was made for the appointment of Parliamentary Secretaries (later called Deputy Ministers). Each Ministry had a Parliamentary Secretary. This arrangement was not a very effective one, most of the time. Parliamentary Secretaries were hardly ever delegated with specific functions, and when they did, they were not the important ones. Ministers and their deputies most of the time did not see eye to eye with each other and the Ministers generally disregarded them. They were not important to the functioning of Ministries. There might have been a few exceptions.

Permanent Secretaries

When they first came to be appointed in 1948, most of them were from the Ceylon Civil Service. There were no other senior administrative grade personnel at that time, and a few who were there were appointed Permanent Secretaries (labour, local government). The Ministry of Justice always had a lawyer as its Permanent Secretary. One crucial factor to be noted in these appointments was that administrators were selected to these posts and not high officials of technical departments. It can be argued that senior engineers, scientists, doctors were ignored in appointments as Permanent Secretaries in relevant departments. There was an obvious tilt towards the generalist rather than the specialist, until about 1965. In 1965, a professional economist (Dr. Gamani Corea) was brought in to head the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs. Under the same government, for the first time, a private sector person was brought in as Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of State (Anandatissa de Alwis). In 1970, the new Sirimavo Bandaranaike government broke away from past practices and appointed several Permanent Secretaries from outside the public service and also brought in specialists to head relevant Ministries. The post of Permanent Secretary was a constitutional position and was never intended to be exclusively reserved for former civil servants or administrators. Specialists could have been appointed from the start, although this was not done. Whether specialists could have performed better in a policy advisory role, rather than the generalist administrator, in a matter to be argued.

District Administration

The constitution of 1948 had little to say about provincial, district or local administration. Local government in the country was based not on constitutional provisions, but on legislative acts from the central legislature. Whether that practice should have continued, instead of including all these matters in new constitutions, is still open to argument. The kachcheri system of district administration continued during the period 1948 to 1977. During British times, the district administrative system was a blend of feudal and modern bureaucratic practices. Change came about gradually with the abolition of the Mudaliyar and Ratemahathaya system previously and the village headmen system in the early 1960s. There was a demand by members of parliament in the later years to have some control on district administration.

From 1948 to about 1970, MPs had some voice in district administration, especially through the District Coordinating Committee (DCC) which met once in about three months. Then there were the regular meetings with members of parliament in kachcheris and other district offices. In the mid-1970s, a more formal District Minister system and District Political Authority System was emerging. District administration was also being affected by the greater presence of the military at district level and the appointment of District Coordinating Officers from the military.

In 1948, there were only nine government agents, one for each province and in the late 1950s, a GA was appointed for each district (there were 21 or 22 of them). It would have been feasible at the time to examine the prospect of devolution to the district level instead of the provinces, but that opportunity was lost. What is important to notice is also that all the changes at the district level were brought, not through any amendment to the constitution, but by ordinary legislation.

It is worth looking back at the administrative experience of Ceylon/Sri Lanka until the 1970s to draw lessons and improve the current chaotic conditions of administrative incompetence and excessive staffing of almost every department. The political control of the administrative machinery at the provincial and district levels need to be re-assessed to allow for much greater autonomy for provincial officials. Other systems of decentralized administration need to be explored. For example, there could be more local control of hospitals and schools (boards of school management, parent teacher associations), through elected committees which oversaw the work of these institutions, instead of by politicians.

There has been little analysis or discussion of Sri Lanka’s experience in public administration during the parliamentary system of government. It is now in the process of being forgotten. Institutions like the Sri Lanka Institute for Development Administration should encourage the study of the history of public administration in this country. I would venture to suggest that up until the 1970s, the administrative grades of the public service were more aware of the development of administrative systems and their historical background. The present generation of administrators and other public servants should have that same knowledge. To illustrate, are the current day irrigation engineers aware of the proud history of their department over a hundred years?

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