7 July, 2022


The Size Of The Cabinet And The Allocation Of Departments To Ministries

By R.M.B Senanayake

R.M.B. Senanayake

R.M.B. Senanayake

Northcote Parkinson in his book published in the 1980s gave the size of the Cabinet of Ministers in several countries in 1978.It was seven in Switzerland, 12 in the USA,20 in Great Britain and France, 37 in the  USSR and 44 in China. He says that the coefficient of inefficiency must lie between 19 and 22. He says we should draw a line under the 20 for beyond that number the Cabinet is not the real seat of power. In such countries there is an inner Cabinet or a smaller group who exercise the real power. It is a general proposition that complex decisions should be made by persons who understand the subject. When I was in the public service I was privileged to be called to a Cabinet meeting- to a Cabinet which was adorned   by the likes of Dr. N.M Perera, Dr Colvin R. De Silva and Felix Dias Banadaranaike who was my Minister. I was surprised by the fact that except for these knowledgeable men none others were interested in the subject. My role was to be a backroom boy to provide the facts to my Minister. How many Ministers who are no patch on these previous Ministers, can carry on a meaningful discussion today? Yet we have 50-60 of them.

Ministers must be knowledgeable and  competent administrators

The original Executive Presidential system of government unlike the Westminster system was based on a strict separation of powers between the three organs of the State to ensure freedom – a proposition formulated by the French political scientist- Montesquieu. So in USA the Secretaries of State –the equivalent of our Ministers, are drawn from outside Congress- the Legislature. The men appointed are all persons who are experienced in administration either public or business administration. The French Constitution continued this separation and insisted that where a Member of the ‘Parlement ‘was appointed to the Executive branch as a Minister he would have to first resign his seat in the Parliament but may attend its meeting without a vote. The French appointed retired public servants to the Executive branch to obtain the necessary skill and expertise required to be a Minister. We have appointed a whole horde of semi-educated MPs as Ministers to supervise and run the Departments. Result is chaos.

Cabinet&DeputyMinistersThe British taught us that administration or management is a skill to be gained from practical experience and not merely studied from books on management. Unfortunately our Universities are propagating the myth that management can be learnt from textbooks. The textbooks merely instill some principles which are better understood only by ‘on the job’ hands on experience. The former Ceylon Civil Service was based on this principle where the initial appointments were as cadets and they were rotated on jobs until they acquired sufficient maturity and experience when they could specialize in running a particular department.  A government is only good as its administration. There has to be a separation between supervising a Department and micro-managing and interfering in operational decisions. The latter can only produce inefficiency and chaos.


The original constitutional scheme introduced in the Soulbury Constitution was based on Government specializing in one or more connected functions or subjects such as education or health. The departments were answerable to the Permanent Secretaries and were based on Public Administration theory and practice. The Haldane Committee of 1915 in England called the Machinery of Government Committee,  discussed at length how to group departments so that where consultation and co-ordination was required, it was possible to do so. The Haldane Committee discussed three bases for the grouping of government departments- by subjects, by functions and by the clientele served by the department. Should health education be a part of the Health Ministry or of the Education Ministry? The Committee recommended grouping by functions so that allied functions could be grouped together and allow for the necessary co-ordination. It was never visualized that every Department should be a separate Ministry. But this is what the present regime in order to bind Members of Parliament to the Executive President has done. It is a travesty of the principles of departmentalization and a sharp practice to give perks to Members of Parliament without their making any positive contribution to the administration and policy-making. It has undermined the functioning of departments merely to give personal benefits to Ministers. It is a dishonest exercise of power unheard of anywhere in the world not even in the backward African countries. To make the confusion worse confounded the President has appointed a large number of Consultants for the various functions.  So now the administrative structure is choked and hidden beneath layers of czars and other presidential flunkies. The lack of clear responsibility means that intrigue and factionalism flourishes in an executive branch that increasingly resembles the corrupt Borgia court superimposed on the Byzantine Empire during the Middle Ages. It is a chaotic situation totally undermining good governance and one of its manifestations is the recent episode where the High Commissioner in London was slapped by a Minister supposedly monitoring the Ministry of External Affairs.

Good Governance principles flouted

The sprawling Executive branch distinct from the Administrative branch of the departments has by now absorbed most of the functions of governance. Staff are appointed by the politicians on the basis of patronage. So administration which requires expertise is being undermined. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is in shambles. The traditional way of governance practiced by the Kings of old was through division of power and setting one subordinate noble against anther- divide and rule. In this way the nobles who were the heads of the administration of their fifes were kept divided. This same practice is now being practiced by the regime. Our governance traditions had no experience of the requirements of good administration. Only the principles of power play by Kautilya (repeated by Machiavelli later on) were known and practiced. It is the Chinese who first understood the requirements of good administration as distinct from the practice of the power game. The Romans learnt from the ancient Chinese and the British learnt from the Romans. So the SLFP which consisted of village nitwits never understood the principles of good administration. They encouraged tale carrying by subordinates against their superiors and engaged in intrigues. So a web of hypocrisy and deceit has been created. Machiavelli thought a ruler should be feared rather than loved. But he is not right. There comes a time when fear will not make Ministers loyal to the ruler. Meanwhile the system has become too complicated even for the author of the system – the President, to understand   or control.

The actual expansion of presidential authority cannot compensate for the gradual erosion of power. The President is the center of a cult of personality but the reality of power may be changing. The President may think he is answerable only to the people. He thought he had bought the loyalty of the coalition parties. But Minister Rauf Hakeem has spilt the beans on him to the UN Human Rights Council and wants to remain as a Minister to enjoy the perks of his office- to have the cake and eat it. Others seem to conspire behind the President’s back.

And because the president symbolized the entire government, the public had come to accept him as the dispenser of patronage. But the earlier politics of partisanship where all Ministers exercised patronage has been changed into a system where only the ruling family is exercising power and patronage. The politics of political party partisanship has given way to a politics of personalism.

The corruption of journalists and professionals including the members of the Judiciary is an inevitable consequence of the new system of presidentialism. The presidential court has become the major source of honors for intellectuals and professionals who compete frantically to win its attention by sycophantically praising the president or denouncing his rivals. Even as the presidency absorbed more and more power into itself, intellectuals urged on further institutional power grabs by the executive branch. Each intellectual had a pet scheme for social or economic reform and dreamed that it might be imposed on the country by fiat. For that reason, even intellectuals and professions agreed that the president should have the power to govern the nation from above with minimum obstruction or debate.

While a culture of sycophantic hero-worship was one consequence of presidentialism, another was political terrorism. Governing is hard and divisive, while posturing and pontificating are easy.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Mtr.Senanayake, Congratulations and thank you. You have said it.All of the sticky mess had been adverted to.

    This is the peach;”The corruption of journalists and professionals including the members of the Judiciary is an inevitable consequence of the new system of presidentialism. The presidential court has become the major source of honors for intellectuals and professionals who compete frantically to win its attention by sycophantically praising the president or denouncing his rivals”

    Thank you again.

    The question is: Will we live to see the day this muck that had been going on since 1977 is got rid of? I doubt it.There is no force with the opposition committed and intellectually capable of changing this set up.

  • 0

    Ask the UNP how many ministers they will appoint if they come to power. The answer will be more than 75.

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