Fri | Sep 21, 2018

Permanent secretaries and accountability (Pt 1)

Published:Sunday | December 14, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Onika Miller, permanent secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister, points out some reporting facts to Martin Miller, acting managing director of the National Housing Trust, during a sitting of Parliament's Public Accounts and Appropriations Committee. The permanent secretary has come under pressure for the governance mechanisms of the NHT. - Jermaine Barnaby/Photographer

Carlton Davis Guest Columnist

The matter of accountability by permanent secretaries is once again an issue in our Parliament and elsewhere.

It is one to which I have given some thought and actually started some work on prior to demitting office as Cabinet Secretary/Head of the Public Service in May 2008. The minutes of the Permanent Secretaries' Board of February 11, 2007 (Relationship between Permanent Secretaries, Ministries and Public Bodies) and of January 29, 2008 (Accountability Framework) refer.

I, like several other permanent secretaries, in my time and, I gather, the current group, under my successor, Douglas Saunders, have been concerned that some of the existing provisions are tantamount to giving permanent secretaries 'baskets to carry water' in terms of accounting oversight in the governance of many of our public bodies; and so, to use a common cliche these provisions have to be made 'real' by placing the responsibilities where they rightly belong in order to achieve more effective and fair governance.

The post of permanent secretary, to which we have become accustomed, had its origins in the United Kingdom in 1830, when Lord Grey (whose administration saw through the passage of the Reform Act of 1832) took office as prime minister and asked Sir John Barrow, who was secretary of the Department of Admiralty, to continue serving. This started the principle of senior civil servants staying in office on a change of government and serving in a non-partisan way. That, more or less, has been our tradition, which we should do well to continue.

Most, if not all, Commonwealth countries have adopted this approach over the course of time. However, three important changes have emerged since then in some countries.

1.The designation used for them. For example, in Canada, permanent secretaries are known as deputy ministers; in New Zealand (in the context of the so-called new public management approach to governance introduced in the 1980s), chief executive officers; and, in Jamaica, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Finance is called financial secretary.

2. Another product of the new public management paradigm, contract terms of appointment for permanent secretaries have been introduced, including here in Jamaica. So in these circumstances, the word 'permanent' is somewhat inappropriate. In nearby Belize, the terms of permanent secretaries, who are called CEOs, end when the Government that appointed them goes out of office. Whatever the factors which influenced this change, it means that continuity, when political administrations change, in the techno-administrative structure is a thing of the past in that country. It is important to note that in Jamaica, contract appointments of permanent secretaries have not been co-terminus with the political life of an administration.

3. During my tenure, a process of delegation of appointment and disciplinary powers to permanent secretaries was begun as part of the reform efforts with the governor general, delegating the authority acting on the advice of the Public Service Commission, in accordance with s. 127 of the Constitution.

Whatever their designations, their terms of office or appointment powers, permanent secretaries have three 'generic' roles.

These are:

  1. SS Policy adviser to the minister.
  2. SS Head of department, including, very importantly, serving as accounting officer.
  3. SS Member of the top public-sector management team such as the Permanent Secretaries' Board to enhance operation as a 'collective' in the business of government.

The purpose of this article is not to get into two of these roles; those of policy adviser and member of the top public-sector management team; save and except to say, in passing, that the role of policy adviser is not always taken seriously.

Sometimes this arises because of the attitude of some ministers who believe permanent secretaries have no policy roles except to implement what the minister or the Cabinet decides; sometimes by the attitude of permanent secretaries themselves who believe they have no creative role in the policy process beyond implementation or are simply intellectually lazy in coming up with ideas to improve policy formulation, monitoring and evaluation; and sometimes, one may say, 'unspoken mutual consent' in which both parties operate on the basis of a discrete 'division of labour' with ministers formulating policies and permanent secretaries implementing them.

This, to my mind, is a most restrictive view of a permanent secretary in policy process. It is a view to which I never subscribed in my years as Cabinet Secretary and permanent secretary in the Cabinet Office.

Accountability, which is part of a permanent secretary's responsibility as Head of Department, was not a particularly problematic matter when the public sector was largely the civil service, funded by appropriations from Parliament. One only has to peruse the Handbooks of Jamaica to see the structure of the public sector in those earlier years.

In the circumstance, a permanent secretary was in a very good position to understand what went on in the agencies in his/her portfolio and give a proper account of them. For example, when I worked at the Department of Mines between 1970 and 1973 and we wanted X-ray diffraction and spectrographic equipment to do our mineralogical and chemical work on bauxite, the permanent secretary, Herbert Walker, was very much aware of what we were doing and supported our purchasing it.

The accountability responsibility became much more complex and difficult with the growth in complexity of government such as the numerous statutory corporations, and government companies created under the Companies Act with their own lines of authority and power sometimes with chairmen who are sometimes 'political heavyweights'; on occasion, even 'heavier weights' than some Cabinet ministers. My experience making governance presentations elsewhere in the Commonwealth Caribbean indicates that this feature is by no means uncommon.

In such a situation, unless a permanent secretary, in particular, has immense stature or has the full support of the portfolio minister, he/she could be somewhat of a 'spectator' (with a not-particularly good view) in respect of one or more non-civil service agencies in his/her portfolio ministry.


All things considered, the accountability framework for permanent secretaries as they have existed and still exist are palpably not fit for purpose, currently or in the foreseeable future as permanent secretaries are often being asked to be responsible for operations over which they have little or no control. And, for many, it is somewhat of a game of 'Russian roulette' if they do not find themselves flayed in Parliament about things that they could not reasonably answer in a detailed way.

A distinguished former auditor general recognised the unreasonableness of asking people to account for matters over which they had little or no control, and attempted to mitigate the unsatisfactory situation by influencing the establishment of the so-called 'accountable officer' defined in the Financial Administration and Audit Act S 2(1) as:

'... any public officer, including an accounting officer, concerned in or responsible for the collection, receipt, custody, issue or payment of public moneys or other public property'.

But frankly, this has not been as helpful as was intended; as none of the parliamentary committees, as far as I am aware, has bothered themselves with this category of public officer. Rather, they have focused their attention on the accounting officers (permanent secretaries), whose functions are described in S 16(2) of the Financial Administration and Audit Act as:

... responsible for the financial administration of the department specified in a designation in Section (1) and shall be accountable to the minister for:

(a) the assessment and collection of and accounting for all 'moneys lawfully received by his department';

(b) ensuring that the purpose for which an appropriation is approved by Parliament is accomplished;

(c) making any payment required to be made in relation to such appropriation;

(d) custody and proper use of materials equipment or other public property administered by him;

(e) the administration of any fund for which he has been assigned pursuant to S. 14(3);

(f) the discharge of any other financial responsibility assigned to him under any other enactment.

A question that immediately arises which some legal person should comment on is, how do these functions relate to bodies that are not funded by appropriations from Parliament? Is there some nexus I am missing? It probably exists somewhere but it has 'escaped my notice'; and, if so, I would be delighted if someone points it out to me.

See Part Two next week.

Carlton Davis is an adviser in the Office of the Prime Minister. Email feedback to