Reforms: what next?

3 May 2015 07:06 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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People should insist that political leaders move away from ad hoc decision making and adopt sound and transparent public policies to solve diverse problems.

ow that the crucial 19TH Amendment to the Constitution is through, one naturally wonders how the government would move forward to address a whole range of pressing issues that the country was confronted with.
The establishment of Independent Commissions in such areas as the police, elections, public service and the Judiciary following the enactment of the 19TH Amendment, one could theoretically expect a significant reduction in the exercise of discretionary powers by political leaders.
Yet, their actions in diverse spheres that come under their preview such as health, economy, energy and education will not necessarily be guided by objective evidence emanating from scientific research or serious policy analyses. This is due to the long standing hiatus in this country between research and public policy-making.
Since the country has not nurtured a tradition of evidence based decision making and systematic public consultations on important issues, political decisions on important issues has often been ad hoc often resulting in serious adverse consequences.
The situation becomes worse when important, potential policy making bodies are highly politicised. Our experience over the last several decades is that many such institutions maintained at public expense become refuges for electorally defeated politicians, friends, relations and political supporters of the powers that be.


Future prospects of the country and the life chances of the people would depend a great deal on whether the government adopts sound public policies in diverse sectors, be it education, employment, agriculture, health or public transport.
While it is necessary to develop evidence based policies in these and other areas, their effective implementation would depend on the efficacy of relevant institutions. In other words, the revamping of state institutions in different sectors is equally important. It is absolutely necessary to mobilise expertise around specialised institutions.
At times, it may even be necessary to attract expertise from abroad, if the relevant expertise is not readily available in the country. There are many Sri Lankan experts who are domiciled abroad at present but might want to extend their support to the country, for personal or patriotic reasons, to develop a particular sector.


 

"Due to the negative attitudes some of the public servants who may feel threatened by the returning expatriates. Some expatriate Professors who returned to Jaffna University after the war experienced serious opposition from some sections of the academic community."





Since the development of highly skilled human resources takes time, mobilisation of expertise from the overseas might be a necessary stop-gap measure.  As is well known, India went to the extent of establishing a separate Ministry to facilitate a reverse flow of Indian expertise and capital from other countries.
I proposed something similar to the government in 2005 but the then leaders did not show much interest, perhaps due to the negative attitudes of some of the public servants who may feel threatened by the returning expatriates. Some expatriate Professors who returned to Jaffna University after the war experienced serious opposition from some sections of the academic community.
If the leaders of the present government are seriously concerned about the future of the country and her people, rather than their own future, they need to recognize the critical importance of national and sectoral policies.
While it is unwise for the Ministers to assume that they know what to do in each of the sectors assigned to them, it is the responsibility of professional bodies and civil society groups to pro-actively articulate their views on policy issues in different fields so that political leaders do not take arbitrary decisions on matters that have a bearing on the life chances of citizens.





It is important that professional groups take part in public discussions on important policy issues, without allowing politicians to monopolize such discussions. While political debates are important, participation of professionals in policy debates can make public discussions more informative, balanced and disciplined.  We have watched enough talk shows on our TV channels where politicians exchange verbal assaults across party divisions simply to score political points. Such debates do not make us more enlightened but convince the general public that the country has a bleak future.
The absence of sound public policies to guide political decision making has prevented successive governments from addressing various issues infields in a rational manner. For instance, the agricultural sector in this country has an enormous potential to contribute to economic development, food security, rural employment, agro-based industries, and environmental protection.
Yet, the lack of a well thought-out agricultural policy has prevented the country from exploiting that potential. Similarly, the revamping of the country’s education system is urgent to solve many problems faced by younger generations but the absence of a rational education policy has hampered progress in the above direction. Many more examples can be cited but the point has already been made.


 


"We have watched enough talk shows on our TV channels where politicians exchange verbal assaults across party divisions simply to score political points. Such debates do not make us more enlightened but convince the general public that the country has a bleak future."





Despite the recent political changes in the country, political leaders are likely to continue with their long standing practice of making ad hoc decisions, without realising the need to formulate evidence based policies as a guide to day to day decision-making.
This situation will not change unless they come under pressure to adopt a different approach. It is in the interest of the people in this country to have a government that addresses various problems in a systematic fashion, taking into consideration our own past experience and the experience of other countries. There is a large body of knowledge on the subject that can provide a sound basis for political decision making.
People in this country have no choice in this matter. They should insist that political leaders move away from ad hoc decision making and adopt sound and transparent public policies to solve diverse problems that face on a day to day basis, be it traffic congestion, unemployment among educated youth, widespread alcohol abuse or poverty.

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