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OPINION | Revert to Permanent Secretaries! A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

By Dyon A. Elliott

As was recently reported, the Joint Unions met with the Prime Minister and his team to discuss a range of issues. One, in particular, is the unions’ demand for the authorities to follow through on both the People’s United Party (PUP) Opposition manifesto promise, as well as the Briceño Administration’s Good Governance Motion that both committed to reverting back to the post of Permanent Secretaries as opposed to the politically appointed Chief Executive Officers.

Sadly, the response, as reported by the unions, is that the “Prime Minister advised that their [the government’s] position on this is to await the recommendations of the People's Constitution Commission.” If that is, indeed, the final position, it must be stated that there are several concerns attachable to that decision.

Who or What is a Permanent Secretary?

But it is good for us to start at the beginning. What exactly is a Permanent Secretary, and why should we care?

To answer this question, we must appreciate the distinction between words and concepts. Philosophy Professor Patrick Grim (2013) explained that “concepts are ideas, and words represent those ideas.” In some commonwealth jurisdictions, the term Permanent Secretary is functionally equivalent—in terms of recruitment and duties—to what Belizeans have come to recognize as ministries’ chief executive officers (CEOs). In this case, there is merely a “nominal” difference, with little substantive difference.

In other countries, however, the Permanent Secretary is well insulated from the political directorate, creating a truly independent public service. It is the latter that is the focus of this article.

More specifically, throughout this article, the Permanent-Secretary (PS) model being referenced is that found in New Zealand. In New Zealand, as the Institute for Government describes it, the PS is appointed independent of ministers, including the Prime Minister. The Institute, in their report entitled “Permanent Secretary Appointments and the Role of Ministers,” explains:

“The appointments system in New Zealand is firmly independent of ministers. All department chief executives (permanent secretary equivalents) are employed by the independent State Services Commissioner – the head of the NZ civil service. Like all jobs in the New Zealand public service, these roles are always advertised openly, and selection is on the basis of competitive merit.

“Ministers are consulted on what they think the needs of the role are and the type of person who should be appointed, as in the UK. The Commissioner then chairs the recruitment competition and recommends the best candidate to be appointed. The Cabinet can veto chief executive appointments, but this is seen as a democratic control of last resort. It has only happened once, in 1990 though, as in the UK, the Commissioner is likely to have knowledge of ministerial views when making his recommendations and will take these into account.”

Unfortunately, an exhaustive analysis of the New Zealanders’ system is beyond the scope of this one article. However, I do encourage readers to peruse New Zealand’s State Sector Act 1988, which, inter alia, establishes the State Services Commissioner (SSC), who is tasked with hiring chief executives (Permanent Secretaries) that usually receive fixed, five-year terms in office.

In a country that has a three-year political cycle, that five-year fixed tenure (along with other structures) provides these officers with functional independence from the political directorate. Said differently, it is very possible that the chief executive in this system can outlive the administration he or she was hired under.

Under this type of structure, the State Sector Act’s Section 32(1) (c) specifically makes it the secretaries’ duty to manage their relevant departments with a view of its “medium- and long-term sustainability, organizational health … and capacity to offer free and frank advice to successive governments.”

In essence, the minister’s role is to set broad-level policies, and it is left up to the Permanent Secretary to, in effect, interpret and, via the public administrative process, bring those policies to life via well-thought-out programs and initiatives.

The Contrast: Belize’s Chief Executive Officers

Having briefly looked at the functional independence found in New Zealand as far as permanent secretaries (or chief executives) are concerned, one only needs to read Belize’s Constitution’s Section 48 to appreciate the sharp difference. Our Constitution reads:

“Subject to the direction and control of the Minister pursuant to section 41(2) of this Constitution, every department of government shall be under the supervision of a public officer whose office is referred to in this Constitution as the office of a Chief Executive Officer.”

Section 107 (1) and (2) of the Constitution would go on to state:

“This section applies to … Chief Executive Officer … The power to appoint persons to hold or to act in offices to which this section applies (including the power to transfer or to confirm appointments) and… to exercise disciplinary control over persons holding or acting in such offices and the power to remove such persons from office shall vest in the Governor-General, acting in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister.”

Given the largely ceremonial role of the Governors-General in our system of governance, this essentially means that it is the Prime Minister who wields those powers. The contrast between the two countries' approaches to chief executives or permanent secretaries is quite conspicuous.

In a recent interview with The Reporter on this topic, the President of the Public Service Union (PSU), Dean Flowers, explained that had Belize been operating with Permanent Secretaries—even as it were with reference to what once existed in Belize—the matter with Forestry Officer Daniel Chi that occurred earlier this year would have played out differently.

“Had it not been a political creature such as a CEO and instead a permanent secretary at the helm of the ministry, that whole matter would have been better aligned with the actual regulations,” affirmed Flowers.

In July this year, Flowers had also explained to The Reporter that there were significant missteps as far as the Regulations were concerned, a situation, he maintains, that would not have been the case had it been a seasoned and functionally independent public officer at the helm of the ministry.

Saving it for the People’s Constitution Commission?

The foregoing is clearly not an exhaustive discussion of the distinctions between the designs of Belize’s and New Zealand’s, a fellow Commonwealth country, head of government departments. And while Belize’s pre-2000 Constitution did use to have the term Permanent Secretary, it is possible to argue that even that was significantly different from (and less independent than) what exists in the New Zealand example.

Nevertheless, this brings us to the heart of the matter: The response to the unions that this matter should be left to the People’s Constitution Commission (PCC).

At this point, it is imperative that we rewind the tape to the year 2000 when Belize witnessed the work of the Political Reform Commission (PRC-2000). While we can concede that Belize’s Permanent Secretaries were not as independent as its New Zealand counterpart, it cannot be forgotten that it was the PRC-2000 that made the following recommendation:

“It is the view of the Commission that permanent secretaries should indeed be POLITICAL APPOINTEES who serve for the term of the government appointing them and who have a role of policy coordinator as opposed to administrator.”

In its report submitted in January 2000, the PRC-2000 recommended that “Permanent Secretaries no longer be the most senior permanent position in the public service but instead be POLITICAL APPOINTEES of the government in office.”

Now, let's get something clear here. Even before the PRC’s final report, we must recall that it was in September 1999 that then Prime Minister Said Musa announced the shift to CEOs. These were Musa's words back then:

“In the weeks ahead government will offer voluntary retirement to all permanent secretaries who are not presently on fixed-term contracts. Their status will change to that of Chief Executive Officers with proven track records in modern management.”

So, in many ways, one could argue that the PRC simply "blessed" what was already the will of the then Government.

Fundamentally, there is no guarantee that this issue will survive the PCC process. Additionally, even if the PCC recommends the change, it must be noted that, like its PRC-2000 predecessor (of sorts), the PCC Act does not presently bind the government to institute the change.

Bird in the Hand

In many ways, this could be viewed as a situation of a “bird in the hand being worth more than two in the bush.” The Briceño Administration had already committed to bringing back “Permanent Secretaries.” That’s the “bird in the hand.” The unions and the other civil society organizations should not allow the opportunity to slip by wherein meaningful changes could be made for the improvement of governance in Belize.

There is a difference between something that is probable and possible. Possible speaks to what can be done. “Probable,” on the other hand, speaks to what is more likely to occur.

It is “possible” that the PCC may call for this type of reform. However, it is also possible that there is a repeat of history, and the majority sides with the politically-appointed CEO structure. However, there is a far higher probability of successful reforms in this area if the government is called upon to stick to its Good Governance Motion of reverting to the permanent secretaries.

I would take it a step further.

Simply reverting to the pre-2000 status quo is not sufficient.

I would encourage all stakeholders to take the time to examine structures like the one New Zealand employs for its Permanent Secretaries (or chief executives). While there are clearly other factors in play, I do not believe it is too farfetched to say that the functional independence of the chief executive is a significant contributing factor as to why New Zealand is ranked as among the top-three least corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index for 2021.

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