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Economy

Ignorance and corruption bedevils state enterprises

The Railway Department is a prime example of a badly managed SOE

The Sri Lankan state does not know how many enterprises it runs, reveals a report on State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) released by the Colombo-based think tank Advocata.

Titled “Sri Lanka’s state-owned enterprises Systemic Misgovernance: A discussion”, the report delves into the state of these organisations and proposes policy reforms to improve governance.

In the foreword, the researchers point out that a “major roadblock identified in the report is the lack of an official, all-encompassing list of SOEs, their subsidiaries and sub-subsidiaries. The Advocata Institute has found references to over 400 SOEs, but this cannot be verified against any government source.” The Department of Public Enterprise has the most comprehensive list, consisting only 127 SOEs. Some 50 of these SOEs are considered “strategic” and are closely monitored by the Treasury.

The report also found that enumerating SOEs was problematic and says “this problem is compounded by the fact that the government has a very loose definition of SOEs. To address the problem, this report provides a working definition of what an SOE is, for the sake of clarity.”

The report goes on to explore the structural issues at the core of Sri Lankan SOEs. Elaborating on these issues, the report illustrates how structural issues lead to poor governance, which allows SOEs to continue to function as loss-making entities.

The report points out that unlike private enterprises, SOEs are run with taxpayer money and when they incur losses, the Government – or in effect the taxpayer – has to pay for it. Because of this, SOEs are a drain on the Treasury.

Mismanagement and outright looting bedevils these enterprises as they are crammed with workers who are supporters of politicians and not staffed with professionals who could make them efficient and profitable, the report finds.

“SOEs are ultimately owned by citizens but run by managers who are controlled by politicians. Politicians determine or otherwise influence the appointment of key management and must hold the managers accountable”, the report adds.

The report compares SOEs to private sector companies, where shareholders have invested their own money in a venture. “Unlike shareholders, the politicians have not invested their money in the business. As they have no stake, there is no particular interest in ensuring it is well run. However, politicians do have incentives to direct SOEs to achieve economically inefficient objectives for political purposes, giving rise to political costs. These may be benign if policies enhance social welfare at the cost of shareholder value. However, more often than not, they are malign and favour political allies at the expense of public welfare”, it points out.