In accessing the website of the Ministry of Planning and Sustainable Development recently I came across an anomaly which set me thinking on our system of governance. Since we are in the process of reviewing our constitution I decided that I would pursue this topic with the hope of stimulating discussion. The anomaly was this: there is an item on a news conference held by the Minister of Planning on the preliminary count of the 2011 population and housing census, with a link to the source of the information given, which source is "the Guardian newspaper''. When one accesses the link to the Guardian, the source of their information is the preliminary population census report from Central Statistical Office. Perhaps there is no communication within the Ministry of Planning!
This led me to thinking about the supervision of Government websites and then to supervision within a ministry and about governance in general.
I shall start with some simple definitions of terms. "Govern": conduct the policy and affairs of a state, organisation or people. "Governance": the action or manner of governing. "Government": the governing body of a state.
The following sections of the constitution are relevant:
"THE CABINET. 75.- 1. There shall be a cabinet for Trinidad and Tobago which shall have the general direction and control of the government of Trinidad and Tobago and shall be collectively responsible therefore to Parliament."
"PERMANENT SECRETARIES. 85. - 1. Where any minister has been assigned responsibility for any department of government, he shall exercise general direction and control over that department; and, subject to such direction and control the department shall be under the supervision of a permanent secretary whose office shall be a public office."
Within recent years the demarcation between the responsibilities of ministers and permanent secretaries has become blurred. In previous articles I have referred to the situation where a Minister of Works is attending to potholes in roads and a Minister of Education is visiting schools to determine that there is a leaking roof! Surprisingly chief technical officers are seldom in the limelight but permanent secretaries are seen accompanying ministers. To complicate matters further there are now "advisors" to the minister who may have easier access to him/her than does the permanent secretary.
Governance is further complicated by the fact that there now some 31 ministries with movement of divisions from one ministry to another whenever there is a cabinet re-shuffle. This latter situation should be fixed by a constitutional amendment which limits the number of ministries to 15 (as in the United States of America) and requires that any change in number or in allocation of divisions to ministries be subject to approval of Parliament (by a special majority).
In a democratic society anyone can be elected to Parliament (provided they satisfy certain criteria which do not include intellectual competence-except under the Mental Health Act-or educational level). On the other hand permanent secretaries would not be appointed unless they have attained a certain educational level, although there is no constitutional regulation on this issue. So with respect to capacity to administer a department the present system could ensure that a permanent secretary has the necessary education and experience but a minister need not have either experience or suitable training for management. Let me hasten to state two things. Firstly, I am not at this time suggesting any change in criteria for appointment as a minister. Secondly, I am not implying any lack of competence of present or past ministers.
Now that we have live television of parliamentary debates the public can judge for themselves the quality of ministers (by listening to them speak in debates) and I urge that all citizens avail themselves of the opportunity so to do (although this opportunity would be greatly enhanced if presiding officers would enforce the rule that members should not read their presentations).
Thus the governance situation is that the minister "shall exercise general direction and control over that department; and, subject to such direction and control the department shall be under the supervision of a permanent secretary". Since a minister may be judged by the voters on the basis of what he does for them (and this may often mean road repairs, drainage, schools in good condition and so on) there is pressure on them to get involved in day-to-day management in their ministry. To a large extent this stems from the fact that members of the House of Representatives "represent" geographic areas. If we had a system of proportional representation (which I do not advocate for reasons that I shall explain on another occasion) this type of judgement of performance would not be made. Thus, in my view, there is urgent requirement for public education (starting in the schools) on the role of ministers.
For good governance ministers should be responsible for formulation of policy (which is approved by cabinet), and the Public Service (led by permanent secretaries) would be responsible for implementation of policy by direct management (not just supervision) of ministries by permanent secretaries. Ministers would ensure that permanent secretaries carry out their responsibilities.
The quality of permanent secretaries is to some extent determined in a small country by competition between the private sector and the Government for scarce human resources. There is some value in the argument that permanent secretaries should be paid high salaries and recruited in the open market, perhaps on contract. At one time the calibre of permanent secretaries was very high—Doddridge Alleyne, O'Neil Lewis, William Demas, Frank Barsotti, Frank Rampersad, to name a few). These citizens gave service for country. Today a strong motivation is monetary return as is also the opportunity for professional development and for these the private sector is more attractive. There are of course exceptions.
There are therefore two issues to be addressed: governance system and the calibre of human resources.
—To be continued
• John Spence is professor emeritus, UWI. He also served as
an independent senator