Not long after the former Cabinet Secretary Kesang Wangdi finished his term on 31st August 2019 an extraordinary change took place in the Prime Minister’s Office.
The spacious office of the Cabinet Secretary was physically shifted away from the PMO in the National Assembly building to smaller quarters in Tashichhodzong located across the river where the Cabinet Ministers conduct a meeting in a hall once a week, and which also housed an extension office of the Cabinet Secretariat.
When the new Cabinet Secretary Sangay Duba was appointed on 12th March 2020 he was sent across the river to the Tashichhodzong in this smaller and lower profile office with a largely skeletal staff to head the ‘Office of the Cabinet Affairs’.
The transformation was not only a geographical shift or in terms of the reduced number of staff, but the very structure of the traditional Cabinet Secretariat, in place since its formation in 1999, had been changed.
Cabinet Affairs Vs OPM
Though still the Cabinet Secretary for all purposes the Cabinet Secretary now only directly heads a new office called the ‘Office of the Cabinet Affairs’ with a Cabinet Affairs Division.
This relocated new office directly under the Cabinet Secretary has two main functions. Its main role is to conduct the weekly cabinet meetings and follow up on them and a secondary role is to hold the Committee of Secretaries meeting (CoS).
However, given the lack of space at the Cabinet Secretary’s office the CoS meeting is held in rotation in the meeting halls of the 10 ministries.
A separate office called the Office of the Prime Minister was created to be headed by a Principal Secretary (Director grade) under which fall the PM’s aides and media services, Government Performance Division, Public Service Delivery Division and the Grievance Unit. Though this office is linked to the Office of Cabinet Affairs as per the new organogram it reports directly to the Prime Minister.
Even functionally and on a day to day basis this new office reports directly to the PM and has physically taken over the old office of the Cabinet Secretary.
In an interview to The Bhutanese the Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering explaining the function of this new PMO said, “When we say PMO we mean PM Affairs which is following up on (the PM’s) daily activities, coordination, meet the press, following up on the plan activities, following up on the pledges, following up with GNHC, following up my travels and tours, deliberations, international engagements.”
The PM then explained that the current Cabinet secretariat does not have a role in any of the above.
He said, “The present cabinet secretariat has no time and business in this. They don’t do anything and they cannot also.”
Lyonchhen said that the PMO and Cabinet are ‘two totally different entities’. He said that the only link is that he is the Prime Minister who is the Chairman of the Lhengye Zhungtshog.
He said, “PMO is not part of the Cabinet.”
The Prime Minister, at the same time, said that the Cabinet Secretary has ‘a big responsibility’.
“Every Tuesday we have the cabinet meeting with at least five or seven agendas. The Cabinet Secretariat will have to do all the background check and qualification, fact checking and research because the agencies are not there. After the decision they will have to minute it very clearly. They will have to communicate a decision to the agencies very clearly and follow up. Therefore, the Cabinet Secretariat’s hand, led by the Secretary, are really full,” said the PM.
The PM also pointed out that the Cabinet Secretary chairs the Committee of Secretaries. “That is the most important because whatever we have decided in the cabinet it is the cabinet secretary’s job to take it to the secretaries to say this is the decision and the background of the decision. The CoS agenda is open and it can even make recommendations to the Cabinet.
Whatever comes out of CoS we take it very seriously,” said the PM.
The major structural and functional change in the role of the Cabinet Secretary and Cabinet Secretariat is also reflected in the Cabinet Secretariat website which has also changed its name to ‘The Office of The Prime Minister and Cabinet.”
Principal Secretary heading the PMO formalized in the Bill too
While the above changes were already made a while ago an attempt to formalize it in law was made in the Lhengye Zhungtshog Bill where the Bill added a new chapter called the ‘Office of The Prime Minister.’
This chapter says, ‘There shall be an Office of the Prime Minister headed by the Principal Secretary.’
It says this Principal Secretary shall be supported by term-based Advisors and specialized professionals either from the Civil Service or outside of civil service. The number of such professionals should not exceed five.
Also, the remunerations, allowances and service conditions of the Principal Secretary and the Advisers shall be determined by the Prime Minister in consultation with the Ministry of Finance.
The Opposition Leader Dorji Wangdi in his dissenting view in Parliament criticized the down grading of the Cabinet Secretary and said it was one of the three reasons why he did not support the Bill.
He said the Cabinet Secretary should be the head of both the Cabinet Secretariat and the PMO but under the bill passed by the NA the principal secretary is the head of the PMO.
He said in the future there is every chance of the Cabinet Secretary and the Principle Secretary coming at the same level.
The Prime Minister told the paper that the Principal Secretary maybe from the government or outside but he already has a principal secretary.
The current principal secretary Chencho is a civil servant who served as the principal secretary in the PMO from before at the Chief Level but once the position was refloated as that of a Director he applied and got it.
Interestingly, the RCSC calls the position the Director of the Cabinet Secretariat but the PMO nameplate and the Bill calls him a Principal Secretary.
Given that the bill allows the Principal Secretary to be hired form outside this leaves the door wide open in the future for a political appointee to head the PMO under the PM with up to 5 advisors or political appointees from outside the civil service.
The Prime Minister, however, clarified that the Bill has zero impact on him as he is getting enough support from the RCSC in terms of numbers and also the names of civil servants and experts he wants from the civil service and so he has no plans to hire additional political appointees.
Lyonchhen also said support was available to him for specific projects whereby the government can hire consultants. He said for example a consultant had been hired to work on the State of the Nation report.
Cabinet Secretary speaks
The Cabinet Secretary Sangay Duba said that when he joined the cabinet secretariat it was already bifurcated into the cabinet affairs he heads in the Dzong and the PMO office on the other side (National Assembly building).
He said the PMO sees the daily business of the Prime Minister. He said that earlier the role of the Principal Secretary was very low profile and there was no recognition no matter how much effort was made and this time the post has been elevated to an executive level.
He said the PM’s office requires manpower capacity and it should be able to get them from the private sector as well.
He said that currently the PMO takes in officers from various ministries and uses them for a project for a month or more and sends them back.
The Cabinet Secretary said while he is not involved in the day to day activities of the PM which is the role of the PMO but he is still the overall head of the cabinet secretariat. He said his office currently conducts the cabinet meetings and follows up on the decisions.
He said the the principal secretary is involved more in coordinating with the PM at a higher level on various programs the PM would like to take up and also coordinate with agencies and follow up.
Retired senior bureaucrats weigh in
A retired senior bureaucrat on the condition of anonymity said that if the PM is not careful then there could be conflict between the Cabinet Secretary and the Principal Secretary in the Bhutanese context.
He explained that in bigger countries and democracies there is a highly functional principal secretary post which is very powerful and almost the same as the Cabinet Secretary. The difference is that while the cabinet secretary is the head of the bureaucracy and represents the official establishment the Principal Secretary is more political in nature and closer to the party.
He said in Bhutan’s case the Cabinet Secretary combined both the roles which has now been bifurcated.
Another senior bureaucrat also on the condition of anonymity said that the term PMO in the past had deliberately not been coined to avoid the politicization of the PM’s office with multiple political appointees.
He said the cabinet secretary is the highest post in the bureaucracy and he is too senior to take minutes of a cabinet meeting or be a ‘glorified committee secretary’. He said given his seniority he has to play both the roles.
He said a danger is another layer being created and this will lead to confusion and could also lead to politicization.
The former senior bureaucrat said the cabinet has every right to create new organizations but it must add value.
The retired official said an added issue is that the Principal Secretary even as a Director is a relatively junior post compared to for example government secretaries. So there may be issues when a more junior principal secretary calls up a senior official to relay orders or to coordinate.
A power-struggle from the very beginning
The essence of the issue lies in a continuing adjustment of politicians and their priorities and an autonomous bureaucracy and also a power-struggle of sorts.
In the time of the first elected government there was no PMO but the then Prime Minister Dasho Jigmi Y. Thinley filled up the Cabinet Secretariat with a number of political appointees. The then Cabinet Secretary Dasho Tashi Phuntshog was considered to be close to the then PM while in office.
While older ministers had no problems in dealing with their secretaries there were reports of some newer DPT ministers being overshadowed or even ignored by their more experienced secretaries.
The second government under Dasho Tshering Tobgay did not appoint any political appointees and used only civil servants.
However, he surrendered the then Cabinet Secretary Dasho Penden Wangchuk to the RCSC after it emerged that the CoS under him had written to the Indian government asking for action against a publication in India without informing or seeking the cabinet’s permission.
Prior to this the CoS was seen to be functioning on its own in certain matters with government secretaries even declining to appear before the Parliament to make presentations citing the CoS. There were also reports of some ministers and secretaries not getting along. The CoS was disbanded.
The DNT government re-instated the CoS but it now appears that senior most bureaucrat in the system has been eased into managing mainly cabinet meetings apart from chairing the CoS while a new PMO with an elevated Principal Secretary runs the show there under the PM.
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