My colleagues and I at LIRNEasia are delighted that Rohan Samarajiva has been appointed as the Chair of the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka. As a frequent commentator on ICTs, development and regulation, it’s well known that he has a strategic vision of what the ICT sector can achieve and contribute to Sri Lanka’s people and our country’s place in the world. As a former regulator, he knows the important role government (or a government agency like ICTA) can play in enabling that vision. But at the same time (and what I consider an important facet) is that he is a firm believer in what government does NOT have to do, if the private sector, well-functioning markets, and a civil society are available. So ICTA is in good hands in terms of finding it’s “place” in the world, and hopefully enabling the ICT-actors in Sri Lanka and citizens reaching their maximum potential.
But I’m happy for another reason – while Rohan is a policy intellectual, he’s is also a dreamer of good organizational design. “Islands of good governance” was a term I and my colleagues at LIRNEasia have often heard from Rohan Samarajiva, LIRNEasia’s Chair and Founding CEO. When I moved back to Sri Lanka nearly 15 years ago, Rohan was in charge of infrastructure reform for the Government of Sri Lanka (as Team Leader of PIPU, the Public Infrastructure Program Unit). At PIPU and later the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL), he was trying to create small, effective organizations inside governments, that would attempt to work differently, unbound by the slow and hierarchical nature of government. He had been instrumental in negotiating the funding (from the World Bank) and setting up the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka.
When I joined ICTA in its early days I could see how ICTA and eSri Lanka’s architects (including Rohan) intended it to be different – owned by government, but working in private-sector-like efficiency; small but acting as a catalyst; using ICTs as a tool but cross-cutting impact. Back then, ICTA was a dynamic place – people gave up good private sector jobs to work there. It attracted public servants (from government) who were willing to undertake the battle to make government more accessible to citizens. Anyone who knows anything about ICTs and governance could predict how this was going to a tough journey in Sri Lanka. While ICTA has had many successes in its lifetime, it was also a political football that was used (and misused) by successive regimes. Luckily for Rohan, he was no longer in government by the time all this started happening – he had gone on to start another new organization – LIRNEasia, meant to catalyze policy change through evidence, working as a small but effective organization, motivated by impact, not office politics. Luckily for me and my colleagues, LIRNEasia has managed to retain that character to a great extent over the years. This is not something that happens naturally, but something we work hard at. Rohan is a key part of creating that internal culture.
So with this new appointment, Rohan now gets to work with ICTA’s CEO and staff to create an “island of good governance”, to once again make ICTA into a dynamic, results-oriented and well-governed organization. Like its original designers envisioned.