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How not to do public policy: Messy visa changes in Sri Lanka

Nov 25, 2011 (LBO) - In most countries, visa fees are set through subordinate legislation. In Sri Lanka, it comes in the National Budget, read by the President, after more than a year of public vacillation. The end result is good, but the process was atrocious. It’s case study of how not to do public policy. How not to In 2010 came the out-of-the-blue announcement that the free visa-on-arrival policy that had been in operation for years would be withdrawn, except for citizens of the Maldives and Singapore. Within a few hours it was announced that implementation would not be immediate and that an online visa approval system would be established. In between, various interventions were made, including through this column (http://www.lankabusinessonline.com/sri-lankas-visa-changes/). Around a year later came the announcement of a USD 50 visa fee and the launch of a clunky online application site. The Indian High Commission objected, citing SAARC commitments. All announcements came with government imprimatur; none were flagged as tentative. But all were changed, except for that about an online procedure. Finally, the President himself announces the new fee structure as part of his Annual Budget Speech in Parliament: USD 10 for citizens of SAARC countries; USD 20 for all others; no visa fee from citizens of countries that do not charge visa fees from Sri Lankans, from children, and from those spending less than 48 hours in Sri Lanka (http://med.gov.lk/english/?p=8881). Outcome The end result is pretty good. It’s a reasonable visa fee structure that is unlikely to harm tourist arrival targets. Colombo’s incipient hub status has been protected by waiving the fee for transit passengers. The key is, of course, the smooth operation of the online visa application and approval system. If the website (http://www.eta.gov.lk/visainfo/center.jsp?locale=en_US) is clunky, the low fees will not matter, Sri Lanka will lose tourists. It will help, of course, if the principal website http://www.immigration.gov.lk/web/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=152&Itemid=197&lang=en is linked to the online visa site; and if the multiple sites are consistent. At present, the online site states that visa fees are USD 50 and has a special form for transit visas. The immigration site says nothing. How to Doing some background research before a policy is announced, or even a draft put out for comment, is a good idea. If this was done, countries other than Maldives and Singapore may have been on the exempt list. As far as I know, Nepal does not charge fees from Sri Lankan tourists. There may be others. It is generally a good idea to discuss any policy change with the relevant stakeholders, or even better, to hold an open public consultation based on a draft document. The former method is effective if one knows full well who the stakeholders are. But the latter method is better at ensuring the broadest coverage. For example, closed stakeholder consultation would not have unearthed the SAARC commitment, pointed out by the Indian High Commission. Who in government would have thought to consult foreign missions? Consultation allows officials to understand the problems, especially the unintended consequences. It also results in buy-in by the consulted stakeholders and makes implementation easier. What the government did for over a year was a form of consultation, but it was an ungainly messy form. The government would repeatedly make announcements, first about the visa-on-arrival being discontinued; then about online approvals; then about a USD 50 fee; and finally the Budget Speech announcement. Even now, there is no consistency with the Immigration website saying nothing; and the ETA website still saying USD 50. It is to the government’s credit that sensible corrections were made, in response to criticism and suggestions. But the ugly process has created a whole lot of uncertainty in the system. That is dysfunctional public policy; especially in an area like tourism where people have choices on where to spend their tourist dollars. More than anything, it makes the government look inept. The announcement in the Budget Speech gives the policy a sense of finality, but surely, doesn’t the inclusion of this kind of petty matter demean the Budget Speech? One hopes those responsible for the training of public officials will take note. Rohan Samarajiva heads LirneAsia, a regional think tank. He was also a former telecoms regulator in Sri Lanka. To read previous columns go to LBOs main navigation panel and click on the 'Choices' category.
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