MTI’s strategic reflections for new parliamentary hopefuls

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On the eve of the Parliamentary Elections, hoping to see a new breed of parliamentarians (from all parties), MTI Consulting shares some ‘strategic reflections’ – benefiting from its international consulting experience, thought leadership and research.

Wake up! Dreams need to be realised!

Our politicians have always had big economic dreams, manifested in grand slogans that have made crispy sound bites. The best way to judge if these dreams have become a reality is to measure the socio-economic prosperity of the base population – in comparison to economies with similar structures and circumstances.

The vision to make Sri Lanka among the strongest Asian economies is a commendable intent. How will we get there? What will be our value proposition? With whom will we compete? What will be our competitive advantage?

To get there, our human and natural resources must transform themselves into a very high value addition. And to do that we need radical changes in our competencies, mindset, work ethic and governance. How about starting at the top?

Develop your strategising competencies 

When a country is at economic crossroads, the policy makers should be deeply engaged in strategising, which in turn has to be based on strong rational analysis. For this to happen, the ministers must develop their strategising competencies and dedicate quality time.

However, if more of their time is spent on ceremonial and administrative aspects (which should be the job of the country’s civil service), then strategic decision making may be compromised.

At the end of each day, ministers should ask the question “What has been my strategic contribution today – that will eventually contribute to the socio-economic prosperity of the country?”

Symbiotic relationship with the civil service

Think about making politicians far less relevant, far less intrusive and confine them to their role as lawmakers. The democratic vote alone does not ensure widespread socio-economic progress. It needs a competent civil service (supported by effective policies and processes) – that will also keep politicians in their place. It also needs a clear strategic plan for the country – that will continue irrespective of who is in power.

Know your limitations – build an eco-system 

If the job of a minister is to be equated in corporate terms, it would be like a non-shareholding/non-executive chairman of a group of companies. To be a minister, neither is management competency nor subject specialisation a pre-requisite (only a handful do!).

If so, they should be confined to high level policy making and in doing so they need to consult subject experts and not make ego-based decisions. To achieve significant socio-economic progress, Sri Lanka needs independent, professional and empowered management of its State institutions, which has been progressively weakened and the vacuum filled by ‘politicians’. Capacity building is a must, but is a long-term process.

Politicians are no substitutes for technocrats 

To be a minister (under any regime) you need to be a politician. However if the main ‘qualification’ to be a politician is popularity among the masses, how can the responsibility of strategising and managing a country’s economy and its key portfolios be left entirely in their hands? It’s similar to appointing the trade union leader as the CEO of a business.

This is why a country needs an independent and professional civil service (with competent technocrats) to strategise and manage, while the politicians stick to their primary role as policy makers (which is why they are called “legislators”). When this mechanism is weak (or made weak), the politicians are quick to fill the vacuum!

Challenge the national budgeting process

Shouldn’t all parties in Parliament develop budgets on a consensus basis and then present it to the public? If this is a national budget, why should only the subject minister present it? Shouldn’t the key portfolios present their budgets/strategic initiatives, which will then be consolidated by the Finance Ministry? Wouldn’t it be great if for every item on the budget there was a simple justification that a layman understood? After all it’s the public’s effort that is quantified as budgets!

Ensure stability of State enterprise boards

With every regime change (sometimes even Ministerial change), the entire board of most major State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) are ‘sacked’ and replaced with an entirely new board, often with no formal transition or ‘knowledge transfer’ process. This can be detrimental to the business.

Two effective practices that can be considered are: Under the auspices of the Auditor-General, the Government should recruit a pool of professional non-executive directors, who can be rotated among the SOEs. They should be truly independent and cannot be politically dislodged. This can be in addition to the political appointees (if they must really resort to that!).

Make it a compulsory legal requirement for any outgoing SOE board to formally hand over a report and conduct a closing presentation for the incoming board – in the presence of an independent auditor.

Horses for courses 

Here are some ‘hard’ questions for ministers (be they blue, green or red) to turn on their inner searchlights! Selecting the head of an institution is a highly scientific HRM process – have ministers developed this competency?

Is there a documented job description and person specification for the heads of State institutions? Is that the basis of selection? What assessment methodologies are used to ensure job-fit and organisational-fit? What kind of orientation and job briefing is done when assuming duties? What KPIs are set, who and how are they measured and communicated to the public?

Analyse the root cause of parliamentary conduct

Every human action, barring insanity, has a reason behind it. Their reasons could be self-justified or driven by others. What we see in Parliament is only the manifestation. Therefore, instead of reacting to the manifested behaviour, we need to get to the root cause.

This requires a simple tool called a ‘Reverse Tree Diagram’, where you start with the ‘leaves’ you see and work your way to the root of the tree. You keep on asking ‘Why?’ – starting from the manifested behaviour you see – until you cannot answer ‘Why?’ anymore; and therein lies the root cause that must be addressed.

What did you learn from the last election results?

Identify your real reasons for success – is it the disgust with your competitor or did you deliver? Don’t rely on your brand reputation to do the job – the voter needs to ‘touch and feel’ the real value delivered.

As the saying goes “in the long term we are all dead!” – so balance long-term focus with short-term bias for action. Changes in voter sentiment can be easily tracked if you regularly sense the grassroots – don’t let arrogance get in the way. By far, Colombo is the least representative of Sri Lanka – the real world is out there.

Dare to disrupt the governance model? 

Why do we need MPs to represent us in Parliament? Can’t we all directly/digitally express our choices on issues of national importance and a well-managed civil service effectively execute such decisions? What if we do away with party politics and replace it with issue-based politics, which means no permanent parties, only temporary issue-based groupings?

Ask the hard questions

  • If I vote for a candidate from Party A, if he/she decides to switch to Party B after winning – is that not a fundamental violation of my choice?
  • Sri Lankans working abroad are, by far, the country’s highest export earner – why are they deprived of voting?
  • Most candidates are in high-spending mode for their campaigns. Can they all ‘afford’ this? Or are there ‘investors’ enabling them? For ROI or CSR? How does such high spending translate to voter benefit?

…and finally, when you get elected….

  • ‘Walk the talk’: Focus on delivering what you promised.
  • ‘Cut to the chase’: Start the value-delivery process now! Celebrations can come after you have delivered!
  • ‘Show me the money’: This is a paid job (with public money) to deliver effective and honest governance. Bashing opponents and taking revenge does not ‘feed’ the nation.
  • ‘Co-opposition’: Cooperate with and encourage a healthy opposition, while objectively competing.

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