Ministers and the Civil Service

Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago

By D. Napal

The Colonial Secretary held a press conference on Wednesday the 30th of July. Throughout his talk he stressed on the technical knowledge of the Heads of Departments and seemed to intimate that the ministers will have to come for advice to them in drafting their policy.

Other assertions he made tally with paragraph 5 of the Secretariat Circular No. 8 of 1957: ‘Notes on Procedure under a Ministerial System in Mauritius’. These make it clear that ministers should not concern themselves with (a) appointments and promotions, (b) discipline, (c) selection of officers for the award of scholarships and study leave and overseas training, (d) inter-departmental transfers, and (e) salaries and other conditions of service.

We would not have taken exception to the utterances of the Colonial Secretary had he not more than once implied that the ministerial system in Mauritius is a replica of the system prevalent in the United Kingdom and had not the Secretariat publication put it rather naively that the notes were based “on certain broad principles which are observed in the United Kingdom and which are equally applicable in Mauritius”.

In fact what are the relations of the Ministers with the Civil Service in the United Kingdom? The Civil Service in U.K. is under the control of the Lords of the Treasury. This becomes significant when due consideration is taken of the fact that the First Lord of the Treasury is also the Prime Minister; another Lord, of importance second only to the Prime Minister, is the Chancellor of the Exchequer (also elected Minister). There are other Treasury Ministers as well. It all comes to this. The Civil Service is directly controlled by the Ministers. The nature of this in so far as appointments and promotions are concerned is given in clear terms in Sir Ivor Jennings’ ‘Cabinet Government’.

“The consent of the Prime Minister is required for the appointment of permanent heads of departments, their deputies, principal financial officers and principal establishment officers. As a result, the senior posts in the civil service have not a purely departmental character, but are frequently filled by transfers from other departments.”

In this connection, Wade and Phillips in their ‘Constitutional Law’ write in the same strain.

“As first Lord of the Treasury, the Prime Minister is head of the establishment board of the Treasury and his approval is required for appointments to the principal civil service posts, i.e., those of permanent heads or deputy heads of departments and principal financial and establishment officers.”

And again, the same authors write:

“All the more important Crown appointments are filled on the Prime Minister’s nomination, e.g., the highest judicial appointments and bishoprics.”

It is again the Treasury which decides, in the words of Wade and Philips, “the number and salaries of each category of departmental officers” and “treasury circulars of minutes are also sometimes issued on matters of discipline and other matters where uniformity of practice between departments is essential.”

It is clear from the above that the ministers in U.K. have much to do with appointments, promotion, salaries, discipline, etc. For it should not be forgotten that the Prime Minister is responsible to his Cabinet for his decisions. And the Cabinet in its turn stands for the Ministers in their collective capacity. We find it hard to reconcile these facts with the rather blunt assertion of the Colonial Secretary that “ministers should not seek to interfere in purely departmental or technical affairs.”

In his talks, the Colonial Secretary emphasized that it is for the Minister to determine matters concerning policy. But in the Secretariat publication mentioned above, the minister seems to have been given a secondary role to that of the Head of Departments, and the following from para. 23 makes it clear:

“The normal procedure adopted for a policy matter requiring reference to Executive Council and subsequent legislation will be as follow:

(a) Proposals are submitted by a head of department. These are scrutinised and checked, and subjected to such further discussion, clarification or amendment as may be required. A memorandum will then be drafted…

If the memorandum adequately sets out the various considerations it will be the Minister concerned to add such comments or personal views as he may wish on the basis of the facts and arguments presented to him.” (italics ours)

Policy then, in our ministerial system, will originate from the Heads of Departments. Our minister at most will add his comments or personal views and these also on the basis of the facts and arguments presented to him. And to compare this system with that obtained in U.K.!

Sir Warren Fisher clearly states the principles underlying the actions of the civil service:

“Determination of policy is the function of ministers and once a policy is determined it is the unquestioned and unquestionable business of the Civil Servant to strive to carry out that policy with precisely the same goodwill whether he agrees or not. That is axiomatic and will never be in dispute.”

Sir Giles Franks goes a step further when he says that the higher official of the civil service who often has to take decisions by himself makes it a point to study the bias and idiosyncrasies of the minister under whom he serves that he might not go counter to his principles.

Sir Ivor Jennings corroborates the above statements of W. Fisher when he writes:

“When the Minister has taken his decision, he has at hand the expert staff to carry it out. He may generally assume that his assistance will loyally carry out his decision even if they do not approve of it.”

Thought loyalty to the minister is unquestionable in UK, such is not always the case in the Colonies where the sudden swing from the old Secretariat system to the Ministerial system has dragged in novel problems. For example as late as October 1953 James Welch wrote in The Listener in connection with the ministerial system in Nigeria:

“Imagine that you have had complete charge of a department for a population of 5,000,000. You have learned the job from the bottom. You have been at it for twenty years. You have given your best. You word has been law. Suddenly over your head a Nigerian is put in charge, and you become his servant, required to carry out his policy.”

In his autobiography Kwame Nkrumah devotes a whole chapter to the relations of his government with the civil service in Ghana. From the very outset he found that the civil servants were torn between allegiance to his government and the Colonial Office. He tried to be as conciliatory as possible towards those high officials who had been so deadly opposed to him during the independence struggle. But, unfortunately, many of them not only did not cooperate with him but often stood in the way of the progress of his government. His own words in this matter is full of significance to the contention that loyalty from the civil service to the new government after a political revolution – bloody or silent – is questionable.

“For instance it did not escape my notice that where the administrative service was concerned, if a policy was laid down for the officials by the government with which they disagreed, means were adopted, by subterfuge or otherwise, to wreck that policy. At another times I would find that matters that I wanted to be dealt with urgently, would be delayed indefinitely (because they were not approved of by some of the officials) until I had to intervene and get the job done.”

He makes a more emphatic condemnation of the Civil Service when he says:

“Again, I would at one time almost guarantee that if there was any movement afoot against the government, every attempt was made on the part of the civil  service to enhance the opposition against the government.”

The Civil Servant in the Colonies has to follow the traditions laid down by the British Civil Service. And that tradition, again in the words of James Welch, is one “in which, having stated one’s objections to a proposed policy, and offered one’s expert advice, one goes on loyally to obey the person in authority – be he black or white, wise or unwise – or resign.”


* Published in print edition on 16 February 2021

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