We are on the threshold of yet another parliamentary election. Whoever forms the next government will have a daunting task to revive our economy, badly battered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The gravity of the situation can be imagined by the prediction of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) that our gross domestic product (GDP) will undergo a contraction of 6.1 percent during 2020 and a positive growth of 4.1 percent in 2021, from the depressed level of this year. This means that even by end-2021, we will be still below the level in January 2020.
There are some indications that a net positive growth over the 2019 level can be reached only after two years. The recession by 6.1 percent, if it happens as predicted by ADB, will be an economic disaster unheard of in our country.
There were several discussions at the Chamber of Construction Industry of Sri Lanka and other forums on measures that should be adopted to revive the economy from the present plight. This article is based on some of the observations at these discussions and personal experience of the writer.
To lead the economic revival of our country, it will be essential to have a smaller and manageable Cabinet of Ministers, with the subjects logically grouped to ensure operational efficiency, backed by a team of ministry secretaries well-versed in the subjects and with a broad vision.
The Cabinet of Ministers is charged with the direction and control of the government (Article 42.1 of the Constitution). Any ministry secretary, considered the CEO and chief accounting officer of the ministry, has to exercise supervision over the departments and institutions under the ministry, subject to the direction and control of the minister (Article 52.2 of the Constitution).
The Administrative Reforms Committee of 1988, in their report, has found that “the proliferation, over time of ministries, departments, authorities and enterprises within the administrative system constitutes a significant structural defect” and it recommended “the rationalisation of the distribution of the responsibilities and tasks”.
Needless to say that the expansion of the Cabinet beyond an optimum level will lead to illogical allocation of subjects and distribution of departments and institutions, which will eventually lead to duplication, waste and operational inefficiency.
The growth of the Cabinet of Ministers since independence can be seen from the Table given.
A comparison with other countries shows very clearly how unviable it is to have a Cabinet with over 50 ministers for a low-middle-income country like Sri Lanka, with a population of only little over 21 million.
The most populous country China, with the second biggest economy, has a Cabinet of 25 ministers. The most powerful country, the USA, with the biggest economy, has a Cabinet of 15 and another eight Cabinet-level appointments. The functions of 15 ministers in the USA called secretaries are defined by the Constitution.
India, which is the democratic country with the highest population of 1380 million and the largest diversity with 30 major languages used, has a Cabinet comprising 24 Cabinet ministers, nine independent state ministers and 24 state ministers. In Japan, the number of ministers is limited to 20 by the Constitution.
In the UK, there are only 26 ministers and in Singapore, which some of our political leaders wished to emulate for developing our country, the Cabinet comprises of only 19 ministers. It is an exemplary Cabinet of Ministers, with all having university degrees and 15 of them with postgraduate degrees. We can’t even dream to have such a Cabinet of Ministers. The closest we had was the 1970 Cabinet of Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
Looking at the Cabinets formed since 2000, the following three main reasons contributing to operational inefficiency and thus affecting the smoother implementation of development plans can be identified. In addition, this would have caused a waste of public funds.
1. Oversized Cabinet
2. Frequent changes to subjects assigned
3. Illogical grouping of subjects
On the oversized Cabinets, including all types of ministers (Cabinet, senior, state and deputy), in November 2014, we had a record number of 108. With Parliament having only 225 MPs, this means 48 percent of them held ministerial portfolios. In January 2018, we had a Cabinet of 93. Perhaps 48 percent of MPs holding ministerial portfolios could be a world record.
With regards to frequent changes to subjects assigned to Cabinet portfolios, it is observed that during the five-year period, 2010-2014, the Cabinet was changed 11 times. During the next five-year period, 2015-2019, there were 32 changes. With each change, name boards and letter heads of ministries and institutions under will be changed. In addition, some of the new ministers will want to change the furniture and interior decor of the ministries as well.
During the past, many years breaking up harmonious subjects was observed very often. We found education, which was a single ministry up to 1980, split into three ministries of education, vocational education and higher education. In one instance, there was a fourth ministry for educational publications. Similarly, the Agriculture Ministry was subdivided into four ministries as Agriculture, Agrarian Services, Minor Export Crops and Sugar Industries.
For illogical grouping in the past, assigning telecommunications, sports and foreign employment under one ministry can be cited as a good example. Similarly, what logic can be adduced to grouping water supply, city planning and higher education? Also, grouping of housing and construction with cultural affairs defied any logic.
Another unhealthy impact due to oversized Cabinets is the appointment of some of the less experienced officials as secretaries, due to the scarcity of experienced public officials for selection as ministry secretaries. This is very evident when we compare some of the recent appointees with the standing of our ministry secretaries about 40 years back or even with the present ministry secretaries in the neighbouring country, India.
Considering the daunting task of rebuilding the economy post COVID-19, that will be faced by the new government, which will be formed after August elections, ministries will need well-experienced and efficient secretaries, who are capable of out of the box thinking to guide the ministers. For this, a mix of private sector and public sector experiences could be useful.
As such, the president may well consider inducting senior professionals with private sector experience and good track record to approximately 40 percent of the ministries as secretaries, at least for the next three years.
The 19th Amendment to the constitution has limited the number of Cabinet Ministers to 30 and the number of non-Cabinet and deputy ministers to 40. These limits will apply only if all the ministers are appointed from the political party having the highest number of seats in Parliament.
On the other hand, if the party with the highest number of seats joins with one or more other parties in Parliament, to form a so-called national government, then the above limits will not apply. This was what we witnessed during 2015-2019.
Considering the operational efficiency and political expediency, it is proposed that the next Cabinet of Ministers should be limited to 30 ministers and 30 deputy ministers. There should not be state or other non-Cabinet ministers, as they are also provided same staff and perks as the Cabinet Ministers.
The proposed allocation of subjects is given below.
1. President and M/Defence (If not possible under the Constitution, this to be assigned to Prime Minister)
2. Prime Minister and M/Finance and National Planning
3. M/External Affairs
4. M/Public Administration, Provincial Councils and Local Government
5. M/Home Affairs and Parliamentary Affairs (To include Immigration and Registration of Persons)
6. M/Urban Development, Housing and Construction
7. M/Irrigation, Water Supply and Drainage (includes Mahaweli Development and SLLRDC)
8. M/Highways and Transport
9. M/Ports, Shipping and Aviation
10. M/Power and Energy
11. M/Science and Technology
12. M/Environment, Forestry and Wildlife
13. M/Food and Agriculture (To include Livestock Development, Minor Export Crops and Agrarian Services)
14. M/Fisheries and Aquatic Resources
15. M/Health and Indigenous Medicine
16. M/Education (To include Vocational Education and Higher Education)
17. M/Internal Trade and Cooperatives
18. M/External Trade and Investment Promotion (To include EDB and BOI)
20. M/Plantation Industries (To include Estate Infrastructure)
21. M/Industries (To include Small Industries)
22. M/Labour and Employment (To include both Local and Foreign Employment)
23. M/Youth Affairs and Sports
24. M/Women, Child Affairs and Social Security (To include Samurdhi)
25. M/Justice and Constitutional Affairs
26. M/Lands and Land Development
27. M/Disaster Management and Resettlement
28. M/Mass Media and Information Technology
29. M/Posts and Telecommunications
30. M/Cultural and Religious Affairs
With the new Cabinet, it is proposed to establish a National Planning Commission, drawing the resources of National Planning and National Physical Planning Departments in addition to outside experts. It is noticed that such commissions under the chairmanship of the prime minister have been very effective in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Both India and Bangladesh have shown strong economic growth in the past several years. In Sri Lanka, the proposed commission could have both president and prime minister as co-chairs.
In the proposed Cabinet, the importance of construction as a ministerial subject is identified and grouped with urban development and housing. Having the building plans approving authority, the UDA, construction industry regulator, CIDA and condominium management authority, CMA under one ministry, will be useful. The CECB, being a state construction agency, should also be brought under this ministry in addition to other institutions at present.
It is also proposed that construction activities of all ministries, which do not have a strong engineering base, should come under the technical control of this ministry. This was the practice before 1977 and could contribute to eliminate lot of wasteful expenditure on development projects.
Also in this, the subjects dealing with water, viz irrigation, Mahaweli, water supply and drainage are brought under one ministry. As the main statutory function of the SLLRDC is management of canals, it should be under this ministry.
Similarly, transport and highways are grouped together, which was the practice up to 1977, as the Transport and Works Ministry. Primary and secondary education, vocational and higher education are brought under the Education Ministry, which was the practice for a long time since independence.
It is earnestly wished that under the astute leadership of the president and prime minister, a well-structured and manageable Cabinet, with only a total of 60 ministerial appointments, could be realised, to lead the country out of the economic morass we are in, by setting an example to cut down expenditure from the very top. To ensure continuity of these ministries, it may be worthwhile to consider including the above Cabinet structure in our Constitution as in the case of the USA.
(Nissanka N. Wijeratne is a former Secretary to two Cabinet ministries and Chairman of three state corporations, in addition to serving the government, Army and private sector as a professional engineer in Sri Lanka and overseas in different capacities, for 50 years. Currently, he is Secretary General/CEO of the Chamber of Construction Industry of Sri Lanka)