Fixing governance for a better Jamaica

Peter Phillips

Sunday, August 26, 2018

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Recent developments in the performance of Jamaica's public sector indicate that there are major gaps in our governance structure that have to be addressed if the system is to become less prone to abuse and manipulation.

These gaps are largely in the areas of recruitment and management of human resources, and financial management and accountability.

The management of human resources in the central government, which comprises ministries, departments and particular agencies of the government, rests within the Public Service Commission (PSC), which reports to the governor general. In order to have an independent body of public servants insulated from partisan political bias, the Constitution provides for the PSC to be responsible for the appointment, promotion, termination, and retirement of civil servants.

It is, therefore of utmost importance that Jamaica maintains an effective and politically independent commission. The current methodology of populating the PSC needs to be changed to lessen the grip of the Administration of the day over its functioning.

The method of selection of the PSC and the tenure of its membership should be changed to require agreement between the prime minister and the leader of the Opposition on the chairmanship of such an important body, contrary to what obtains now and which just requires consultation.

The requirement for agreement is not an entirely new concept in the current structure.

The public sector/civil service bargaining union would preserve its right to name a member of the commission. The other members should also be selected from a slate of candidates agreed on between the prime minister and the leader of the Opposition. This is important because the PSC is connected to the Judicial Service Commission and the Commission Board of the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF).

In addition to these safeguards, the life of the PSC should be changed from five to seven years to sever the link between the tenure of the life of the commission and the normal tenure of the life of the political Administration.

These changes to the operations and tenure of the PSC may require constitutional amendment. This would be essential to ensure that appointments to the commission are not tainted with politics and for political expediencies.

With respect to the public bodies, two areas require examination.

The selection, promotion and termination of staff are the responsibility of the board of directors. Selection of executive management in certain well-run public bodies is done by way of a search and selection mechanism conducted by large accounting/auditing firms.

There is no set procedure for how senior staff below the CEO is selected in these public bodies. For the most part, the selection is handled by their HR Department.

Selection of the board of directors is made by the Cabinet on the recommendation of the portfolio minister. Therefore, the insulation from partisan political interference and influence which the framers sought to achieve in the central civil service is at times absent in these agencies.

The strengthening of public bodies is required in relation to the appointment of the board of directors. In the case of the selection of the chairman, the portfolio minister consults with the prime minister.

In order to remove any undue political influence on the board of directors of public bodies, the method of selecting some of the directors should be changed.

The skill sets applicable to the particular enterprise is important. Therefore, in addition to general management expertise, human resources expertise and accounting/financial expertise, the board of directors should include people who possess the skills set peculiar to the enterprise or sector. Therefore, a method of selection to ensure that this capacity exists on the board should be clearly scripted.

In addition, there must be a representative of the permanent secretary, who is the accounting officer, of the portfolio ministry on the board of directors with the specific responsibility of ensuring that the Public Sector Financial Regulations are adhered to.

The PSC, now free from overwhelming political bias, should play a guardianship role with respect to the selection and appointment of heads of the public bodies.

The letter of accountability signed by permanent secretaries should be modified to allow board chairmen to sign a similar document. This contract letter between the minister of finance and the permanent secretaries is drawn up in accordance with Section 16 of the Financial Administration and Audit (FAA) Act, setting out the responsibility and function of the permanent secretary in respect of financial accountability for the public sector units under the particular ministry's portfolio responsibility.

The contract should be modified to emphasise the importance of adherence to government financial regulations and procedures. It should be signed between the board chairman and the permanent secretary and should reflect sanctions where appropriate.

This letter should also alert permanent secretaries to their responsibility to the boards under their portfolio.

In regard to the engagement of consultants, these individuals are usually contracted to do a specific project or a job for a particular period of time. The functions they are engaged to perform are clearly defined with expected deliverables set out in their contract of employment and termination.

Political advisors are those individuals engaged on the recommendation of the portfolio minister. Such members of staff provide services to the minister which are not in the remit of the civil servant such as:

* the examination of policy papers for politically sensitive issues;

* briefing the minister on political aspects of the correspondence and requests; and,

* helping to prepare speeches and statements for political occasions.

In this area, strict rules of engagement were laid out for consultants and advisers which now seem to be in the breach. For example, a consultant/adviser at the Ministry of Education is allowed to write a continuous tale of propaganda in newspapers, contrary to what is expected of a public servant.

This is one area of public sector employment that could benefit from stricter guidelines and greater specificity in terms of their engagement and the tasks to be performed if there is to be improvement in efficiency and reduction in the level of cronyism that is becoming institutionalised in the public sector.

In the area of financial management and accountability, both pieces of legislation that govern financial management in the public service should be subject to review.

The FAA Act was overhauled some 30 years ago and the Public Bodies Management Accountability Act was introduced about 15 years ago. Subsequent amendments were made to both Acts.

It is imperative that a committee is empanelled, comprising the financial secretary, the auditor general the contractor general and a representative of one of the leading audit firms, to examine these laws, as well as breaches identified in the reports of the auditor general, the contractor general and the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee.

The remit of the committee should be to propose amendments that would plug any loopholes and make these Acts more responsive to current financial management. The legislative amendments, once drafted, should be placed before a joint select committee of Parliament before being finalised. This is to get buy-in from both sides in the Parliament.

Ministers and permanent secretaries must familiarise themselves with, and adhere to, the Constitution and the subsidiary laws in regard to their respective roles and functions. This system has apparently broken down and the prime minister, the minister of finance, on the one hand, and the cabinet secretary and the financial secretary on the other, must be proactive in preventing collapse of what have been important features of our system of governance before and since Independence.

— Dr Peter Phillips is the Leader of the Opposition

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