[lg policy] Sri Lanka: Open Policy Formulation For Colombo

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sun Sep 25 16:26:38 UTC 2011

Open Policy Formulation For Colombo

Policy experts like to consult.  One reason is that blue-sky policy
formulation never works.
One does need abstract concepts and specialised knowledge for good
policy, but the best policy melds specialised knowledge and concrete
facts about the problem that is to be solved.  There is never a “best”
policy for all circumstances; the best policy is what fits the
circumstances best.

Reaching all

Policy making also involves complexity.  Concrete conditions are
always complex.  Problems interact with each other.  Policy solutions
interact with each other.  Unintended consequences are common.
Consultation helps avoid problems. Another reason is that one needs to
identify the winners and losers and strive for a win-win solution.
The last is that one gets buy-in through consultation. Some experts
like to talk to a few other experts.  Others like to consult all stake
holders.  Still others like to throw it wide open.  The first option
is economical with time: the parties know the language and share the
assumptions, but that is its weakness too.  When you throw open the
process to all, the workload can be very high, especially if one wants
to be responsive.  But the yield is rich.

The classic method of responding is to publish a table containing all
the suggestions and comments received, along with the responses.
When I was running policy for government back in 2002-04, we used open
policy making.  We used to run newspapers advertisements in multiple
languages containing summaries of the document being developed along
with a URL where the document could be downloaded and the time and
place of the consultation.  We provided hard copies very rarely.  The
advertisement was in all three official languages but we did not
translate the document itself.  Unlike when I was at the Telecom
Regulatory Commission (TRC), we did not go out into the regions.  All
consultations were held at the Treasury in Colombo.

Imperfect, but given the speed at which we were moving and resource
constraints, it was the best we could do.  It was, however, more open
than anything else that was being done at the time.

How open?

Were we biasing participation opportunities by not translating the
texts?  Were we privileging those with access to the Internet by
asking that it be downloaded?  Were persons outside Colombo
disadvantaged?  Should we have reimbursed travel costs for
intervenors, as we did when I conducted public hearings at the TRC?

Any particular configuration of technologies used for consultation can
be criticized.  The only one immune to criticism is no consultation.
If you run a stealth process no one will know that a policy is being
formulated.  That is the safest.  But it is sub-optimal in technical
terms and wrong when making public policy.  In the real world, one
balances and compromises, factoring in available technology, time and
Sri Lankan political campaigns are short.  We have no tradition of
paid professionals running them.  Volunteers are hard to manage.
Resources put into the web interaction takes away from face-to-face.
Netizens like the candidate to directly engage with them, so do the
majority of the citizens of Colombo who never go anywhere near the
Internet.  One has to balance.
So what was the balance we settled for in the Milinda for Mayor Campaign?

Open policy making

A draft policy platform was presented to the media early in the
campaign.  The text was placed on ourcmb.com, a site optimised for
receiving comments.  Suggestions are being actively solicited through
face-to-face meetings and through Facebook.  The website works only in
English, but all three languages are available on Facebook.  A revised
document reflecting the process will be published a week or so before
the election. There was a tussle over the design of the original
advertisements.  Understandably, the designers did not want to clutter
their elegant advertisement with multiple contact information.  But
given the political purpose, a postal address and a telephone number
etc., were also provided.

The test was whether the suggestions would come; whether a jaded
electorate would yawn and turn the page. The first weeks indicate
otherwise.  Suggestions and comments have come in thick and fast.
People write to the candidate or share ideas with him at meetings.  He
discusses them with the policy team regularly.  I have participated in
interactions with community activists.  A few letters have come.  But
the website and Facebook have been fecund too.

An educator from Wadduwa told the candidate what kinds of information
should be provided to people interacting with government.  The
suggestion was about registration of births (a matter outside the
remit of the CMC) but still a useful input for the design of the
e-government services being planned for the new CMC. As the head of
the policy team, I respond to comments related to policy on behalf of
the candidate.  For comments on issues the target is a response within
two days.  This was achieved in the second week.The first addendum
that was developed was triggered by concerns about three-wheelers
voiced at face-to-face meetings, with some input from those coming
through the web.

A city requires taxis as part of its transportation mix.  Taxis can
range from three-wheelers to air-conditioned cars and vans.  The CMC
under my leadership will design and implement a framework for taxis
that will include co-regulation to ensure the rights of consumers and
the provision of necessary facilities such as parking areas.  In
contrast to many cities where the municipality directly regulates taxi
service, it is my intention to develop a co-regulatory mechanism
whereby all operators will be required to join associations which will
develop standards for charging, cleanliness, hours of operation, etc.,
with the concurrence of the CMC.  It is only when the associations
fail to ensure adherence to standards that the CMC will intervene.
Facilities such as parking for three-wheelers will be provided through

Rapid transit has been much discussed by netizens.  The policy team
had discussed the subject at length and included it in the document.
In the first instance, rapid transit serves suburbanites with business
in the city, thus requiring a region-wide approach.  It is very costly
and thus requires mobilization of expertise.  The process needs to
start, without specifying a technology.  This is what the document
currently states: no decision on changing the language as yet.People
are beginning to discuss the pros and cons of removing plant sellers
from the city’s premier park.  Attention is being sought for the
children’s playground equipment at Vihara Maha Devi Park and
elsewhere.  There was language in original text, but it may be

The original text referred to the need for even pavements and
crosswalks conducive to the disabled.  Ajith C. S. Perera, the
advocate for disabled access, wanted broader language and the
candidate speaking on the subject.  The language will be changed.  Mr
Perera has his own Facebook page and interacted over the web.

Elections as “engagable moments”

People have many demands on their time and attention.  It is only
during elections that public affairs get priority.Yet, effective
policy formulation and implementation requires active citizen
engagement.  Milinda Moragoda’s open approach appears to have engaged
the citizens (and the netizens).  People are discussing substance in
addition to the usual horse-race aspects of Sri Lanka’s second
national pastime.
The challenge is to hold that engagement and mobilize it productively
to solve the many problems facing the citizens of Colombo.  Technology
is the means: multiple technologies, multiple paths.  Engagement is
the end.


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