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An Efficient and Effective Parliament Secretariat is a must

21 September 2015 06:51 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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verseas Development Institute in a report on Parliaments published in 2005 states – “In terms of enacting laws,  debating national issues,  checking the activities of the government and in general promoting the welfare of the people,   these duties and obligations are rarely performed with efficiency and effectiveness.” How and why does this happen this way?


I must begin by saying that the effectiveness and efficiency of a country’s Parliament is vital to the success of the country. Sri Lanka’s Parliament sadly has become another inefficient,  ineffective,  heavily over-staffed institution in the past few decades. The Parliament is a white elephant – a large spender – without proper evaluation/understanding or focus.  After the retirement of former Parliament Secretary General Sam Wijesinha,  gradually,  year after year, no one seems to know what is working,  what needs improvement and what is lacking – to contribute effectively and effeciently for the elected representatives to serve their country.


With long years of experience in the Parliamentary Secretariat and as the former Director (Administration) for a considerable period of time,  my firm conclusion is that – the Parliament Secretariat is highly bureaucratic,  weak,  ineffective,  inefficient,  heavily over-staffed,  lacking supervision and focus,  wasteful,  disoriented,    lethargic,  indifferent and in need of radical reforms and change without delay.  I am sad I became a victim,   particularly when I attempted to effect a  “change” to its existing culture.

I must point out that as in the case of other Parliaments in the world,   Sri Lankan Parliament too,   debates and enacts laws that have an impact on the daily lives of our people.  The next important function is the parliamentary oversight process -- this has not been taken seriously in our Parliament.  As the most crucial step,  owing to the increasing complexities,  the influence of the elected parliamentarians should be strengthened further to solidify parliamentary oversight process to bring about a balance within powers,  ensure proper use of resources,  and promote good and effective policies.

I have no doubt oversight includes monitoring and reviewing the actions of the government and holding them responsible and accountable by calling for their explanations to justify their decisions and actions. This also entails assessing whether decisions and actions are in order,  and in conformity with the policies and objectives to ultimately benefit the citizen.  Can we assure whether these requirements are satisfactorily met?



I suggest the following steps that need to be taken immediately for an effective and strong Parliament:
1)  Improving the legislative process
2)  Improving effective oversight functions
3) Improving procedures for budgetary   oversight  and financial control
4) Improving the performance of all Committees
5) Improving the overall efficiency and effectiveness of parliamentary secretariat



As we know,   in the past our politicos became engaged in one crisis after another,  due to the prolonged war.   They kept busy looking after themselves saying nothing progressive could be done owing to the war and excessive expenditure.    

There were no serious debates in Parliament to establish clear priorities and a consensus in identifying policies to take the country forward.  I even wonder whether the majority of them did possess the knowledge,    skills and abilities to perform their role as parliamentarians to design,  develop and implement proposals for the benefit of the country with professionalism. Parliament no doubt has been reduced to an extravagant talk shop and hence the challenges seem to be insurmountable.   A variety of causes have destroyed this institution, which needs to be resurrected if the present government intends to take the country forward.  We,  therefore,   need to introduce sweeping changes to the Parliament Secretariat,   now that the MS/RW government intends to clean up stables for the betterment of the people.   

One of the most obvious drawbacks had also been the undue dominance that was exercised in the past by the Executive President to independently perform parliamentary functions for the benefit of the people. The lack of knowledge,  enthusiasm to learn parliamentary practice and procedures are also other reasons for the deterioration of standards in Parliament.  The elected representatives should bear in mind that they are duty-bound to perform the task of representing the people,   (representative function), execute far-reaching duties and responsibilities in legislation (legislative function)  and to oversee government (control function). The present government should necessarily give better leadership in formulating development policies as an efficient,   responsible,   open and accountable Parliament while engaging more closely with citizens,  and local authorities in shaping,  preparing,  implementing and monitoring development polices and plans at local,  provincial and national level.

Parliamentarians need to be told that democratic governments that fail to deliver basic levels of stability and services risk losing their legitimacy.   Good governance is the only way in which governments and public sector institutions could guarantee the rule of law,  promote economic growth,  and provide some measure of social protection to citizens.  Generally,  the term “democratic governance” refers to a government’s ability to deliver on these promises while adhering to the democratic values of transparency,  representation,  pluralism,  and accountability.  

Governance programmes should seek essentially to promote an effective and efficient Parliamentary Secretariat,  public-sector institutions and processes that operate in a manner consistent with these democratic values by working with legislatures,  executive offices,  and local governments.  British Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service recently observed – “In fact,  that a leaner Civil Service,  open to new ideas,  can be better and
more productive”.

"For this purpose, the Parliament Secretariat should be turned upside-down.   Firstly,   down-sizing should be made a reality for a wide range of reasons"



For this purpose, the Parliament Secretariat should be turned upside-down.   Firstly,   down-sizing should be made a reality for a wide range of reasons.  The former Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa,  therefore,   addressed a communication – setting out the Terms of Reference - to the then Secretary General,  with copy to the writer to take suitable steps to increase the efficiency,  effectiveness of the Parliament Secretariat by taking appropriate steps for its reform after having recognized the  need, that enhancing technology alone is not sufficient but that the most crucial and difficult part is changing the behaviour and organizational culture.  Did this happen? No not at all.

The UNDP has spelt out that one of the 16 goals for sustainable development is – “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development,   provide access to justice for all and to build effective,  accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”.  I must point out that an initial payment of around Rs.200,000 was paid to SLIDA and SLIDA officials began a reform process with my wholehearted support given to them.  It is sad this process was terminated after my retirement.  I must point out this was a proposal approved by the Staff Advisory Committee headed by the then Speaker Rajapaksa. The failure to implement SAC decisions is a serious breach of procedure.

It was the former Speaker Joseph Michael Perera who came out vociferously that the Parliament Secretariat should undergo major changes and reform. He initiated a UNDP-  funded Project – Modernization Proposal for the Sri Lankan Parliament under the auspices of the UNDP, for which there was a query raised by the Auditor-General subsequently,  which was somehow buried alive at a PAC meeting  in the previous Parliament.  If this project had been implemented,   it would have benefited the Secretariat a great deal. The Modernazation Programme too died a natural death.


The Cadre which was around 200 in 1980s have increased to more than 800 at present.  The opinion of SLIDA offiicials was that this could not have gone up with computerization costing billions and billions from the 1980s – a waste of state funds.  The argument is,   except in certain areas,   the cadre is too excessive.  We believe that the present decade characterized as “leaner and meaner” and should,  therefore,  consist of the minimum, with a few mid-and-upper level managers only.  Furthermore,   the Parliament administration will need to become more creative in meeting both the human resource needs as well as the strategic objectives of the Organization.  They should be doing “more with less” because they are now doing “less with more”.  This has seriously eroded,   efficiency,   effectiveness,  discipline – the entire culture of the Parliament Secretariat.

The Parliament Secretariat must set an example to the rest of the public sector organizations. In Parliament most of the employees do the bare minimum or nothing at all. The Parliament should,  therefore,   promote positive work ethics, which results in a happier and more productive work force.  Negative work ethics causes delays,   creates cheap office politics,  unnecessary competition and antagonism among various departments internally.  The seniors,  therefore,  need to be firm and assert authority to foster camaraderie and loyalty among the workers making them grow like family members, being closed,   independent and a prestigious Institution.  

 

"Parliamentarians need to be told that democratic governments that fail to deliver basic levels of stability and services risk losing their legitimacy"



We should be happy that we are comparatively better off since we have a well-equipped Parliament similar to developed countries –  (a) Sufficient expert staff to provide impartial support to members across the whole range of work in Parliament (b) A well equipped Library and information service (c) Dedicated facilities for the main Opposition party and other smaller parties.  

In addition,  outsourcing may also have to be considered in areas such as transport,  hiring of vehicles,  computer maintenance,  cleaning services,  catering, etc.  However,  there are certain reservations in outsourcing due to the nature of sensitivity, etc.  and other reasons.

I conclude my article with a quote from Management Scientist Peter F. Drucker (1980): “It is even worse to overstaff than overfund (because) the one certain result of having more bodies creates greater difficulties in logistics,  in personnel management,  and in communications.  Mass increases weight,  but not necessarily competence; competence requires direction,  decision and strategy rather than manpower.”

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