Permanent secretaries must never be victims

Canute Thompson

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

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In Part 2 (published on November 17, 2017, entitled 'Courageous leadership needed in an era of cowardism') of a three-part series of articles I argued that many public servants are overcome with fear and, as a result, are unwilling to stand up to politicians — as they ought to — when the latter are acting in ways that are unlawful or otherwise improper. I suggested that permanent secretaries, as the most senior public servant, have a duty to be a check on ministers' impulses and be a guardian of due process, probity, and proper management in all aspects of the ministry in which he or she serves.

Display of courage

In a meeting of the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC), on September 12, 2018, seasoned permanent secretary, Audrey Sewell, sought to give a lesson to members of the PAAC on how things are with respect to the capacity of a permanent secretary to maintain order in a ministry. Sewell was quoted in the Jamaica Observer of September 13 as saying: “Permanent secretaries get a lot of flak for things that, by law, we have no authority, no power to address, and it is something that has been recognised, and it needs to be addressed, because here we are being hauled here to come and account for what happened in one of my agencies.”

In highlighting what she appears to be reasoning were inequities in the accountability framework, Sewell noted that some CEOs in agencies under the direction and control of a ministry “…are being paid three and four times the salary of a permanent secretary…” yet she has to account for the mess they create, which mess she has now no power in law to stop before it happens, as the CEOs in these agencies report to a board appointed by the minister and report directly to the minister.

Sewell, who is permanent secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) and the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, made those comments against the backdrop of several scandals rocking the former Ministry of Science, Energy, and Technology, which is now under the control of the OPM.

Her pushback at the PAAC meeting was quite resolute and direct, though respectful, and carried the tone of how all civil servants should address their political bosses: Tell them the truth as you know it in a clear and respectful manner. This behaviour is consistent with what I described in the article on cowardism referenced above. In that article I highlighted the courage and high standards of three former permanent secretaries, all deceased, (Gordon Wells, Herbert Walker, and Colin Bullock), who “knew how to stand up to the political directorate”.

The courage Sewell publicly displayed was, however, towards the politicians who are not members of the Administration, though they are part of the country's governance. Given that exchanges between her and her 'boss', the prime minister, are not in the glare of the public, one hopes that, when necessary, she stands up to the prime minister with the same or greater level of courage and forcefulness as that shown to the members of the PAAC.

Flaws in the system of accountability

Sewell is not the first permanent secretary to have called attention to the problem of inequities in the expectations placed on them versus other public officials. On December 14 and 21, 2014, former permanent and cabinet secretary Carlton Davis wrote a two-part series highlighting some of the flaws in the system of accountability in government as it pertains to the office of the permanent secretary versus those of other senior government officials.

Among other things, Davis notes that both through legislation and behaviours the society has, over time, tolerated the erosion of the authority of the office of permanent secretary. Davis contended that in Jamaica, as well as other jurisdictions, the 'permanent' had effectively been removed from the title. In reviewing the history of the position, Davis explains that this office was created to ensure stability across political administrations and change of ministers responsible for particular ministries. In recent times, however, many permanent secretaries have been hired on three-year contracts, which makes it easy for a new Administration to replace them. Even in cases in which a contract has not expired, a permanent secretary may be replaced either by being fired for cause or simply paid the monetary value of the remaining portion of the fixed term contract and sent home.

Davis highlights two other fundamental problems, both of which are particularly most relevant to the massive mega, super ministry that Prime Minister Andrew Holness has made of the Office of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation. These problems Davis describes as:

(a) the absurdity of mega ministries, and

(b) the dangers of unaccountable heavyweights who sometimes show disregard for the office of permanent secretary.

Absurdity of mega ministries

Citing the then Ministry of Transport, Works, and Housing, Davis notes that this ministry had agencies such as the Civil Aviation Authority, Jamaica Urban Transport Company, National Road Operating and Construction Company, Airports Authority of Jamaica, Port Authority of Jamaica, Jamaica Mortgage Bank, and Housing Agency of Jamaica. He said it was simply absurd to expect that one permanent secretary could really give oversight to so many agencies. It is simply impossible, Davis argued.

The current mega, super ministry headed by the prime minister, and in which Sewell serves as permanent secretary, had over 50 departments and agencies prior to the science, energy, and technology portfolios being added. Since then the number has swollen to over 70, by some estimates. We must ask: How in God's name can one permanent secretary oversee all that?

Thus one of the important and urgent tasks which Sewell must undertake, both in her own interest and that of the country, is to push the prime minister to appoint a minister for science, energy and technology so as to relieve her of the approximate 20 agencies and departments added to her plate in recent months, and to go further in encouraging the prime minister to reduce the size of the super ministry.

The works portfolio could be reassigned to the Ministry of Transport and Mining, while the environment portfolio could go to the Health Ministry. It simply does not make for good management or mental health, as well as for effective oversight for one ministry to have tens and tens of agencies under its supervision. One element that should not be missed in this, as I argued some time ago, is that the vast majority of these portfolios under the control of the prime minister are the big-money ministries.

Unaccountable heavyweights

Many times the people appointed as heads of agencies and chairs of their boards are political heavyweights in the form of party donors, party hacks, or individuals recommended by them. In some cases some of these people are more powerful within the party's apparatus than even the minister. Some may recall that a few days after a former minister of energy (in the Bruce Golding Administration) had fired the chair of a major State board, the fired chair was seated near to Golding at a JLP event. Shortly thereafter the minister was relieved of his position in the Cabinet. It is similarly curious that, despite so many people connected to the Petrojam scandal having lost their positions, the human resources director is still in her job.

Time to take action

So far the voice of Audrey Sewell may be a lone one in recent times. It is clear, however, that her experience is not unique. It is high time that other permanent secretaries step up to the wicket and speak up. They must be willing to speak up and demand accountability, equity, and transparency. They must not allow themselves to be bullied. They need to have the sacrificial bent and the spirit worthy of national honour to challenge the wrongdoing at all levels in their ministries, and must be courageous enough to demand a certain level of conduct from their ministers.

The minimum we should expect from permanent secretaries is that they be refuse to be 'yes men' or 'yes women'. In my view, a permanent secretary who knows that the instructions of a minister, even if it is the prime minister, are unlawful or wrong has a duty to refuse to comply and document the facts.

Dr Canute Thompson is head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning, lecturer in the School of Education, and co-founder and chief consultant for the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of three books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or

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