Government Intervention

Decentralisation: Taking governance to the ground level

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In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning

Why should we have a limited government? – Part II

By Aneetha Warusavitarana

When speaking of a limited government, the first thing that comes to mind is the fact that governments tend to be so expansive. A plethora of ministries and an innumerable amount of departments and agencies spring to mind. However, it is important to keep in mind that when speaking of a limited government, the rationale goes far beyond arguing for fewer ministries and reducing the duplication of work and responsibilities within the government system. A limited government is one that is limited in scope – it identifies its key functions and expends all resources to achieve them. When speaking of the role of the government, its primary functions can be described as the protection of life, liberty, and property. When a government’s main role expands beyond this, there is a strong likelihood that the government will prove to be ineffective and even harmful.

How can a limited government run a country?

It’s all well and good to say that the role of the State should be limited to the protection of life, liberty, and property, but governments also provide a myriad of public goods. Doing all this requires resources, people, and departments. Given that this requires a significant amount of administration, how do you ensure the government does this effectively, while staying within its key mandate and with minimal corruption or abuse of power?

Can decentralisation be the answer?


Why should Sri Lanka move away from a centralised system of governance and increase the levels of decentralisation in the country? While there are some very theoretical explanations for decentralisation (which are important in their own right), we will use a simpler approach. In a population of approximately 21 million diverse people with different interests, preferences, and disposable incomes, how do markets allocate resources efficiently? Any A/L economics student will reply with the brief answer of the “invisible hand”. In reality, of course, there is no puppet master moving fruits and vegetables from one place to another. Each individual business acts in their own self-interest, resulting in a more efficient allocation of resources. Prices signal to these businesses – and the profits or losses these businesses make guide decisions to produce or sell – and thus, without the convening of committees or the presentation of any findings, an entire country is provided with goods and services it requires. William Easterly sums up this phenomenon as such: “The wonder of markets is that they reconcile the choices of myriad individuals”.

Price signalling works well in allocating resources because at any given point of time, it is impossible for one bureaucrat, or even a host of committees of bureaucrats, to have all the information necessary to dictate the production and distribution of a single good in an economy, much less all goods in an economy. This is because information and knowledge are localised, time sensitive, and tacit. In other words, information and knowledge cannot be transferred effectively in their entirety or in time. The fall of the Soviet Union is a testament to this.

What do markets have to do with decentralisation?

The same principle applies. The decision-making in a market economy is never centralised. While decentralisation will, of course, function differently – the spontaneous order created by price signalling in markets will not be making administrative decisions – the principle that centralised decisions are not effective stands. The reason behind this is that the information problems, which plague centralised decision-making of economics, also plague centralised decision-making for administration and governance. As much as a bureaucrat will find it impossible to distribute exactly the number of potatoes required to each province of this country, it is equally difficult for a bureaucrat to be located in a central government and to take decisions on local infrastructure. Any decision taken at a central level will not be ideal. There will always be information and local contexts that a bureaucrat is not privy to, and as a result, the decision will not be as effective.

Decentralisation brings governance and administration down to the ground level – it means decisions are taken by local government authorities who are best placed to make that decision. They are aware of local contexts and have been elected into office by the people in the locality, which would mean they have an understanding of what is needed. Of course, where the rule of law is weak, decentralisation can mean that local government authorities succumb to crony capitalism, as a system it is not without its faults. However, when comparing central governance and decentralised governance, in the case of decentralisation, there is greater opportunity for electorates to hold their representatives accountable, make their demands heard, and push for the reform that they want. In other words, it puts more power with the people and makes elected individuals more accountable to their voters – an admirable objective not only in principle, but also because of its effectiveness.

The burden of unprecedented costs

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In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning

Why should we have a limited government? – Part I

By Dilshani Ranawaka

“The government that governs best, governs least” – Thomas Jefferson

A state has three core tasks within a society: Protecting the life, liberty, and property of the people. As societies evolved, these core tasks were overlooked when more emphasis was given to managing economies. Should the state intervene in economic affairs? Would that be more beneficial to the economy and society?

For the following four weeks, “The coordination problem” will discuss why large governments cause more harm than good when they engage in tasks beyond ensuring freedom and security of the citizens and the rule of law.

The series titled “Why should we have a limited government?” will justify why large governments are a bane to the economy through arguments on costs, problems of coordination, and corruption. The series will then conclude with a fourth piece on what an ideal state looks like.

It is intuitive that larger governments incur larger costs. This takes place through two avenues: recurrent expenditures and management expenditures. The present Government has lost count of the number of enterprises the State owns, as revealed by the Advocata Institute’s recently published report “The State of State Enterprises in Sri Lanka – 2019”.

As of 2017, 1,389,767 of the labour force in Sri Lanka are employed in the public service. This is around 14.5% of the labour force. The enormity of these numbers is clear when compared with developed countries. For instance, Canada, which has a population of 37.6 million, has a public sector of 262,696, according to the official Government of Canada website, making it clear that a government does not need to be expansive even in the instance of a large population.

To make things even worse, the Government introduces salary increments either at the onset of an election or during a new budget proposal, instead of having increments dependent on performance.

With the recently proposed increment of Rs. 10,000 for the public sector, the expenditure for wages adds up to Rs. 768 billion for the year. This is around 25% of the government’s expenditure, as per the Budget in 2019. This exceeds the amount allocated for public investment (Rs. 756 billion) for the year 2019, which is around 24% of the budgeted expenditure for this year.

These complicated numbers bring questions to mind: Is providing jobs a role of a government? What is the opportunity cost? What are the indirect consequences? What is the concealed political gain from this process?

A state’s role goes beyond providing job opportunities. Some of the crucial elements a state should look into are national defence and maintaining law and order. The Easter attacks and ensuing events highlighted that the Government should be focusing more on its core functions before moving beyond.

Furthermore, when looking retrospectively at political campaigns, politicians target the votes of government officers mainly through the introduction of wage increments. While increments are positive incentives for productivity, politicians use them for popularity. In such cases, two factors increase the costs for the government. Since larger governments require more state officers for administration purposes, the costs incurred just for administration purposes increase. When politicians promising higher increments become popular, the cost burden for the government piles up.

Every decision made in the economy has an opportunity cost. A state could allocate resources either for consumption or for investments. Investments generate direct income in the long run while consumption creates effective demand which indirectly generates income. Given this backdrop, it is important to answer why unregulated and irresponsible expenditure by a state is catastrophic.

Let us explain through a simple example. If a household spends on consumption which does not generate income, the household has to resort to loans. A similar argument can be transposed towards a state. If a state spends on consumption (in this case the cost for expansion of the government), they have to utilise other methods such as loans or taxes which are reflected back on the taxpayers of the country. These wage expenditures incurred by the government are utilised for consumption most of the time. Alternatively, if politicians stop promising salary increments and reduce the size of the government, these wages could be utilised for public investments – a critical requirement for economic growth and long-term income generation.

Cost Burden

Leaving vital services aside, what do state officers incur to the government? Losses or revenues? Would an additional state officer cover the cost of their wages and generate revenue through their productivity? Would it increase the efficiency of the department? These questions should be standard criteria before unnecessarily expanding particular state departments. The experience one has at most government institutions speaks for the inefficiency that plagues these institutions.

What is the underlying cause of incompetence of the State in Sri Lanka? If the government is supposed to facilitate services, why do they operate their entities in a manner they generate losses? Why do we constantly see power cuts through the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) if larger governments are meant to provide better services? Could we keep our trust on the State, given the way they function with our money?

Do larger governments function better? The evidence seems to indicate otherwise.