The President wanted to reshuffle the Cabinet by Vesak. This did not happen for whatever reason. I didn’t actually think it would make much of a difference. We have an ineffective and unaccountable Cabinet now. Why would assigning the same people different portfolios yield different results?
The present Cabinet is ineffective, we can agree broadly. Why would the President want to change it otherwise? Why would more than half the political junkies in the country be looking forward to this piece of political drama with bated breath if they were doing a good job?
But the next negotiated Cabinet will also as effective (or ineffective) as the present one, unless the President does something new. He should get every single Minister to sign a performance contract with him. If he wants, he can also involve the Prime Minister in this exercise, this being a national government and all that.
The allocation of portfolios can happen in the normal way. The only difference is that there should be a two-day gap between when they know what their portfolios are and when they take their oaths. In this time, they would have to study their responsibilities (the laws they are responsible for; and the Government entities that will be under their authority) and come up with some time-bound performance indicators. They can fill these into a standard contract template that would be handed over along with their assignments. The two days is for agreement to be reached.
Now there would be measures to judge who has been effective and who has not. Now there would be an end to the buck passing and lack of accountability. Every year, the President would conduct a performance review based on the contracts. If the key performance indicators had not been achieved and some extraordinary excuse could not be provided, he could send the non-performer to the backbenches and give the job to someone else. Seniority would cease to be the sole qualification for enjoying the perks that come with portfolios.
Ideally, the ministerial performance contracts would not be made public until the system gets established. Politicians should not be spooked. But now that the Right to Information Act is in force, that would not be possible.
There is precedent. I first heard about it from the Nigerian Minister of Communication Technology. In a conversation about her energetic approach to her subject, she said that she had a performance contract to fulfil. My understanding is that the ministers who were bound by these contracts then turned around and signed contracts with their senior subordinates. Everyone knew what was expected of them and by when. That’s the essence of accountability.
We need ministerial performance contracts. To keep appointing Cabinet members in the same old way and expect different results fits Einstein’s definition of insanity.