Professional governance vs political governance

| by FS

(October 12, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Once again the much-harangued Board of Investment (BOI) has been thrown into the spotlight over its role in the economy and specifically that of attracting foreign investments. For that matter, no one really knows what it does NOW or is supposed to do ever since some government higher-ups including Treasury boss Dr P.B. Jayasundera began slamming the agency for its ineffficiency and incompetence and it was announced that changes would be made.

In the past year what has happened at the BOI, the premier, investment agency of the country? There has been absolute confusion as far as investors are concerned.
In the good old days (as old-timers would call it many years back), government officials were barred from criticising state institutions for their incompetence and, this was left to the politicians. There were ARs and FRs on the role of the bureaucracy, behaviour and discipline. Everyone went by the book. Any official asked to carry out an order from a higher official or politician, referred ‘the book’ to ensure its legality.

Nowadays a few mandarins in the Government decide how other top officials – permanent secretaries or secretaries to ministries - behave, perform or what they should say or not say. This what we call political governance as against professional governance ( practised those days).

The to-and-fro decision-making in the Government has been inconsistent and always based on an event, issue or a crisis. After ad-hoc decisions are made, often against some rule or guideline, efforts are then made to regularise the decision. And, in the midst of an inepth and incompetent opposition, the Government has a field day in this kind of political governance-driven, decision-making.

Often businessmen, either hankering for contracts with the government or just plain reluctant to rock the boat, are silent when this kind of decision-making takes places. Occasionally issues are raised, though muted and with a ‘sheepish smile’ at a public forum though there are others who speak out.

Senior Minister Sarath Amunugama has also been a vocal critic of state agencies like the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and the Ceylon Electricity boards, dens of corruption and inefficiency and publicly stated so. However a ‘professionally-governed’ administration will correct the wrongdoing, has an obligation to do so and is elected for this purpose, rather than expect the public to put pressure on whoever (unions, etc) -- which is the motive for public statements like these.

Back to the BOI, the Treasury boss in the November 28, 2011 edition of the Business Times, was quoted as saying at a post-budget forum that the BOI will be ‘completely restructured to cater to the needs of specific sectors’.

This week on Monday, the same record was repeated, with Dr Jayasundera now saying the ‘re-orientation’ of the BOI will be completed within the next two or three weeks to enable it to take the lead in defining investment priorities. At the same forum, an exporter/investor said the BOI is now a ‘dead duck’ and the staff not concerned about investment promotion.

In the past year what has happened at the BOI, the premier, investment agency of the country? There has been absolute confusion as far as investors are concerned. Tourism authorities have set up a fast-track approval system (bypassing the BOI) and the Economic Development Ministry has its own approvals scheme. Jayampathy Bandaranayake took over as BOI chairman for a short period but there was little he could do. Floor changes at the BOI offices at the World Trade Centre also saw politics creeping in and disputes between unions and officials. Some officials keep a brave face for the media but the real story was hidden.

All in all the BOI is an utter mess. Investors who visit the headquarters will vouch for this disorganised, pillar-to-post state and no one should not expect much to happen from PBJ’s latest statement – unless of course a miracle occurs.

The decision to re-organise the BOI or change its focus came at the end of the conflict and the need to promote Sri Lanka as a war-free, investment base. This was the right thing to do given that Sri Lanka has been battling against all odds to attract investors in a conflict-ridden country, which no doubt was a difficult task to any investment-promoting agency.

However where it went wrong in the re-structure process, and why it is still to be seen as efficient by investors, leads us to the dominance of the political governance system against professional governance. When will we learn!