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Columnist: The concept of “Permanent Secretary” in administrative history


By Tunji Olaopa

A former senior Canadian permanent secretary once graphically described a “permanent secretary”: “While governments and ministers come and go, the permanent secretary remains the permanent custodian of permanent problems.”

This statement constitutes a very apt historical overview of the conception of the permanent secretary, and the function the office was designed to perform in public administration.

The office of the permanent secretary has been the subject of many reforms in administrative history.

A significant plank in the reform of the concept and the office of the permanent secretary is how the concept evolved historically in the first place.

Without an adequate historical understanding of the emergence and historical trajectory of the concept, there is really little that can be achieved in reforming it.

In this sense, to “reform” is to cast a long eye back into the past as a means of understanding how something emerged and how it could be rehabilitated in line with its emergence and conception.

This is what this piece promised as public education and reform insight. The permanent secretary has come to play a critical role in his or her capacity to straddle politics and administration for the purpose of achieving good governance.

In a presidential or parliamentary system of government, the minister is chosen by the government and provided with a specific portfolio that determine the ministerial responsibilities to the public.

The minister’s locus of operation is the ministry which constitute a segment or sector of the national economy.

Thus, while the minister is the political head of the ministry, it is to the permanent secretary, the administrative head of the ministry, that the full responsibility of administering the ministry in line with the governance philosophy of a country devolves.

The permanent secretary sits at the top of the public service on the boundary between political power and public administration.

The “permanent” in the idea of the “permanent secretary” is owed to the British and their conception of the idea of the civil service as a permanent feature of government.

The late 18th and early 19th centuries were period of intense political activities that were reconfiguring Britain.

There were numerous wars and political upheavals, coupled with the issue of the English Reformation, the Glorious Revolution, as well as several troubles having to do with the British Empire.

And these political activities raised issues of governance, government and administration. On the one hand, was the whole issue of the constant changes in government.

This led to a logical and reasonable inquiry into how to determine some permanent dimension of government that will make for stability in the flux of succession and change.

On the other hand, it was also a period when there was an emerging and intense discourse on the relationship between politics and administration, and how the two should be perceived in the understanding of governance.

These two critical issues led to the urgent need to deal with the problems associated with changes in government.

Essentially, the attempt was to lay out the meaning of continuity in governance, even as one government is succeeded by another.

In other words, it was becoming increasingly clear to the Crown and to all those in politics and administration that there was a need to keep determining, as part of the running of government, who was to stay and who was to go when governments come and go.

And the nature of the British monarchy had a lot to do with the changes that were brewing.

The reason derived from the undue influence that the British Monarch was exerting on politics, and especially on the legislative functioning.

This influence manifested in two ways: (a) the King often impose his administrators on the House of Commons in order to get sufficient supports for his policies; and (b) offices were awarded as patronage to members of parliament.

To reduce the influence of the Crown therefore implied, for instance, placing a limit on the political activities of minor office holders.

The political strategy was thus not only to limit the influence of the King on the legislature but also to calibrate the emergence of a non-political but tenured and very efficient civil service that will permanently succeed each government, and on whose neck would rest the responsibility of governance continuity.

Thus, as the officials who were gradually removed from political activities became more non-political, they also increasingly became more permanent.

It then became increasingly impossible for any of these administrators to lose their positions on political grounds. It takes little reflection to immediately see how the flux of political complexities implies that the minister could not ever hope to combine the political demands of handling a ministry with the administrative challenges.

It was within this administrative reflection on the non-political civil service that the concept of the ‘civil servant” was first used. Two administrative events in 1854 led to this.

The first was the NorthcoteTrevelyan Report; and the second was the Macaulay Committee on the Indian Civil Service.

Within the complexity of administratively sustaining the British Empire and its many challenges, both reports had one singular objective: to create a critical mass of civil service officials who will be well trained in character and learning as to provide a top flight support for executive policymakers.

The East India Company needed more of civil, rather than military, servants. And it is within this establishment of the permanent civil service that we can situate the emergence of the permanent secretary and its permanence.

And so, the more administrative challenges became more complex and complicated, with all the attendant wars and empire business going on, the more it became necessary to have “men of business” as they were then called, or “undersecretaries” who could be in charge of the continuity of administration between one government and the other.

Matthew Lewis, the deputy secretary at the War Office was the first civil servant whose person and responsibility embodies the meaning of a permanent secretary.

As deputy secretary at War in 1755, Lewis did not resign with his chief but instead replaced him, and he subsequently held that position under seven secretaries at War until he retired in 1803.

And when, in 1805, George Harrison filled the post of the newly created assistant secretaryship, the reason given for this creation was the need for a “permanent officer” who will be in constant attendance on administrative issues that required urgent and immediate execution.

In 1830, Lord Grey became the British prime minister, and asked Sir John Barrow to continue as the secretary in the Admiralty department.

Barrow’s occupancy of the office of the undersecretary was what led to a change of name from “undersecretary” to “permanent secretary”.

The permanence of the permanent secretary therefore came about essentially as a reference to his/her tenure beyond the life of any particular government. It was also a major template that determined the consolidation of the emergence of the constitutional bureaucracy as a solid feature of the British civil service.

And so, this is the historical precursor to the consolidation of the politics-administration distinction, one of the most defining distinctions in the understanding of public administration.

This distinction is meant to insulate the public servant from politics by delineating the purely administrative matters and officials from political ones, especially in terms of professionalism, recruitment, responsibility, and policy process.

The public servant is then circumscribed by a legal-rational authority which privileges written rules and procedures. Each position in the bureaucracy has its duties and rights, which are clearly defined; rules and procedures are laid down to determine how the given authority is to be exercised.

Bureaucracy therefore promises a stable organisation, despite the fact that politicians which the public servants serve come and go.

In a presidential system of government, like Nigeria’s for instance, the president and the governor on the one hand, and the minister and commissioner on the other are expected to facilitate the strategic policy agenda and direction of the government.

But it is to the permanent secretary that the responsibility of mobilizing the resources available to the ministry to implement the strategic policy blueprint in ways that will translate into tangible governance dividends, especially infrastructural development for the citizens.

So, the permanent secretary functions in three different capacities—as chief policy adviser, chief administrative or operations officer and the accounting officer.

To be able to adequately function in these capacities, it is assumed that the public servant who will become a permanent secretary must have a strong multidisciplinary (or generalist) competence garnered from long experience and service-wide institutional memory.

Consequently, appointments and deployment of permanent secretaries rely on the bureaucratic feature of hierarchy (especially from the pool of existing directors) and democratic sensitivity to representation (deriving from, say, Nigeria’s federal character principle).

Critical to understanding the office of the permanent secretary is the competence the occupier brings to the office in finding a model of relationship that allows him or her to adequately maneuver the tightrope between politics and administration in working with the minister as the political head.

Such a model of relationship must facilitate being responsive to the minister while also remaining independent of him or her politics.

It is with this in view that the public administration literature has calibrated four models that are found in such relationships as, one, the traditional, with strict legal boundary drawn between policy and administration; two, the hybrid community model where policy and administration roles are mixed; three, the politicized model, which integrates the two roles as with ‘spoilt systems’; and four, the adversarial conflict-ridden model where both are never in agreement.

This is where we conveniently arrive at the apt description of the permanent secretary as the permanent custodian or permanent problems.

And this is also the point at which contextual administrative matters creep into the understanding of the status of the permanent secretary and how they are appointed or recruited.

For instance, Nigeria’s administrative reform history points significantly to Decree 43 of 1988 that politicized the post of Permanent Secretary.

This politicization signals that the politics-administration is not always watertight—political considerations often creep into the appointment of a permanent secretary.

Thus, whereas the recommendation for such an appointment ought to come from the Head of Service, and ought to give consideration for technical competency in policy development, leadership management, ICT and other core bureaucratic knowledge, such technical recommendation is often undermined by the politics of appointment.

The logical implication of this politics is that the ability of the permanent secretary to speak truth to political power, especially concerning the significance of policy choices, designs and implementation, is eroded.

Thus, permanent secretaries are no longer emboldened to do this because their survival and professional fulfillment are now largely contingent on political patronage.

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They are therefore under constant pressure to give priority to the preferences of ministers and commissioners rather than to what they believe is the right and professional policy choices to make.

And essentially, this is how the history of a crucial concept like that of the permanent secretary leads us to the understanding of how it should be reformed to ensure that it continues to perform the task it was created to perform.

The permanent secretary plays a key role in Nigeria’s experiment with democratic governance.

About the author

Augustine Aminu

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