The Permanent Secretaries’ Board is deeply concerned at some recent developments arising from the much – debated acquisition of the Outameni property by the National Housing Trust (NHT), and the implications in relation to Public Bodies.
Specifically, the concerns are those in respect of the increasing attempts, over time, to bring the professional civil service into disrepute. Unfortunately, some of the contributions in relation to the instant case include elements of hearsay, misinformation and factual inconsistencies.
This has been compounded by the issue of the appropriateness, whether permissible or not under applicable Parliamentary procedures, of summoning a Civil Servant to a Committee of the House of Representatives to treat with issues in respect of which questions are on the table and are awaiting responses from the relevant Ministers.
Most regrettable, has been the attempt to vilify and impugn the character of a senior professional public servant, and from which type of attack other professional public servants would most certainly not be immune. If unchecked, such attacks can only serve to further demoralise the existing public service, and discourage the best and brightest from wishing to enter the service.
Further, the Permanent Secretaries’ Board notes that, notwithstanding the provisions of the Public Bodies Management and Accountability (PBMA) Act, to date, no member of the NHT Board has been summoned to any committee of the House.
Section 6 of the PBMA Act states:- “Every board shall-
(a) take such steps as are necessary-
(i) for the efficient and effective management of the public body;
(ii) to ensure the accountability of all persons who manage the resources
of the public body;”
The Permanent Secretaries’ Board is obliged to note that in all of this, one of the issues which ought rightly to occupy our pursuit of the nation’s business is the improvement of governance of traditional government departments, i.e. the civil service, as well as the plethora of public bodies with their respective powers and authority under law, particularly with respect to state-owned self-financing, self-governing enterprises.
It is clear from commentary now within the public domain, that the roles and responsibilities of persons appointed as Accounting Officers are not fully understood.
Briefly, the role and responsibilities of the Accounting Officer are defined in the Financial Administration and Audit Act, and they relate to the financial administration of entities that are funded by the Consolidated Fund within the portfolio for which a Permanent Secretary has supervision. The National Housing Trust is classified as a self-financing statutory corporation. It does not receive funds from the Consolidated Fund.
The PBMA Act, which sets out the arrangements for the management of public bodies, whilst it does not expressly define and delineate the role of the Accounting Officer, grants a specific power to the Accounting Officer to investigate transactions involving the Consolidated Fund, to wit, payments made to any public body by way of grant; capital contribution; loan; assignment of revenue or guarantee from the Consolidated Fund to the public body. It is important to note that, in respect of the Outameni matter, the National Housing Trust was not in receipt of any such grant, capital contribution, revenue or guarantee from the Consolidated Fund. Therefore, in so far as the PBMA Act is concerned, in the instant case, the Accounting Officer had no decision – making role.
In the discharge of general supervisory functions, a Permanent Secretary is entitled to expect full compliance by Boards of public bodies with the corporate governance requirements set out in the PBMA Act. Indeed, section 25 of the PBMA Act makes it an offence to fail to comply with certain statutory mandates. This is necessary because the PBMA Act does not provide any scope for the Accounting Officer or the Permanent Secretary to “intermeddle” in Board affairs, or to direct Boards of public bodies on how to run their systems and operations.
The Permanent Secretaries’ Board strongly recommends, notwithstanding the instant NHT/Outameni issue, that the Cabinet and the Parliament of Jamaica undertake, on an informed, factual and reasoned basis, a thorough review of the governance and accountability frameworks in relation to public bodies.
The objectives of the PBMA Act have been further clarified in the Corporate Governance Framework (CGF) which was approved by the Cabinet and tabled in Parliament in November 2012. However, notwithstanding an extensive public-sector- wide sensitisation undertaken by the Ministry of Finance and Planning in 2013, the operational protocols and arrangements for the corporate governance and accountability policy frameworks are still being developed by the Ministry of Finance and Planning, which is the responsible Ministry in relation to the management of public bodies, and the Cabinet Office. These arrangements, which include setting out the relationship between public bodies and their portfolio Ministries, stand to benefit from a thorough and balanced review.
The Permanent Secretaries’ Board will embrace an opportunity to assist in any constructive endeavour in that regard.
Finally, the Permanent Secretaries’ Board wishes to emphasize that factual, balanced and fair criticisms, made with decorum, are what one might expect in the circumstance. However, the recent attacks fall very far short, and the Board hopes there will never be a recurrence.