The presence of SOEs in strategic sectors of Sri Lanka is proof of the significant value creation it can generate through spillover effects. The societal returns too are greater as it links to our day-to-day activities such as the water we drink, the electricity we use, or even the bus or train we ride. Therefore, addressing the suboptimal performances of SOEs by inculcating a performance oriented culture whilst ensuring transparency and accountability are warranted at this difficult juncture of trying to recover from economic turmoil.

While the Government may need to operate some SOEs due to reasons such as providing essential goods and services at an affordable price, there are large number of SOEs which are purely engaged in commercial activities that can function more efficiently and effectively under private sector ownership. Hence, we recommend that SOEs falling into the latter category be divested either fully or partially through a well-structured, open and transparent process.

In this regard, the Public Sector Reform Steering Committee of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, through its Sub Committee on SOE Reform recently presented a set of proposals to the policy makers on SOE reform. The proposals are twofold in which the first section of the document suggests a right model to adopt for the SOE restructuring agency (announced in the Interim National Budget for 2022) in order to provide the agency with the authority and power to carry out the required SOE Reforms. The second part of the document focuses on a framework for practical implementation of SOE reforms after careful analysis of the role played by each SOE.  

1)    Model for the SOE Reform Agency

The objectives of the SOE Reform Agency should be to;

  • To separate the state’s ownership functions from its policy-making and regulatory functions in order to help avoid or minimise potential conflicts of interest.
  • To minimize the scope for political interference and bring greater professionalism to SOEs.
  • To promote greater coherence and consistency in applying corporate governance standards and performance management systems across all SOEs.

It is imperative to ensure that the SOE agency would not be relegated to play a passive role with little authority over the SOEs. It should be able to collaborate with line ministries and other related agencies (including the Public Enterprise Department), and gather information related to SOEs. It should also be shielded from short-sighted political pressures and government interferences in operational decisions. Therefore, it should have the freedom and authority to carry out the reform process without any restrictions.

  • Holding Company

The ideal scenario for the SOE agency would be to have a holding company established under the Companies Act No 7 of 2007 and bring all the SOEs under the control of the holding company. So that as the parent company, the holding company will have the authority and power to control entities directly under it. A company-type structure will also have a separate legal identity, their own governance bodies and will be exempt from cumbersome government polices relating to remuneration policies and procurement processes.

However, in the context of Sri Lanka, there are 36 SOEs that are governed by the ‘Administer Part II’ of the Finance Act No 38 of 1971 and 86 SOEs established under the Companies Act No 7 of 2007[i]. Out of the SOEs established under the Companies Act, about 44% of the SOEs are not owned by the treasury (the majority stake is not held by the treasury) and most SOEs are also gazetted under different line ministries. According to the Gazette Extraordinary No 2289/43 published on 22 July, 2022 and amendments thereof, these line ministries have a broad spectrum of powers and functions over the SOEs and this is detrimental for the SOEs performance and driving reforms. 

A critical goal of the SOE agency is to separate the state’s ownership functions from its policy-making and regulatory functions to minimize the conflicts of interest. The SOE agency should be the specialised entity that serves as the shareholder representative with oversight responsibility for all SOEs. It should be responsible for exercising all ownership functions on behalf of the state as the owner, while the line ministry should only be responsible for policy making in relation to the sectors in which SOEs operate. This is a model practiced across many countries.

Therefore, we recommend that all SOEs should move away from this complicated dual ownership model in which line ministries and other entities have ownership responsibilities, and to move to a centralised ownership model where all the SOEs are under the holding company. In this regard, as a first step, we recommend to gazette all the SOEs under the Ministry of Finance (MoF).

After the SOEs are brought under the MoF then the conversion of the 36 corporations into companies should be looked at. This can be easily carried out with the Conversion of Public Corporations or Government Owned Business Undertakings into Public Companies Act, No 23 of 1987[ii].

  • Interim Arrangement

If there is undue delay in setting up the holding company structure then in order to expedite the reform process, an alternative model can be looked at. Upon examining the experience of various SOE agencies Sri Lanka has had over the past couple of decades, such as Strategic Enterprise Management Agency (SEMA) and State Resources Management Corporation Ltd (SRMC), we recommend that this alternative model in the interim period, be an agency established by an Act of Parliament similar to the Public Enterprise Reform Commission (PERC), which had many successes including the divestment of Sri Lanka Telecom, Distilleries Corporation, Cement Corporation, Ceylon Oxygen, and Orient Lanka, amongst others. Pending legislative enactment, it can operate as a Unit under the Ministry of Finance.

However, this will only be a sunset agency until all the SOEs are brought under the Holding Company. Once all the SOEs are under the holding company, the agency under the Act of Parliament will cease its existence. This agency established by the Act of Parliament can also drive the first round of divestments and this can be taken over by the Holding Company later on when the agency ceases to operate after it has completed the task of bringing all SOEs under one umbrella.

  • Appointments to SOE Boards

In addition to bringing all the SOEs under one umbrella and moving away from the dual ownership model, competent boards of directors for all SOEs should be appointed through a robust and transparent mechanism. This would further help SOEs to operate at greater arm’s length and limit political interference, since, a board bears the ultimate responsibility for the stewardship and performance of the SOE, and not a line a ministry or any other supervisory body. In this regard, its composition and functioning have a significant impact on the governance of the SOE and thereby on its operational and financial performance.

We propose a similar mechanism to what is available in Malaysia where the SOE agency carries out the appointment process of SOE boards. Here, the nomination committees of listed SOEs in Malaysia identifies potential board candidates in conjunction with Khazanah (the holding company) and others. It prepares the short list for approval by the board, and then submits the approved list to Khazanah for appointment.

After the initial boards are appointed to the SOEs by the SOE agency/holding company as applicable, a system of rotation can also be introduced so that the board continuity is maintained with a couple of directors retiring each year and being available for re-election or replacement. No director should be permitted to serve more than two consecutive terms of office.

As the Board of Directors of the Holding Company will have significant power and influence over the appointment of boards to SOEs under it, there must be a transparent and independent process to appoint this Board, to ensure those with high standing and no apparent conflicts of interest are selected.

  • Internal Structure

Finally, we propose that the SOE agency operates under the Ministry of Finance (MoF). Countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, India and UK too have their SOE agency under the MoF. The agency will have three main operational departments, namely; the Divestment Unit, Performance Management Unit and Restructuring Unit. These units will be supported by other service departments such as Legal, Communications and Finance.

2)    Framework for Practical Implementation of SOE Reform

As a first step in identifying SOEs for divestment, the subcommittee on SOE Reforms developed a framework to understand if the SOE should remain under government ownership or not. The framework followed is given below.

  1. Whether it provides an essential good or service
  2. Whether Private sector is capable of delivering it
  3. Whether sufficient competition is there to ensure appropriate quality and pricing

In this regard, 19 SOEs were identified as entities that require government ownership, 127 SOEs were identified as SOEs that do not require government ownership and 4 entities that require decoupling of regulatory and operational activities after which some parts can be spun off and considered for divestment. A further 10 SOEs were identified as those requiring more in-depth analysis using special expertise to restructure or liberalise.

Next, the SOEs that were identified for divestment (SOEs that do not require government ownership), were prioritised under immediate, medium and long term. The framework for segmentation was developed with four metrics. These four are;

  1. Impact on Budget
  2. Absence of Controversy
  3. Ease of Implementation
  4. Ability to attract Global Players

When an entity scored high for the above metrics, it received a score of 3, medium received a score of 2 and low received a score of 1. The prioritisation under different phases was done according to the score each SOE obtained. When an SOE received a score of 8 or above it was placed under the Immediate Divestment category and scores between 5 and 7 were placed under Medium Term Divestment category.

The results obtained relayed 108 entities for immediate to medium term divestment and 19 entities for liquidation. This is in addition to the 19 entities that were identified for government ownership, 4 entities for decoupling and 10 entities which require specialised expertise to divest. 

The liquidation of the SOEs identified in that category can be carried out immediately without bringing them under the SOE agency or the holding company. Other entities will fall under the following divisions with the assigned mandate given below.

Table 01: Summary of Department for Each SOE Reform Category. Referencing the Holding Company (1.1 above) / Interim Agency (1.2) above.

Category Type

Proposed Action

Department in Charge

SOEs under Immediate to Medium Term Divestment

Divestment and Performance Management

Divestment and Performance Management Units of SOE Agency

Entities that require Decoupling Regulatory and Operational Activities

 

Restructuring and Performance Management Unit of SOE Agency

SOEs that will be under Government Ownership

Advising and providing guidelines for restructuring

Restructuring and Performance Management Units of SOE Agency

SOEs that require Special Expertise to Restructure or Liberalise

 

Restructuring and Performance Management Units of SOE Agency

Therefore, we believe by carrying out the above proposed model for the SOE restructuring agency, holding company and proposed framework to carry out SOE reforms, it can help transformation of existing SOEs from fiscal burdens and into value creators so that SOEs can be an impetus for Sri Lanka’s growth and development, rather than serving as stumbling blocks.

The full submission can be accessed via SOE Reforms Submission Final 11Nov.pdf

 

 

[i] Based on the SOEs identified for divestment (excluding entities for liquidation and government ownership)