The Gambia’s broken system for permanent secretaries and how to fix t

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Dr. Ousman Gajigo

Our system surrounding the position of permanent secretary (PS) is defective and is a big contributing factor to the poor delivery of results by various ministries. One can have good policies but implementation gaps will remain if the structure is not rationalized with an eye towards outcomes delivery. The current PS system has been with us for so long that we are completely used it. Unfortunately, its negative consequences are real even if they are not always visible.

Currently in The Gambia, the highest position in each ministry is the minister. Below this is the PS. While these PSs work closely with their respective ministers and advise them, they formally report to the Secretary General (SG) instead of exclusively to the ministers. All the PS appointments are done by or through the SG. This means that ministers do not have direct administrative control over their ministries since that roles fall under the PSs, who report to the SG. To add to that problem, the PS are rotated too frequently and needlessly in the country.

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It is well worth considering the negative consequences of this system. For this arrangement to work properly, the SG would effectively be overseeing the administrative functioning of every single ministry in the country. Furthermore, this arrangement means that the implementations of the policies are overseen by the SG through his supervisory role over the PSs. Not necessarily by intent but through effect, the SG is effectively in charge of all policy implementations in the country.

The problem with this structure becomes glaringly obvious. It is simply not possible that the SG can oversee, monitor and evaluate the functioning of all ministries because that office just cannot have the expertise and manpower, no matter who the particular SG is. Due to the lack of capacity, what tends to result then is the addition of another layer of bureaucracy with no useful effect on implementation efficiency.

A particularly negative outcome of our current administrative set-up is that it undermines the accountability of senior government officials, particularly the ministers. Specifically, the minister is charged mainly with policy in his/her ministry. The performance of the ministry in terms of implementation and delivery of results are not under their control because the appointment of their main administrative subordinate is overseen by a separate entity, which is the SG.

This means that ministers cannot be logically or legitimately held accountable for lack of results in his/her ministry. This is strangely incompatible with the fact that it is the minister who sits in the cabinet, which is the highest deliberative body in the executive branch, and therefore the minister should have the responsibility for their ministry and be held accountable for its actual performance. In having the PSs report to the SG instead of primarily to the minister, an artificial rupture is created which undermines performance and accountability.

The position of the PS and SG have been around so long that it is natural to take them for granted. But it is worth going over how such an arrangement came to exist in the first place. The reality is that our current arrangements with regards to the roles of PS, SG and the minister owe a lot to the accident of history rather than some carefully thought-out administrative structure. After independence and before the country became a republic, The Gambia had a government structure similar to the UK in terms of being a parliamentary system. Ministers were ‘politicians’ who also served as members of parliament.

In this set-up, ministers were considered as “politicians” who owe their cabinet positions primarily to being winners of parliamentary elections rather than having some expertise in the sectors of their ministries. In such a context, it is vital to have more permanent civil servants who would ensure administrative continuity in the various ministries given how frequently governments can change in such a system. Hence the creation of the position of Permanent Secretary – the “permanent” signifying the more durable position relative to that of the minister.

This means that PSs can be considered as important sources of continuity in administration, and their insulations from the political uncertainties of a minister means that their position is relatively stable even over the course of multiple election cycles. Since a PS is not a cabinet member, administrative and policy continuity was further enhanced by having this position report to a cabinet-level position that is also non-political. This is the origin of PSs reporting to the SG, who is a member of the cabinet but does not owe his/her position to elections like ministers did.

It is also important to note that in the above parliamentary system, the distinct roles of the minister and the PS is based on the assumption that policy matters can be separated from operational and administrative matters. That is, ministers are responsible for policy while PSs are responsible for operations. While this distinction is conceptually clear, it is a matter of lively debate whether it is distinction with an actual difference in practice. After all, a competent operationalization of a policy can induce the creation of new policies or refinement of existing ones. Moreover, the neat theoretical distinction between policy and operations becomes frequently murky in reality, and questions the need to completely separate personnel responsible from policy from those concerned with operations.

When The Gambia became a republic in 1971, the above arrangement was no longer fit for purpose. This is because, as a presidential republic, it was no longer the case that the ministers had to be elected in parliament to assume their cabinet positions. In fact, the executive and the legislature became separate branches of government. As a result, appointed ministers could now be technocrats who were no longer ‘politicians’ in the manner in which they acquired their positions. Administrative or operational officers needed to become even more integrated.

Unfortunately, when that changed occurred in 1971, the Jawara government failed to re-align the administrative structure of the executive branch to reflect this major change . Ministers who were technocrats and mastered both policy and operational details and therefore need not be divorced from operational and administrative matters, failed to have the necessary administrative and personnel control over their ministries. So, we continued to have a presidential republic but a key part of our executive branch becoming maladapted to our present circumstances.

To add to this gross inefficiency, we have the peculiar Gambian tradition of rotating PSs across vastly different ministries with dizzying frequencies. I have seen situations where development partners from the World Bank or the IMF would start a discussion with some PS on a particular policy or program. However, when they return on subsequent missions, they would find a new PS who been transferred from a very different sector. Or take the case of the recent decision by the government to impose import duty on bagged cement. When that policy was implemented in early January, there was a particular PS at the Ministry of Industry and Trade. However, by the time the policy started having adverse effects on consumers within a matter of weeks, a new PS who struggled to explain the policy was in place.

How does anyone expect a PS to effectively oversee the implementation of industrial policies one month and be expected to expertly advise on the implementation of policies relating to health or education in the next month? We recently had a PS who was moved from the Ministry of Higher Education to the Ministry of Defense. It is as if the idea of expertise and experience is meaningless. In a bizarre twist, PSs have now become agents of administrative disruption rather than administrative continuity.

Another extension of this peculiar Gambian tradition with regards to the PSs is their presence at the Office of the President (OP). Indeed, the high rotation frequency of PSs includes the OP. In fact, we recently had the situation of a PS being moved from the Ministry of Finance to OP. Given the genesis of this position, it does not make sense to have a single PS at OP, much more a bunch of them. If the president needs advisors, he should appoint them to clearly defined roles rather than reinforce an inefficient system through duplication of roles.

So, the current sub-optimal administrative structure we have in The Gambia at the high level of the executive is simply the result of path dependence, having missed an opportunity for corrective action almost five decades ago. However, it is not too late to correct this defect. After all, there is no point in continuing a defective arrangement for the sake of tradition, particularly when the cost in terms of results delivery is high and the remedy is straightforward.

All PSs should report to the minister who heads their respective ministries and none of them should report to the SG. Furthermore, each minister should have control over personnel in his/her ministry. In other words, a minister should be able to request the removal of a PS or a director from his or her ministry (note: this is different from dismissal from the civil service). As long as corrupt intent cannot be demonstrated for the request, the minister should be given that prerogative. After all, if a minister’s judgement as to how best to run their ministry cannot be trusted, then they should not have been appointed in the first place. With his or her judgement being given the benefit of the doubt, the minister is now fully accountable for the performance of his/her ministry.

I need to stress that it does not mean that the minister should be able to fire PSs or directors. Rather, a minister wish with regards to personnel should be respected and effected by the Personnel Management Office and Public Service Commission. Like all civil servants, PS and directors should be accorded due process of course. However, while civil servants should have the right not to be terminated without cause, no one should be entitled to a particular position in a specific ministry. The protection of the rights of civil servants should not entail a whole ministry being held hostage.

Some may balk at the idea of giving personnel powers to minister. After all, it is quite likely that one would be giving increased power to an incompetent minister. Could that result in making an already sub-optimal situation even worse? Hardly. It is simply not the case that you can have an incompetent minister overseeing an otherwise well-functioning ministry because such a minister’s appointment would be akin to throwing sand into a functional engine either acts of omission or commission.

Furthermore, while empowering an incompetent minister with personnel decisions would not automatically make him or her competent, it would enhance accountability by removing all excuses. This is because the minister would no longer be able to justifiably complain that their hands are tied when it comes to removing an incompetent PS or a director in their ministry. Put differently, the key benefit of allowing ministers to have full control over their ministries is that it would allow the competent ones to deliver, while fully exposing the incompetent ones.

What this also means that is that the office of the SG is actually superfluous in our current system. For one, the office of the SG, no matter who occupies it, cannot not have the expertise and manpower to properly supervise and coordinate sectors as varied as health, education, agriculture, finance, industrial policy, defense, local governments and the environment, among others. No development objectives are served by having an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy that impedes policy implementation and makes administrative continuity impossible.

Ousman Gajigo is an economist. He has held positions with the African Development Bank, the UN, the World Bank and Columbia University. He holds a PhD in development economics. He is currently an international.

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