Colombo Telegraph

The Real Re-Election Deal For ‘Yahapālanaya’

By Rasika Jayakody

Rasika Jayakody

When the government launched its ‘Vision 2025’ plan last year, some saw opportunity in it, while others saw disaster.

The optimists thought having a mid-term plan of some sort would ensure policy stability and consistency, which was already in short supply. Further strengthening their hopes, the government was able to tie up its budget proposals with the ‘Vision 2025’ plan. It also sent the message that the government – whose popularity seemed to be on a sharp decline – had what seemed a genuine desire to be re-elected. Therefore, these moves could be counted as a morale booster for those who genuinely stood for the cause of good governance before January 2015.

Those who predicted doom placed this plan alongside many other ambitious promises of the government. These include the total abolition of Executive Presidency and the formulation of a new constitution – which have already run into a morass. They saw ‘Vision 2025’ as a fresh series of empty promises without substance or the required political will to be implemented. They openly said a fragile and a seemingly jury-rigged government had bigger problems to resolve on the ground than making grand plans for 2025.

Despite these doubts, however, ‘Vision 2025’ has already seen some progress. Enterprise Sri Lanka – in spite of many teething issues – seems to be a promising initiative. ‘Gamperaliya’ – a rural development plan – has been launched, with much fanfare. In addition, many other ministries have designed programmes in sync with the 2025 plan.

But, one common criticism against the current government is that it is hell-bent on making plans upon plans upon plans – with little focus on making a real impact on the ground. So, it is important to examine how the government can translate its grand vision into deliverable action that can be achieved within a specific period of time – before the ‘yahapalanaya’ seeks re-election, hopefully!

Now that’s where the real deal is.

In 2017, the now-defunct Cabinet Committee of Economic Management (CCEM), chaired by the Prime Minister, came up with a Tourism Strategic Plan which presented 144 action items that should be fulfilled by the four organizations under the Tourism Ministry within a three-year period (2017 – 2020). The plan, later approved by the Cabinet, is immune to changes at the ministerial or bureaucratic levels. The overall performance of each institution can be measured by its progress on the action items. The plan is public, the tasks are defined and the goals are set. And there is assurance that goal posts will not be shifted for at least three years.

Much of the progress achieved by the tourism sector in 2018 should be attributed to the TSP, as it narrows down the final objectives. Tourism is an area in which multiple stakeholders have diverse and often conflicting ideas on growth. Therefore, at every social gathering, direct and indirect stakeholders generously offer bright ideas on how to develop various aspects of the sector. That is why it is of great importance to narrow down the institution’s focus on a specific number of deliverable action items.

It is a model that can be used in relation to other important sectors as well. Take, for instance, the airport and aviation sector. Issues at the airport contribute to a major bottleneck for a few other sectors including tourism. Drastic changes such as automated immigration and more efficient ground-handling are non-negotiable for the development of this sector. Unfortunately, the problem seems to be the absence of clear and well-defined action items, that need to be fulfilled within a given time-frame. So, the politicians and bureaucrats overlooking the sector are not even clear on where to start with this seemingly arduous overhaul.

Relatively larger sectors such as health and education too have run into a similar problem. They have carried out important reform programmes in a haphazard manner without a clear idea of the big picture. The education sector, for instance, came up with the smart classroom project and the Suraksha insurance scheme for schoolchildren – two comprehensive initiatives that had the potential of revolutionizing the entire sector. But, a plan to grant tabs to school children, which was central to the success of the smart classroom project, got shot down at the Cabinet mainly due to political expediency.

The problem was that the Education Ministry had no strategic plan, nor did it have specific action items. Duly approved action items, incorporated into a time-bound strategic plan, leave very little room for political expediency – at least theoretically.

The Health Ministry has successfully brought down the prices of essential medicinal drugs. But there are many other factors that are pivotal to the mid and long-term success of this programme. That explains why such radical steps should be incorporated into a larger, irreversible action plan with a realistic timeline. That will ensure comprehensive and meaningful ‘change’ in the sector and long-lasting impact on the public perception.

If the government is serious about re-election, it has to adopt national action plans for at least five of the most important sectors. The action plans need to be in line with ‘Vision 2025’ and should present a specific timeframe, and should be clear on which state entity will undertake each task. In essence, it is a replication of the same model the government has adopted in relation to the tourism sector. The timeframe can vary on the strategic importance of the sector and on how fast the government wishes to see results.

In addition to the meaningful change it will bring about to the state sector, it will also be a KPI of sorts on the Cabinet ministers – a measure that is long overdue. So, when the government goes for the election, its stalwarts will have a ‘report card’ to present to their electorates before seeking re-election. That will, therefore, result in a slow, but steady change in the toxic election sub-culture of Sri Lanka – at least in a conceptual sense. That way, the winner will take it all and the loser will have a lot at stake.

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