While the civil service is not a motor vehicle its constituent parts must work together if it is to deliver the services required to keep civil society functional and to implement development policies.
The legal and regulatory framework that guides the functioning of the civil service is provided by the Civil Service Act. Part 1 is definitional. Part 2 sets out the establishment and structure of the civil service.
Part 3 establishes the Personnel Department under the general direction and control of “the Minister to whom is assigned responsibility for the administration of that Department”, presently, the Ministry of Public Administration. Part 4 establishes the Special Tribunal which is to arbitrate where negotiations with the Association are deadlocked. Part 5 provides for an association or bargaining unit to represent the interests of the civil service. Part 6 is a general section giving the minister power to make regulations to operationalise the provisions of the Act.
The Public Service Commission (PSC) is established and governed by Sections 120, 121, 126 and 129 of the 1976 Constitution and guides the operation of the civil service. For operational control purposes, some of the powers/functions of the PSC are delegated to Permanent Secretaries/Heads of Departments, and other senior officials by Legal Notice No. 105 of 2006. S66B requires the PSC (and other service commissions) to report on the exercise of its powers and functions annually to the President who shall cause these reports to be presented to Parliament.
The powers of the executive are set out in part 5 of the Constitution. Section 85 of the Constitution distinguishes between the role of the civil servant and the minister. The minister has “general direction and control” and, “subject to such direction and control, the department shall be under the supervision of a Permanent Secretary.” Whilst the PSC controls and approves staff appointments, its agenda is managed by the secretariat which services its statutory functions. The Director of Public Administration (established pursuant to S13 of the Civil Service Act) controls the secretariat (the Service Commissions Department).
The language of S85 (general direction and control) suggests that ministers have managerial control over the deployment of the ministry’s resources, in practical terms that power resides in the Permanent Secretary who signs cheques, and moves staff and other resources around. How can the minister “direct” a Permanent Secretary if the real power lies in the hands of the Permanent Secretary?
Further, how are Cabinet’s objectives (e.g., Vision 2030) to be coordinated? The senior Permanent Secretary, the “head of the public service,” must finesse policies and staffing, The Permanent Secretary invariably performs this role in T&T and manages the Cabinet secretariat but does not attend Cabinet meetings.
In England and in other Commonwealth jurisdictions, the Cabinet Secretary is the most senior public servant and attends Cabinet meetings. This person also has responsibility for senior civil service appointments and therefore has real (not ceremonial) power. In T&T appointments are managed by the PSC, a body compromised of independent persons appointed by the President. Yet the President has neither the power nor the authority to direct commissioners in how they perform their functions, nor discretion in the removal of Commissioners. But the agenda for the commissioners is set by the Director of Personnel Administration (established pursuant to S13 of the Civil Service Act) and the Service Commission staff.
This is a complicated architecture of indirect control mechanisms, a “bad business model.” A fundamental principle of effective and efficient management is a hierarchical chain of command with well-developed responsibility and accountability mechanisms. If a manager is meant to achieve and be accountable for an objective, he must be given the resources required to complete the job and be accountable for their efficient deployment.
This possibility appears remote in the structure described above. The Prime Minister is meant to supervise ministers and ensure they and the ministries they manage meet the normal operational targets as well as provide an impetus to the attainment of wider development objectives. This means that they must engage their permanent secretaries to drive the process even if ministers cannot hire or fire.
The problem is that the levers of control are indirect and not geared to performance management. As noted by the Chairman of the Public Service Commission in the 2020 Annual Report “the Public Service reflects the state of the nation, and no nation has been able to advance beyond its Public Service.”