What happened to good governance?

by R.M.B Senanayake

Administrative agencies determine who gets what from government—and how well government works. Obviously what is required is good governance and not bad governance. We have no difficulty in identifying good from bad governance. If one goes to any government department today, one sees bad governance and if there is to be development we must change this situation. How we do it is a professional issue best tackled by practitioners of public administration who also understand the theory of public administration.

It is possible to view Public Administration purely from a management point of view as a process to obtain results from the activities that the government institution is engaged in. The theory of Public Administration includes such canons as the principle of hierarchy, unity of command, specialization of functions, co-ordination and leadership in management. All these have now disappeared. Administrative leadership has been replaced by our traditional systems of intrigue, back- biting and sowing discord in organizations.

When I was the Director of Combined Services I received a call from the Minister Felix Dias Bndaranaike to see him immediately. As I went into his room I heard my name being mentioned by Vivienne Gunawardene and she was engaged in a tirade against me. I heard part of what she was saying and it was the charge that I was harassing the Leftist trade unions. As I walked in the Minister introduced me to Mrs. Gunawardene and asked her to repeat the charges. She went completely mum and shortly afterwards left with the minister grinning.  The minister’s conduct is according to the best canons of public administration apart from it being gentlemanly behavior. But such conduct is alien to our traditions and ancient habits and practices are being revived.  

In our traditional history to which nationalists want to take us back to, there was no bureaucracy but only a feudal patronage system of state minions under the control of the nilames- a system of farming out power and administration.

Need for a politically neutral bureaucracy for a multi-party democracy

The Chinese first organized a bureaucracy which the Romans emulated and built up the massive Roman Empire. But it is the British who proved the value of a bureaucracy which was the instrument through which they controlled the far flung British Empire. After Independence the Indian leaders realized the importance of a national bureaucracy to hold the country together. So the Indian political leaders allowed the bureaucracy to function with relative independence.

Indian leaders saw to it that with the continuation of English as the medium of instruction and its use in administration the newer generations would imbibe the ideas of modern democracy and liberal values. They made no move to replace them with traditional Hindu cultural values and transmit Hindu religious nationalism. So Indian democracy has survived and liberal values are taking root in India.

India has not regressed to its caste ridden religious fundamentalist widow burning past. Not so Sri Lanka where the Buddhist clergy steeped only in traditional culture asserted themselves and launched into the political scene. SWRD won in 1956 on a totally new ethno-religious nationalism. The newer type of Members of Parliament had no understanding of the norms of democracy or their role as Members of the Legislature. They had never heard of Edmund Burke and his definition of the role of a MP or of the division of power between the Executive and the Legislature. They considered themselves the new kings of their electorates. One MP from Colombo, as an exercise of his power, demanded entry to the Operating Theatre of the General Hospital. The surgeon had to hand over the scalpel to him and leave before he got any sense into his head.

But in the districts they could freely exercise their power in the name of the people. The bureaucracy was drawn from the urban middle class and they were rather remote from the rural people. The top officials were from the elite in society. The MP saw an opportunity to exercise power by articulating the demands of his people. The demands of the people were for land and water ( dry zone) in particular.  Their demands were urgent and persistent and could not be resolved by the District  Administration given the constraints of resources and time involved in following orderly procedures required for good administration.

When delays took place the people went to their MP who was ever willing to intervene on their behalf. This situation soon led to the MP directly intervening in the district administration to obtain favors for their supporters. Those who voted for the Opposition were left in the cold. The MPs became the effective rulers of the countryside. But they are not disinterested parties who act only in the public interest. The Public Choice Theorists have shown that politicians and public administrators act in the interests of the people only where their personal and political interests converge with those of the people they represent. 

Soon the new ‘Nilames’ in charge of the countryside created chaos in the District Administration. Such canons of public administration theory like the need to observe the hierarchical principle and unity of command were neither understood nor appreciated by them. Public administration degenerated and with it democracy and the village economy suffered. All illegal encroachments on state lands were regularized and the respect for the law that had been inculcated in the people by the British was undermined.

The irrigation based farming economy in the Dry Zone has suffered the most from this takeover of power by the local MP. The maintenance of the tanks is neglected and orderly water rationing for irrigation has been disrupted with the vast amount of illegal encroachments on tank bund reservations. Tanks are not filling but getting silted without proper maintenance. Insecticides used in illicit cultivations in the upper reaches of the tanks are flowing into them, polluting the water and killing the inland fishing industry.

It is not in the interests of these MPs to check such practices for they have to ensure their re-election through pandering to the wishes of the voters. A similar situation was repeated at the Center where Ministers obliterated the distinction between the functions of the political Executive and the permanent bureaucracy. According to the Financial Regulations financial transactions such as tenders are entirely within the preserve of the officials and the Secretary to the Ministry is the Chief Accounting Officer. But what if the Secretary surrenders this function directly or indirectly, overtly or covertly to his minister? I was an Assistant Secretary in the Ministry of Food under the late K. Alvapillai. One day he called me and gave me a file which he wanted me to show Minister J.R Jayawardene and bring it back to him. I read the minute addressed to the minister who had called for the Pakistan Rice Purchase file. After giving reference to the tenders the Secretary ended by saying that under the Financial Regulations tenders was entirely a matter for the Secretary.

When I presented the file to the minister he read the minute and told me that he wanted to retain the file. This boundary between the bureaucracy and the political Executive exists no more. Overtly or covertly, directly or indirectly ministers today decide on tenders and other financial matters. But the nominal responsibility of the Secretary as Chief Accounting Officer is still there in the Financial Regulations. So the ministers exercise power without responsibility with no accountability for any irregularities which may arise in financial matters. The stage has been set for crony capitalists - businessmen cultivating politicians to get concessions and monetary benefits from state contracts.

The United Front Government of the 1970s realized that the State machinery was no longer working. They sought to replace it with their own Leftist party based organizations and thereby to surreptitiously set up a one party state from within. They set up Janatha Committees which added to the confusion. The SLFP tried to regularize the assumption of power by the elected MPs through the District Political Authority.

UNP fails to restore a politically neutral bureaucracy

The UNP came back to power in 1977. President J. R Jayawardene was a great leader who understood economic development. But he had no faith in democracy and was more enamored of Lee Kwan Yew’s methods of strong government. He was also impatient with the bureaucracy and wanted to exercise his will despite the consequences. He ordered the IGP to promote a police officer whose record was so bad that he should have been sacked. When the IGP, a conscientious officer well known for his integrity, refused to comply he was forced to resign. Where oh where are such officers today? What foul fate has befallen our country?

President  J.R. Jayewardene did nothing to ensure the protection of the public servants from the depredations of politicians. He failed to reverse the subordinate role given to the Public Service Commission by the United Front Constitution. Without such protection public officials  gave up their independence thought and professional judgment and became a breed of sycophants.

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