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Lessons from Lanza’s lament

Rural Roads and Other Infrastructure State Minister Nimal Lanza said in Parliament on Wednesday (23) that he has handed over a report to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa regarding the issues that have arisen in his State Ministry. At the centre of these so-called issues is the alleged disputes that have caused a conflict of opinions between Lanza and his State Ministry Secretary Prof. Ranjith Dissanayake. More interestingly, Lanza is reported to have instructed his private staff to temporarily refrain from reporting to duty.

While intra ministry opinion-related disputes being discussed in Parliament are not something we see every day, it is not at all a new phenomenon. There have been many problematic incidents caused by divergent opinions between politicians and public officials; the most notable one in the recent past being disputes in the Agriculture Ministry which allegedly led to the removal of ministry secretaries.

As far as governance is concerned, ministries and state ministries are quite important, because those are some of the most crucial points in the governing structure where there are politicians elected by the public based on a multitude of factors such as trust, name recognition, and experience, and public officials selected on a number of factors including education, experience, and efficiency. Essentially, they are some of the important institutions through which public representatives put into action what they promised the public with the help of the people who know how it is done.

Therefore, ministers and top ministry officials being on the same page is immensely important.

Addressing the ideological, political, and personal gaps between politicians and public officials is an arduous task due to the uniqueness of each situation. However, Sri Lanka can take certain steps to make the situation better to some extent.

For instance, ensuring that the minister and the top public officials making decisions with the minister are appointed after the careful consideration of their formal or informal education, knowledge, and experiences pertaining to the ministry’s subject/s, could lessen issues pertaining to the institution’s decision-making process. Even though the appointment of ministers is based on political interests, when the subject minister has some knowledge or experience about the ministry’s responsibilities, he/she can work with the top officials in a productive and less confrontational manner, or at the very least, appoint experts who know what the minister does not.

This is one of the advantages Sri Lanka would have had, had those who promised a “scientific” appointment of ministers and ministries done their part.

However, even if the minister and others working immediately under him/her have mutual interests, knowledge, or experiences, there could still be disputes due to personal opinions and interests, and there is no remedy to it, except appointing officials who are partial to the minister’s opinions and interests, which Sri Lankan politicians have been doing for a long time.

It is also important to note that neither appointing officials who are partial to a minister’s opinions and interests, nor appointing public officials strictly through an education and experience-based selection process, is advisable. In the first case, as mentioned earlier, disputes can occur very easily, although there is a certain assurance that knowledgeable people are at the decision-making level. In the second situation, even though co-operation and trust between the two parties would be at a higher level, there is no assurance about the quality of the decisions although that does not necessarily mean that their decisions would be unwise. However, it can create a very apt situation for corruption and inefficiency, as Sri Lanka has seen for many years.

That said, we cannot rule out the fact that a ministry and minister can work better with trustworthy and supportive officials, while at the same time, a ministry and minister cannot serve the people properly when there are no knowledgeable people in high positions. A combination of knowledge, experience, and trust could make ministries relatively more competitive, stable, and efficient and less prone to corruption, and in turn, the people will receive better services.