Choices: To appoint or advertise?

July 3, 2006 (LBO) – The Information and Communication Technology Act, No 27 of 2003, was a watershed for a number of reasons.

  • It created a fully government owned company to implement a complex, cross-cutting policy initiative, the e Sri Lanka Initiative, initially funded at 53 million dollars by the World Bank. Government owned companies have been created in the past (e.g., LECO, AASL), but not for policy implementation.
  • It “sun-setted” the agency and the enabling Act. If Parliament does not extend its life by an amendment between now and 2008, the Act will repeal itself and the ICT Agency will have to go out of business. This is unique for Sri Lanka.
  • In creating a new agency, it abolished the predecessor agency that had a miserable performance record, CINTEC.

This too may be unique. For example, the Disaster Management Act No. 13 of 2005 created a Disaster Management Centre, but did not abolish or even subsume under the new entity the existing National Disaster Management Centre.

The two DMCs had to spend considerable effort figuring out the terms of coexistence, obviously a distraction they could have done without.With the departure of the founding CEO and rumors that CINTEC is about to be resurrected, it appears that the ICT Agency is entering a new phase.

Instead of a sterile board constituted mostly by ex-officio appointees, the favorite instrument of Sri Lankan legislative drafters, the ICT Act envisaged a Committee of Ministers that would help settle turf battles

It may be useful at this point to reflect on the reasons for creating the ICT Agency and the manner in which its leadership was selected.

Why ICTA?

Why was it necessary to create this new-fangled entity? The ICT sector is dynamic.

If the implementation agency were to work at the pace of government, or, worse, at the pace of CINTEC, it would be irrelevant.

To give one illustration, CINTEC started working on amendments to the Evidence Ordinance in 1987. The Law was enacted in 1995, eight years later.

One could think that like a baby elephant that is born after an extremely long gestation period, this law would be superior in quality; able to walk from Day One. But no; it did not even address the fundamental issue of the legality of a non-hand-written signature; it requires further amendments.

Instead of a sterile board constituted mostly by ex-officio appointees, the favorite instrument of Sri Lankan legislative drafters, the ICT Act envisaged a Committee of Ministers that would help settle turf battles; a Task Force made up of international and local thought leaders in ICTs to set policy directions; and a dynamic ICT Agency imbued with a performance-oriented culture to roll up its sleeves and implement policies.

Under three different governments, only the ICT Agency functioned; the others remained dead letters, like so much of our legislation. Yet, ICT performed. It did not make a mockery of its credo: “ideas actioned.”

Perhaps the principal reason was the quality of its personnel and the leadership team. And behind that were a series of critical decisions taken even before the Act became law; decisions on how to select the leadership team.

How was the original ICTA leadership team selected?

In December 2002, 4-5 months before the ICT Bill was placed before Parliament, newspapers carried full page advertisements for the leadership positions at ICTA, including that of the CEO.

The thinking behind the creation of the new agency was also disseminated through other means, such as a well attended and interactive public meeting at the Chamber of Commerce. In the first December vacation after the ceasefire, there were lots of expatriate Sri Lankans in town. Word spread.

A large number of responses were received, from Sri Lankans resident in Sri Lanka as well those in the Diaspora.

The selection committee, which was chaired by a government official, but which had a majority from outside, developed short-listing criteria.

A leading accounting firm was retained to manage the interviews and was responsible for the short-listing.

Based on the short list, interviews were conducted in person and over video conferencing facilities (because a significant number of those short listed were not resident in Sri Lanka).

Multiple interviews, each lasting over 30 minutes were held.

By the time the Bill was debated in Parliament the key members of the leadership team were already in place.

That is how the leadership team at the ICT Agency was selected.

Why should the government advertise again?

Everyone, including the non-executive Chairman of the Agency, seems to think the first team did a pretty decent job.

What better way to give the second team a similar opportunity to perform than to select them through a transparent and rigorous procedure?

The precedent exists.

Sri Lanka has grievously suffered from the wrong people being appointed to leadership positions. Why take the risk?

ICT policy is a complex subject.

It cuts across multiple fiefdoms.

It is, by definition, controversial.

The need to balance consultation and speed of implementation means that someone is going to be unhappy, whatever the Agency does.

For the Agency to succeed, its leadership must have legitimacy.

Not the kind of legitimacy that comes from being able to get an appointment with the President, but the real legitimacy that comes from being selected for the job through a transparent and rigorous procedure.

The United Kingdom is currently advertising for a CEO for the communications regulatory body, OFCOM.

Not only in the UK papers, but in the Economist, because it wants to attract the best possible applicants.

Why not do the same when filling the vacancy of the ICTA CEO?

Do better than was done in 2002; advertise in the Economist this time.

Sri Lanka has grievously suffered from the wrong people being appointed to leadership positions.

Why take the risk?

Why not do the right thing with ICTA, a sunset organization that cannot afford to mark time?

It has only three more years left before the money runs out and the Agency shuts down.

They had better be good years.

Let the non-executive Chairman liaise with the political authorities; let an independent and credible Board of Directors mediate the political influences; and let the executive staff roll up their sleeves and get the job done within the broad parameters set by the Board.

This could be the beginning of a trend. Just imagine: advertisements and transparent procedures for appointing the Governor of the Central Bank . . . the Chairman of the Airport and Aviation Services Limited . . . the General Manager of the Ceylon Electricity Board . . .