Defining the public service means defining the government

Defining the public service means defining the government

Above: kikkerdirk/DepositPhotos photo.

BitDepth #1377 on October 24, 2022

At the third session of the Senate on October 13, Public Administration Minister Alison West commented on the budget and responded to calls for a work-from-home policy for public servants.

In that speech, the Minister made several assertions, some reasonable, others skipping hard facts that do not lend themselves to bold and sweeping statements.

West is right to point out, however, that WFH policy does not start here and today, it has to retreat to the basis of public service operations.

A properly functioning public service receives directions from ministers. Public servants can be influenced and directed by these policies, particularly by permanent secretaries, but the Council of Ministers has the final say in policy.

Public servants implement Cabinet policy, and report to the Permanent Secretary, who discusses implementation of the policy with the relevant minister.

In her Senate contribution, West notes that the government has limited control over the public service, but this is not true.

The Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago, as laid down in 1962 and the 1976 version, under section 85, part one, states that “in the event that any minister is assigned responsibility for any department of government, he shall exercise the general direction and control of that  department, departments; According to this directive and control, the administration shall be under the supervision of a permanent secretary whose office shall be a public office.”

The key to understanding how this sentence affects the operations of the public service is the power of the minister to “general direction and control” and the power of the permanent secretary, who comes down to “oversight.”

The Constitution does not assign anyone administrative responsibility in connection with the public service, and efforts to change the role of the permanent secretary from overseeing to managing have been ignored for decades.

why? For there is a danger of tightening the backbone of the cadre of permanent secretaries and thus limiting the oversight exercised by ministers, which at times drifted into micromanagement.

What happens when permanent secretaries try to run the public service the way it was envisioned to function?

In 1975 Prime Minister Eric Williams launched a rhetorical attack against the attempt by Dodridge Allen, Frank Rampersad, and Eugenio Moore to build what he saw as a powerful public service of qualified technocrats.

Late Permanent Secretary Dodridge Allen

These were the outstanding permanent secretaries of their era and public disapproval led to a general decline in leadership initiatives among the permanent secretaries that continues to this day.

Here the bell sounded for professional merit and public service as the home of the qualified young professional.

So the minister can comfortably declare that “there is no position called head of the public service,” without objection, while promising ominously to “remediate these anomalies.”

Since 1962, the Permanent Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office has held the position of Chief of Public Service and appointments have recognized the seniority of this role.

No permanent secretary in this role has acted in this capacity or acted with such tacit authority, so the role has deteriorated to the point that West seems confident she can neutralize him completely.
This will only lead to a further deterioration of the powers of the permanent secretaries, whose relationship with the ministers is described as an “artificial and illogical reality.”

She is right, but she does not state that the situation is a political invention, not a circumstance of the intended architecture of the system.

The minister promised to reactivate the National Strategic Council for Human Resources Management, an alliance between the Ministry of Public Administration, Personnel Administration and Service Committees.

The council was originally convened by the People’s Partnership Government and dissolved by the New National Movement Administration in 2015.

As a planning body, it does not specifically include stakeholders from the operating public service or the unions that represent them.

The Revitalized National Strategy Human Resources Board does not specifically include stakeholders from the active public service or the unions that represent them.

It is not the first attempt to address public service issues.
The Task Force on Public Service Reform collapsed in 1990 following the coup attempt.

Gordon Draper worked to reconsider the public service as a human resource between 1991 and 1995, but that effort ended with the incoming UNC government.

It is easy to talk about the modernization of the public service.
A 2017 public service workshop proposed creating a “central human resource agency separate from ministries with an independent organization to provide oversight.” She lived that idea and died in this event.

The report of a committee formed by the Cabinet, in 2017, recommended establishing the position of Permanent Secretary to the Prime Minister and Head of the Public Service.

Nothing will happen, neither WFH, nor customer service improvement, until the government accepts its role as much as it expects from public service.

The government’s outrage about working from home isn’t really about technology or even performance. It is about what is really necessary to transform the public service, rationalize its workforce, and create a culture of functional accountability and implementation.

The sporadic public service adoption of IHRIS, the digital human resource management tool, is not only the result of a lack of public servant enthusiasm.

For example, the widespread use of IHRIS will reveal the reality of the public service, which is much smaller than we think, and expose all vacancies that are not allocated to real jobs and that are not funded in budget after budget for political reasons.

This is not the job of the Ministry of Public Administration, even if West seems to think it is.

It is a collective project of the Cabinet, which should undo the tangled tangle of responsibilities that go back to this country’s first independent constitution.

It must do so in consultation with public officials, civil society and the private sector.


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