Business

Allocating ministries: scenario post-parliamentary election

With the 2019 presidential election complete, some of the main policies that have been outlined include establishing a meritocracy, improving efficiency, and eliminating corruption (1). Although an interim cabinet has now been appointed, the upcoming 2020 parliamentary elections will ultimately determine the new government of Sri Lanka. Given this, it is necessary to take a deeper look at the structure and functionality of our ministry system.

Why should ministry allocation be a policy priority?

Sri Lanka had a total of 34 different ministries that each contain numerous departments under them. However, these ministries and departments are often arbitrarily created and grouped within a complicated structure that doesn’t make a lot of logical and functional sense (for example, the Ministry of City Planning, Water Supply, and Higher Education) (2). Allocation of ministry positions in Sri Lanka is also often decided based on party seniority, and not on the minister’s educational background or familiarity with the subject area.

To make things more difficult, cabinet reshuffles are not uncommon as governments struggle to balance functionality and keeping their cabinet members content (3). With each reshuffle, ministry positions are moved around, ministries are renamed, and departments are relocated. This results in unnecessary institutional costs as government employers adjust to new reporting structures, new bosses, and new work priorities. These reshuffles damage inter-ministry relations and disrupt the flow of project work.

When ministry allocations defy logic and ministries are given mandates that encompass topics as diverse as telecommunications, foreign employment, and sports, prioritisation of work can be understandably difficult (4). Apart from the challenges that come with such a diverse ministerial portfolio, when the departments under them are allocated in a seemingly ad hoc manner, the problem is exacerbated. For instance, when departments that serve similar objectives are strewn across various ministries, it may hinder co-ordination and cripple the department’s ability to function well.

Ultimately, the system creates unnecessary confusion and inconveniences to both the public that require services from various departments and the public servants that find it very difficult to do their job. This not only blocks the general progress of development but also makes larger government projects to transform the economy tedious affairs.

Sustainable reform

Singapore, which is hailed as a bastion of modern development in Asia, now has merely 15 ministries in comparison to the 34 that existed in Sri Lanka (5). This suggests that when it comes to efficiency in the public sector, perhaps the phrase “the more the merrier” is not appropriate.

Of course, these observations have been made before. In early 2018, Dr. Sujata Gamage presented an alternate framework for clustering cabinet portfolios under 15 core subjects that can be refined and redefined as necessary (6). This clustering of portfolios is centred on subject area, and included practical changes such as the shifting of vocational training out of the portfolio of the Ministry National Policies, Economic Affairs, Resettlement and Rehabilitation, Northern Province Development, and Youth Affairs, and under the purview of the Ministry of Education. However, given the reality of politics in Sri Lanka, the number of portfolio positions demanded is possible to increase as governments distribute positions of power. Though this is not ideal, the system may still remain functional if these positions are created under the respective 15 core subjects.

While clustering is an important step, it will only facilitate better policymaking and implementation. It does not guarantee that the country will see the envisaged improvement in the government service. Addressing this concern, the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce has put forward further recommendations focused on the introduction of performance indicators. These indicators (which would be measurable and specific) would be set up for each ministry to ensure ministers are made accountable for the delivery of their key objectives. Making these indicators public at the beginning of each fiscal year would create a stronger culture of accountability in the government service. To push this reform further, ministerial performance on these indicators should also be a main criterion when allocating funds for the following years (7).

The introduction of performance indicators could ideally be coupled with the proposal advocating for a layer of technocrats (that are independently and impartially selected by a civil service commission) entrusted with daily administration duties under the ministers (8). This would ensure that ministers do not run astray with unrestrained power and that hasty election promises are weighed against legal, moral, and practical implications before being transformed into policy.

In light of these existing suggestions, and the evident complications of our current system, it is necessary that we streamline the allocation of our ministries by systematically grouping only the relevant departments that share a broader common objective together in order to create a clear mandate for each ministry and ensure proper channels of communication and co-ordination.

After parliamentary elections, the new government should move away from constant reshuffles in order to create policy stability and a continued flow of work within government. Finally, as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself pledged to support, cabinet ministers should be appointed upon a system of meritocracy (9). Their selection must be based on their level of competency and familiarity with the area of authority as opposed to seniority within the party.

The new government has a window of opportunity until parliamentary elections. This space and time can be utilised to formulate a structure of performance indicators and set the foundation for a more efficient and accountable system.

If these reforms are made and accountability is ensured under each ministry, it is likely that overall efficiency will increase. This means that government decisions like budget approvals and approval for projects can happen a lot faster, public services through each department will be more efficient and accessible, and public servants are provided with secure employment positions and clear responsibilities under their jobs. If the President is truly serious about improving the efficiency of our country, promoting meritocracy, and erasing corruption, what better way to start than with the peak of our governing administration?

(1) Daily FT, “President outlines policy priorities”, 19 November 2019, http://www.ft.lk/top-story/President-outlines-policy-priorities/26-689850 (accessed 19 November 2019)

(2) Government of Sri Lanka, Department of Government Printing, Subsidiary division/regional office/etc., The Gazette of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka Extraordinary, 28 December 2018, No. 2103/33, Page 18A http://www.documents.gov.lk/files/egz/2018/12/2103-33_E.pdf (accessed 19 November 2019)

(3) Dinesh Weerakkody, “The Cabinet reshuffle: No real takeaways”, Daily FT, 2 March 2018, http://www.ft.lk/dinesh-weerakkody/The-Cabinet-reshuffle–No-real-takeaways/5-650430 (accessed 19 November 2019)

(4) Government of Sri Lanka, Department of Government Printing, Subsidiary division/regional office/etc., The Gazette of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka Extraordinary, 28 December 2018, No. 2103/33, Page 58A http://www.documents.gov.lk/files/egz/2018/12/2103-33_E.pdf (accessed 19 November 2019)

(5) Government of Singapore, Singapore Government Directory, https://www.gov.sg/sgdi/ministries (accessed 19 November 2019)

(6) Sujata Gamage, “A framework for a Cabinet reshuffle – if the Government is serious about it,’’ Daily FT, 2 March 2018, http://www.ft.lk/sujata-gamage/A-framework-for-a-Cabinet-reshuffle-%E2%80%93-if-the-Government-is-serious-about-it/10513-650431 (accessed 19 November 2019)

(7) Dilani Alagaratnam, “Ceylon Chamber of Commerce’s key recommendations on legislation, regulations and governance” 17 October 2019, http://www.ft.lk/opinion/Ceylon-Chamber-of-Commerce-s-key-recommendations-on-legislation-regulations-and-governance/14-687769 (accessed 19 November 2019)

(8) Ravi Ratnasabapathy, “Politicians or technocrats?” Advocata Institute, 11 July 2018, https://www.advocata.org/commentary-archives/2018/7/14/politician-or-technocrats?rq=technocracy (accessed 19 November 2019)

(9) Gotabaya Rajapaksa, “Gotabaya Presents to you a Reconstructed Country with a Future Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour” (2019), page 6, https://gota.lk/sri-lanka-podujana-peramuna-manifesto-english.pdf (accessed 19 November 2019)

(The writer is a research intern at the Advocata Institute, and can be contacted at erandiyasara@gmail.com and @randyyrando on Twitter. Learn more about Advocata’s work at www.advocata.org. The opinions expressed are the author’s own views. They may not necessarily reflect the views of the Advocata Institute, or anyone affiliated with the institute)