By R.M.B Senanayake –
There is much discussion about the size of the Cabinet. Should it be 20, 30, 40 or even more? Are there any objective criteria to decide on this issue? It is helpful to ask what is the role of a Minister. A Minister according to the British- American tradition of governance is to involve himself in policy making in the Ministry he is in charge of. The detailed supervision of the Department is the function of the Head of the Department under the general supervision of the Permanent Secretary. We got rid of the concept of a Permanent Secretary and now each new Government appoints complete outsiders to head the Ministry as the Secretary. They may or may not be experts in the field of work of the Ministry. They may lack administrative experience which despite all the crap taught in our local universities about management can be best learnt only on the job.
Division of Labor enables specialization
Another important principle in Public Administration is the division of labor and specialization which takes place in the departments. A Department of Education is concerned only with education and over the years those involved in it acquire a special knowledge in the subject. There may be overlaps as when the Ministry of Health wants to educate and train the nurses. But by and large this basis of division of functions allows for exclusivity and specialization which adds to efficiency. Similarly with regard to Health or Irrigation or Agriculture. But division of labor while it leads to specialization also requires co-ordination for there are connected fields of knowledge which help in correct decision-making.
Need for Co-ordination
Are there a set of departments which require closer consultation before decisions are taken? This question was examined in Britain by a Committee headed by Lord Haldane and is called the Machinery of Government Committee. It functioned as early as 1918.They came out with recommendations and they identified two principal bases for grouping departments to achieve greater co-ordination. One is according to the function of the department. Consider the function of Agriculture which includes various services relating to agriculture provided by the government including agricultural research. In our country where much of the farming is in the Dry Zone and depends on the availability of water from the numerous reservoirs or tanks, irrigation is closely connected to agriculture for several operations such as ploughing and sowing depends on the availability of water. The extent cultivated under a particular tank must take into consideration the quantum of water in the tanks. Similarly agricultural support by way of the supply of seed, fertilizer etc require to be co-ordinated so that they are available in a timely manner.
Similarly Education or Health require specialized administration and well informed policy making. So they must be separate departments. The idea in establishing a Ministry is to group together related departments. This will ensure better co-ordination of the work of the different departments engaged in the same field or function. The Secretary will be the chief co-coordinator. If he is versed in the work of at least the main department of the Ministry it would help. If he has no experience in any of the departments nor has administrative experience in a large organization in the private sector it may suffice. But we don’t have many large organizations in the private sector unlike the USA where experienced managers in the private sector can move into government organizations although they may lack experience in the government sector. Public administration theory values only the experience in large organizations as equipping persons with administrative competence.
Grouping of Departments in Ministries
Another basis of allocation of departments to a Ministry is based on the principle of grouping departments which cater to the same clientele- the same class of persons in the society, say the farmers or the workers and their trade unions or the sick or the school children. This type of departmentalization or forming of a Ministry on such basis is not recommended because it leads to Lilliputian administration which prevailed under Mahinda Rajapakse who was only concerned with binding his Ministers to is support through the dispensing of the perks of office, never mind their capacity or need for it. It is impossible to provide a specialized or knowledgeable service when it is linked to providing a service to a particular class of people only and it is required to provide all the services required for that class of persons. Is the Ministry for women required to provide all the services required by women or only to deal with some special problems faced by women? The former would be unworkable.
The opposite situation is where a Department of Ministry provides a particular service only and to whomsoever requires it.
The Minister is required to be responsible to Parliament for the activities of the Ministry which includes those of the departments under him. Strictly he is responsible also for the financial management of his Ministry assisted by the Secretary who is the Chief Accounting Officer under the Financial Regulations. Our Ministers are not taking the responsibility for the financial management of their Ministries. If they do, they should resign when some fraud or malpractice is exposed in Parliament as in Britain.
So how many departments and Ministries should there be? If we have one Ministry for each department we have Lilliputian administration which leads to the waste of resources and lack of co-ordination. So on this consideration the number of Ministers should be concurrent with the number of Ministries or possible groupings of departments. So how many such groupings of departments should there be? It depends partly on the structure of the government and the extent of devolution of power in the State. We have Provincial Councils and Pradesiya Sabhas. But Ministers do not like to devolve power. So these institutions have not been allowed by the Center to perform the role envisaged for them. The Divineguma Department showed the absurd limits of centralization. The Departments doled out money directly instead of doing so through field organizations attached to the Pradesiya Sabhas.
Size of the Cabinet
What about the size of the Cabinet which may not include all the Ministers? There is obviously no point in including all the Ministers in the Cabinet. It should be the top policy making body. Northcote Parkinson of Parkinson’s Law fame says the ideal size of a Cabinet should be about five members because it is easy to get them together and they can act with complete secrecy and speed. Four of them may be well versed in finance, foreign policy, defense and law. The fifth, he says is one who has failed to master any of these subjects and usually becomes the Prime Minister or the Chairman. Presumably he may be the leader of the political party without any particular qualification or expertise except his proficiency in hoodwinking the people. If there are more than five there may be too much talk he says. But when it is five the total number soon rises to seven or nine. The usual excuse given in developed countries is to say that there is a need for more specialized knowledge. But in fact according to Parkinson in a cabinet of nine “policy is made by three; information supplied by two and financial warning by one. With the neutral Chairman it accounts for seven, the other two are ornamental. This allocation of duties was first noted in England in 1639 according to him. But the folly of including more than three able and talkative men in one committee had been discovered long before. The Committee seems to need the two silent members. According to Parkinson, cabinets in the world increase often because of their nuisance value when excluded. Their opposition can only be silenced by implicating them in every decision. As such persons with nuisance value are brought in the number rises to 20.The next stage in the evolution of cabinets is when they grow to thirty. The idea of representative members arises. Groups form within the ruling party all have to have a voice in the Cabinet and each group is placated by adding a representative member from such group. But as the number increases the cabinet becomes less and less a sound policy making body. Conversations then arise between members among themselves. Then the original five members who have the capacity and thinking ability decide to meet separately and so arises an Inner Cabinet. Beyond 20 the Cabinet seems to become ineffective. Where the Cabinet grows much larger it ceases to become the real power.
So the Cabinet becomes a talking shop and ceases to be an effective mechanism for taking decisions.