Wed | Dec 7, 2016

Permanent secretaries and accountability (Part 2)

Published:Sunday | December 21, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller (left) is briefed by Permanent Secretary Onika Miller prior to the official ceremony for the 25th Intersessional Meeting of Caricom Heads of Government at the Buccament Bay Resort in St Vincent on March 10, 2014. Permanent secretaries are not superhuman, argues guest columnist Carlton Davis. - JIS PHOTO

Carlton Davis, Guest Columnist

The Public Bodies Management and Accountability Act (which the opposition spokesman on finance correctly recollected, evolved from some governance issues in respect to many public bodies, although he was not entirely correct to say that annual reports and audited financial statements should be laid in Parliament by July 31 of each year) which became public in 1999 has accountability provisions for accounting officers of certain payments from the Consolidated Fund by public bodies and guarantees from the House of Representatives (Sections 5A and 5B).

The act even makes reference to 'principal accounting officer'

(S 5B (2)), which is defined nowhere in the statute.

Even ignoring, for the time being, the legal issues of authority which I have raised in respect of pubic bodies not supported by parliamentary appropriations, and the absence of a definition of principal accounting officer, the fact is, to expect any single accounting officer, the permanent secretary, to take the responsibility defined in the Financial Administration and Audit Act and the Public Bodies Management and Accountability Act for a number of complex public bodies or several or even less-complex ones in a ministerial portfolio is absurd.

I will cite two ministries to illustrate the point.

1. The current Ministry of Transport, Works and Housing has the following statutory bodies, among others, in its portfolio: 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.

2.The Ministry of Finance and Planning has, among other organisations, the Bank of Jamaica, Development Bank of Jamaica, Jamaica Deposit Insurance Corporation, National Export-Import Bank, STATIN, PIOJ, and the Students' Loan Bureau.

Could anyone seriously expect a permanent secretary and the financial secretary, respectively, as accounting officers, to answer questions in accordance with the provisions of Section 16 (2) of the Financial Administration and Audit Act? It may be that the minister of finance has done the smart thing of appointing the heads of some of these powerful bodies as accounting officers, as I mention below in my recommendation for future actions and these permanent secretaries do not have the problem I envisage; but I very much doubt, that this has, in fact, been done.

The long and short of it is that our accountability framework is a conundrum that needs to be sorted out right early.

What is to be done?

First of all, the minister of finance should use the flexibility provided in Section 16 (1) of the Financial Administration and Audit Act, which states:

"The minister shall from time to time designate in writing public officers who should be accounting officers of the departments specified in the legislation."

Note that this is no 'iron law' that specifies that these accounting officers must be permanent secretaries. The late legal luminary, Ken Rattray, OJ, QC, and I recognised this when we moved to make the CEOs of executive agencies accounting officers, and provided for the permanent secretaries to monitor and evaluate what they are doing (The Executive Agencies Act refers).

So in the case of the Registrar General's Department, for example, which is in the portfolio of the Ministry of Health, the harried (with chikungunya, Ebola threat and the pressured hospital services to give him sleepless nights) acting permanent secretary does not have to answer questions to parliamentary committees on that organisation, as its CEO can do so in her own right as an accounting officer.

In the circumstance, I would recommend that the minister of finance moves to appoint several accounting officers of persons 'where the actions are' and not continue the fiction of having 'supermen or superwomen' permanent secretaries attempting to do what they cannot properly and reasonably do. He should start with organisations that are clearly of interest to the public and Parliament, by virtue of what they do and the amount of money they spend.

Second, parliamentary committees should focus on the principals of the agencies that can give them direct answers.

Third, the Ministry of Finance and the Cabinet Office should accelerate, with a view to early completion, the work on The Corporate Governance Framework and, in doing so, dealing with the accountability conundrum.

We, in Jamaica, would not be doing anything new, as the problem, albeit to varying degrees, exists elsewhere. For example, research (done gratis) by an experienced legal professional on my behalf before I left office, pointed me to work by an author, C.E.S. 'Ned' Franks, which stated, inter alia, that:

"With the growth in the complexity of government, the number and variety of British accounting officers have increased, permanent secretaries remain the principal departmental (central ministries) accounting officers, but a department can have many more.

"The need for so many accounting officers [in addition to] with permanent secretaries is understandable in the context of the structure of modern government departments. Many departments are more of an administrative empire than a single hierarchical organisation. The separate units might require their own accounting officers."

That was a few years ago. The problem apparently still challenges the British government. A recent report by the Public Administration Committee of its Parliament (whose report our own PAAC should secure and read) has this, among other things, to say in its summary:

"The Government should establish a clear taxonomy of public bodies: constitutional bodies, independent public interest bodies, departmental-sponsored bodies; and executive agencies. All public bodies should sit in one of these categories so that it is clear how each should be governed and sponsored. This is essential in order to clarify what is accountable for what. This would promote understanding of what is expected of relationships and explain the rationale for locating functions in particular organisation up-to-date plain English, statements of statuses, roles and relationships are needed even if the underlying arrangements are complicated."

I dare say that if we are going to attract and retain people of calibre in the public service, the solution does not lie in targeting individual accounting officers. It rests with a more systematic approach to public management as I have outlined above.

It is my sincere hope that both the executive and the legislative branches of Government will give consideration to what I have written in order to establish a more rational, effective and fair governance framework.

Dr Carlton Davis is an adviser in the Office of the Prime Minister and former Cabinet secretary. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.