The march of folly Better service through local empowerment

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By 2017-08-22

Rajiva Wijesinha

In the midst of continuing dysfunctionality, increasing evidence of financial corruption, arbitrary decisions at education, abrupt changes of personnel initially introduced with great hype, it was good last week to receive some positive news. This was in the form of a circular issued by the Secretary to the Ministry of Home Affairs with regard to Divisional and District Secretariat Development Forums.

This is the first indication that there is at least some concern with regard to the commitment in the President's manifesto, that "The Divisional Secretariat will be made the chief unit that performs the priority tasks of the area. It will coordinate all activities such as skills development and supply of resources pertaining to the development of the economic, social, industrial and cultural sectors of the area."

I had hoped for some input from Abeykoon, since he had been Secretary of the then larger Ministry of Public Administration and Home Affairs when we had tried, with support from the United Nations Development Programme, to introduce some order into the functions of regional government agencies. It was following the excellent report on the subject by Asoka Goonewardene – whom I was glad to see the Prime Minister had subsequently roped into his little committee to suggest reforms for the public sector – that I suggested that idea for the manifesto. I was delighted that it was accepted, but then all interest seemed to lapse.

No coordination

I had been particularly worried about this because there was simply no coordination at all with regard to service delivery. The staff in the Divisional Secretariat had not been briefed properly about their responsibilities nor how to work. This was perhaps understandable since many of them had been taken on for government to win political points by giving jobs to unemployed graduates – including those with external degrees, which seemed even madder than usual – and there had been no attempt to train them properly or ensure that they understood their dual responsibilities, to the line ministries to which they were attached as well as to the head of the government administration in the area in which they were deployed, namely the Divisional Secretary.

The problem was further compounded by what were termed Coordinating Committees, which did nothing of the sort. They were chaired by politicians, generally Basil's favourites. Since the man's idea of administration was to empower sycophants, in the North and the East he gave enormous authority in this regard to Rishard and Hisbullah, both of whom made an effortless transition to the new regime.

Neither cared much about consultation or coordination, so I found that in many places the Coordinating Committee had not met for months. I suggested then to the Divisional Secretaries, who suffered from this, that they should hold the meetings on schedule, and politely tell the Chair, if he was busy and suddenly asked for postponement, that this was not possible. But to keep him happy they could tell him that decisions would be subject to his concurrence.

Too nervous

Unfortunately they were too nervous to do this. Now however, they have been specifically told that "After the dates for the Divisional or District Coordinating Committee are finalized on the calendar, unless it be a national reason, the fixed dates shall not be altered and although it is difficult for certain representatives to attend the meeting, the committee shall have the authority of convening the meetings and taking action accordingly. At a time when the co-chairpersons fail to attend a certain committee meeting, the proceedings of the meeting should be continued by adopting a proposal for a temporary chairman. Accordingly the proceedings held in such a manner shall be equally valid as the proceedings of the meeting chaired by the co-chairpersons.'

The circular has been sent out by Neil de Alwis, whom I first met when he was District Secretary in Ampara. He had succeeded Kannangara, an excellent public servant, who had I gather been unpopular with some politicians because he had been exemplary in looking after all communities without bias. Fortunately, he was transferred to reasonable positions, and is now in charge of Colombo.

Neil was also admirable, though he had the added problem of coping with the strange TNA Member of Parliament who had crossed over and was busily feathering his nest. At the reconciliation meetings I held in different Divisional Secretariats, there was universal criticism of the man, who simply changed at will decisions taken in formal discussion. He was only interested, Neil said direct, with profiting from any projects, but unfortunately he was backed by those in authority and the sufferings of the people continued.

Cockeyed electoral system

The present circular will help immensely to sideline those politicians who are not really interested in public service. I hasten to add that this is not true of all of them, but given the cockeyed electoral system we have, and the compounded confusion of where responsibilities lie (hence, the reference now to co-chairpersons) coherent programmes are difficult to formulate and carry out.

The circular then restores authority, unless the politicians are more committed, to the people who come to meetings and to the officials responsible for day-to-day activities.

We had gone further when I worked with Subinay Nandy former UNDP Resident Coordinator and his team and Asoka to suggest simple reforms to ensure effective coordination. I had wanted a couple of coordinating teams in each Divisional Secretariat, one to look at development issues and the other to work on what we termed protection. This referred to the various welfare and support programmes government implements, with particular attention to women and children (and was intended to promote coordination between the different ministries that handle support systems).

I do not think UNDP is still interested in this, because priorities shift with personnel, and the current Resident Coordinator obviously has different priorities. But I hope her sitting next to Ben Emmerson during his tirade does not indicate a hortatory attitude, as opposed to the cooperation in which both Neil Buhne and Subinay engaged. And given her UNICEF background, she should surely be interested in increasing support for children. Sadly, I do not think anyone in the concerned ministry knows how to leverage more support for our own initiatives in this regard.

Development component

Meanwhile, coordination with some aspects of the development component has been resuscitated with the support of the International Labour Organization (ILO). They are supporting coordination in select Divisional Secretariats, to ensure that those concerned with Skills and Employment work together. Fortunately, among the districts they have selected is Batticaloa where we have one of the best District Secretaries still in harness, Charles who did so much in Vavuniya, who was unfortunately shifted when she had instituted several very practical programmes with international support but under her aegis (such as the tracing programme for missing children). I managed the first time the last government sought to transfer her for very silly reasons to ensure she remained, but a couple of years later I could do nothing.

Neil was immensely helpful when ILO suggested the pilot programme and the present circular suggests that he understands the importance of ensuring that Divisional Secretaries take the lead role in coordination. This is vital now, for authorities at other levels cannot have thorough grasp of the particular priorities of each division. We must recognize that, just as Provincial Government Agents had to be superceded by District Agents (who had functioned previously as Assistants to the Provincial Agent), so now the District Agents must give way to those with better understanding of the local issues involved.

Neil's circular makes this clear, for it notes that "Issues related to the Divisional Secretariat Division should be discussed at Divisional Coordinating Committees and only the matters that were not decided upon at such committees should be submitted to District Coordinating Committees for suitable situations. If any matter which had not been discussed at the Divisional Coordination Committee is submitted to the District Coordinating Committee for discussion, such matter should be forwarded back to the Divisional Coordinating Committee".

Primary justification

The same concept is reiterated in the next paragraph too, indicating that Neil is well aware of the concept of subsidiarity, which is the primary justification for devolution – matters that concern a particular entity, whether an individual or a family or a community should be decided by that entity. But Neil is also aware of overlapping interests, so he lays down that "Should there be a common issue that may affect a number of Divisional Secretariat Divisions or emergency of special occasions, the District Coordinating Committee, with respect to an urgent matter with special significance, may even act without approval of the Divisional Coordinating Committee."

And he also notes the importance of wider consultation where relevant, in stipulating that "On occasions were some of the decisions taken on development activities at a Divisional Coordinating Committee or a District Coordinating Committee are affecting the activities of the line ministries, before implementing such committee decisions, the consent of the relevant line ministry, Ministry of National Policies and Economic Affairs and the Ministry of Home Affairs should be obtained".

I am not sure why the Prime Minister's group of geriatrics should be consulted, but I suppose Neil has to be cautious given the micro-management Paskaralingam and Charitha, with over 150 years of deadening experience between them, are determined to exercise. But the basic principles Neil enunciates, that decisions must be taken locally insofar as they affect local populations, but with due consultation, are admirable. I can only hope that this approach is widely accepted, and that the commitment in the President's manifesto to better service delivery through local empowerment is honoured.

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