It can be argued that the major, if not the only, purpose of government ought to be the optimisation of the standard of living of its citizens. This includes responsibility for creating a suitable enabling environment for sustainable economic and social development and ensuring that citizens have easy access to and can afford essential public services.
Governance refers to the way in which a government conducts its business. In this regard, the national and international communities increasingly demand good governance.
While there is no single agreed definition, good governance is typically viewed as increasing public sector efficiency and effectiveness through greater openness and transparency, ensuring accountability by public officials and engaging citizens in the business of government.
There is a widespread perception that governance in Trinidad and Tobago is deteriorating, with many stories of government corruption, inefficiency, wastage and poor service circulating among citizens and in the mainstream and social media.
Many in the general public seek to blame T&T’s governance issues on the so-called “maximum leader” style of prime ministerial leadership or on the nepotism and corrupt nature of certain ministers, senior government officials and other influential government stakeholders.
Trinidad and Tobago governance is based on the concept of separation of powers, among the executive — elected officials; the judiciary — headed by the chief justice and the public service — which reports to the independent service commissions.
The prime minister is responsible for the personnel in the executive branch only and is charged with ensuring the law and order as envisaged in the Constitution are maintained.
It is important to note that in modern democratic governments “power” does not reside with individuals but with the offices and institutions of state. In T&T today holders of these positions are impermanent, frequently “shuffled” and dependent on the political climate of the day.
The permanent secretary is the most senior official within the public service. The executive sets the strategic policy direction, including the policies and initiatives contained in the party’s manifesto. Permanent secretaries are ultimately responsible for the implementation of these policies.
Permanent secretaries are also responsible for the administration of the ministries to which they are assigned, a responsibility with a significant financial, legal, and managerial workload.
The permanent secretary is therefore both chief executive officer and chief operating officer. As a result, the permanent secretary is often required to undertake both strategic and operational responsibilities. This creates a risk that short-term operational considerations may take precedence over critical but longer-term strategic issues, with potentially dire consequences for the work programme of the ministry concerned.
One way to mitigate this risk is to ensure that permanent secretaries have, or have access to, the best available technical expertise and information. In the past a permanent secretary would usually have extensive experience within the ministry of assignment and strong technical capability. There was no doubt that they were the best suited persons for reviewing such operations and identifying any shortcomings.
Over time, the role of the permanent secretary in this system has been eroded, to the extent that this may be a key piece of the puzzle and may explain why we have descended into a governance freefall or free-for-all.
The permanent secretaries and senior public technocrats who ought to be the constants must be free from undue influence and favouritism. Yet a pattern has emerged whereby the names and sometimes the portfolios of ministries are changed when a new executive is elected and permanent secretaries are “transferred” to new ministries, often without any apparent plan or succession strategy.
Many senior public servants do not enjoy service commissions protection as they used to and now serve at the pleasure of cabinet. However for optimum efficiency and good governance permanent secretaries must have stability in order to effectively fulfil their role of accountability.
In the context of public service reform, it may be useful to research the experiences of other jurisdictions. For example, in Singapore the tenure of a permanent secretary is ten years.
The practical consequence of the overall reduction in the effectiveness of public service institutions has been an increasing number of missteps based on failures of judgment, such as the Tobago seabridge issues.
In certain instances public servants feel pressured to give priority to the directives of the political directorate. The value of policies and plans developed by means of careful research by technocrats across administrations is diminished.
The public service model has been challenged by the advent and proliferation of special purpose agencies or companies. These were originally created for activities which could be better managed by non-traditional public service systems such as the utilities, factories, energy, airports, ports etc. Today most special purpose agencies/companies are created to avoid public service scrutiny and to avoid transparency and consultation. Annual reports are hardly available and the politically appointed board of directors face no liability for their decisions.
A properly constituted governance system should ensure efficiency and effectiveness at the State level. In this regard the permanent secretary has a critical role to play in ensuring that the institutions of government run effectively, thus deriving the best possible value for money on taxpayers’ investments.