Omar Kamil, Special Commissioner for Colombo Municipality
Omar Kamil has extensive years experience in many aspects of governance and has been involved with Colombo city politics for over 30 years. His achievements are numerous but one of the keys to his success has been his view on governance and leadership. Colombo itself has seen a great many changes and has been a member of CITYNET since 1989. Most recently the city has become a cleaner city thanks to ideas on a shifting of awareness and a kind of culture change. Mr. Kamil shared his views on good governance in an interview with CITYNET.
Q: Tell us about how you came into office.
I became Special Commissioner through appointment by the president. Even though we supported different political parties he told me that the important thing is the right person for the job. He said he needed doers, not talkers, and so he extended his support.
Q: How has Colombo been able to transform itself, especially in regards to garbage?
I believe that Colombo has become on of the cleanest in the region. People used to throw garbage in the street – so we knew we needed a culture change in order to get people to work together. We worked together with the national government and the police forces and now if the people throw garbage then the law will come down hard on them. Sometimes it takes two or three times before it gets into people’s heads but eventually people fall in line. Now people are disciplined and do hard work and don’t throw garbage on the street.
Q: Can you elaborate on how you carried out this culture change within the city government?
We had a different kind of thinking to achieve a better city: we decided to put 48 people on a flight to Singapore where they spent four days, this included both the private and government sector members. I was able to lead this first delegation. Members were then able to see first hand examples of good governance and practices and share experiences – to lay a foundation. Travel widens horizons. People are then presented with new thinking – ask them to share and how to best translate and transfer this into other programmes. This helped us come up with a determined programme. The onus is then on our officers. You have to deliver on your promises too. You have to work as a team.
Q: What are your views on good governance?
In election you can disagree, but in terms of the city let us work together – this has got acceptance now. The most important thing we need is strong, ethical, committed and honest leadership. Workers need to know that their leader is behind them, also they are invited to regular discussion. You cannot demand respect, you are given it. We can see the difference in good work. Share what they do with other continuing officers.
Examples must come from the top. As mayor, you are the first citizen of the city. Unless you show at the top what discipline, governance and the good practices that you are practicing yourself, you cannot expect others to follow. You have to lead and show good examples. If others see commitment then they will follow and learn from you. Commitment is very important.
I learned from my father that power is to be used and not misused or abused. If you go before the temple of justice you must go with clean hands otherwise don’t expect others to follow you.
Q: How did you develop this idea?
I originally came from the private sector and was elected a councillor in 79. I became deputy mayor in 97. At that time the mayor was also from the private sector. We agreed that it was important to bring experience from private sector and a business-like approach to the city. We thought that must manage a city like a company as there is nothing called a free lunch. A city must be financially viable and we must show that we are serious people and that we are doers. The people responded by paying their taxes. I also made sure to make a signboard at the site of projects which said ”your municipal tax rupees at work” also including the amount payable, date and name of the contractor. The public can clearly see progress with that type of approach.
There was a time when the opposition and my party were fairly evenly split. But I urged everyone and said that we need to build confidence and share responsibility. We need to genuinely show that we are serious. That helped me to be in office for five years without problems. I must say that my council has the best top and middle management; however leadership and direction have to be given
What is an example of a good practice that you implemented?
We took the city workers to a resort hotel for a weekend. I told them “I’d like you to dream what the city would be in 20 years from now. “ We took elected officials for the same opportunity. It was something new for them but that kind of forward-looking and forward-thinking helped to build programmes that are locally suited.
Another practice is our communication with civil society which we meet with once a month. These include mainly retired people who are volunteers. They are from a wide-variety of backgrounds with expertise such as engineering and medicine. We asked the local business Chamber of Commerce to nominate people and we asked for a cross-section of society. The volunteers are very serious and also very critical. Since they were giving of their time they expect us to deliver on our promises and work. They have become a kind of think tank for the city. It is good that now we can show them that they are truly part of the city and they can also show leadership.
People are often reluctant to change and bad practices have been going on for a long time. To see a shift you need a culture change. We worked with a Norwegian organisation which offered funds on environmental issues and we prepared a TV programme – a 20 minute tele-drama. This also helped to change the mindset since TV has much more coverage than newspaper.
Q: What advice would you give for the strengthening of CITYNET?
CITYNET has played an important role in bringing cities together and establishing of experiences and good practices. I feel CITYNET is doing its part.
Colombo was given opportunities from CITYNET as well as from other organisations such as ADB and World Bank. With CITYNET we adopted the National Chapter and we were able to do some work in that regard. The 2nd Asian Mayors forum was held in Colombo. The mayors of 60 cities as well as representatives of international organisations attended. Also 12 mayors from Sri Lanka attended, we treated them like foreign delegates and they stayed in the same hotels. They interacted with other delegates, through this experience the mindset was changed and they learned from that.
CITYNET should do its best to help less fortunate cities if it needs support and also give back up assistance. Let us work to continue to share best practices.
What advice would you give other cities in Asia?
Cities should look more business-like and have sustainability. You have to be able to manage within your own resources and work towards being financially strong. It is important for people to see progress. Visibility is also important and media plays a large role in this. The public must be informed. Every Sunday in the newspaper we inform the public about what is going on. It is also important to have NGOs on your side.
Q: What have been some of the challenges that you have faced?
We learned many lessons from the terrible downpour we had in September. There was a major flood, 60,000 needed shelter, so we needed time to mobilise. However the next day we were able to deal with the situation better. Leadership is most important in these situations. Key issues are methodology, common sense and how to set about. Through business I learned similar things – common sense, a sense of give and take and a commercial mind. Always try to understand another person’s side of the story, sharing in grief – all this develops understanding.
Q: Can you tell us about your famous 100 day plan?
I gave a promise that I will bring about visible change in the city within 100 days. At the end I promised that I will not remain if I do not deliver. On the following day we looked at what the most critical areas were. We identified garbage disposal, road resurfacing and rehabilitation, traffic management, public and curative health, low income settlements as well as improvement in utility services for the underserved population. In 100 days you could see a marked change in the quality of life. However, I had an advantage because I had hope and a good track record. I also made a tablet which said “100 days to make a city.” It was a symbol. People saw people working – they saw change. Good management has to come from the top. If the man at the bottom sees the man at the top it filters down. At end of 100 days there was a difference.
Now we are constantly looking for ways to better the city and start new plans. It is clear that in terms of the underserved population without them the economy won’t move. We are aiming to raise the quality of life of low income settlements – not only those with affluence should see changes…So quality of life and infrastructure is improving.