Committee of Secretaries given a second lease

Albeit with a new ToR and better communication to prevent a repeat of the last CoS

In a major decision the government has decided to reconstitute the formerly disbanded Committee of Secretaries (CoS) which is to be led by the Cabinet Secretary Kesang Wangdi.

Lyonchhen (Dr) Lotay Tshering announced this on Friday during the weekly ‘Meet the Prime Minister’ program for the media houses.

Lyonchhen said that the secretaries had asked for a Terms of Reference (ToR) but he had told them that given their seniority and experience they would know best themselves.

He said that the CoS will be like an advisory body for the cabinet for major decisions and it would also be a consultative body.

The PM said that CoS would be useful in working on inter-sectoral and inter-ministerial issues where the right hand would know what the right hand is doing.

He also said that the CoS can also advise the government if it is making a mistake, though not like an opposition party.

This initiative is part of the larger effort of the current government to build stronger ties between the politicians and the civil servants.

As part of this initiative the Prime Minister has already met with all Directors, Director Generals and Secretaries.

The Foreign Minister Lyonpo (Dr) Tandin Dorji said that the senior civil servants had said that such one-on-one meetings had not been held in the past.

Lyonpo said that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary will be coordinating with each other.

He said that the CoS will be an advisory body for the cabinet and will also ensure better coordination among ministries.

The Cabinet Secretary Kesang Wangdi said that the Prime Minister has made a bold decision and this would bring the political leadership and the bureaucracy closer to fulfill His Majesty’s vision.

He said that the government secretaries welcomed the proposal from the Prime Minister’s side and the complete and trust and confidence reposed in the bureaucracy.

On the terms of reference, the Cabinet Secretary said that a broad ToR would be formulated as per the directives of the cabinet and past records would also be looked at. He said the resultant draft ToR would be presented to the cabinet for approval.

He said that the CoS would function in an advisory role mainly focusing on the operational, implementation and coordination aspects of government policies. He said that when and if invited it could also recommend evidence based policy suggestions to the cabinet.

The Cabinet Secretary said that the CoS would be there to completely serve the cabinet and the government and bring the professional weight of the bureaucracy behind the political leadership in fulfilling their mandate.

The CoS is expected to free up the cabinet to discuss more on the macro issues and leave the implementations of micro issues to the CoS, as authorized by the cabinet.

The CoS will be restricted to the 10 government secretaries and the Cabinet Secretary but it is also expected to invite other relevant Commission Secretaries to participate as and when relevant or necessary.

The CoS was dissolved by the former government in December 2014 after the then CoS, without any information or authorization from the then cabinet, had sent a strongly worded letter to the Indian Government demanding action and saying that bilateral ties would be affected over a news article in the August 2014 issue of an energy magazine, Enertia.

The article was about some personal allegations made by a former civil servant K.B Wakhley.

Though the CoS letter was meant to convey a protest against the article drawn from K.B Wakhley’s blog, it deviated to also raise a September 2014 issue of the same magazine that had brought about a separate story on the BHEL Commission issue. The CoS letter strangely talked of ‘domestic political implications’ of the articles and also on the relations between the two countries being affected because of it.

The letter was seen as a major violation of government norms, as the CoS was conducting foreign policy with Bhutan’s most important partner and also making foreign policy demands on its without the cabinet being informed or sanctioning it.

The CoS was disbanded and three government secretaries were surrendered to the RCSC.

The disbanding of the CoS was in some ways the final straw in an issue that had emerged from the post-democracy era on the delineation of powers and responsibility between the secretary and the minister.

The RCSC’s job description for secretaries granted them vast executive and even policy powers. This particularly became an issue as a set of elected ministers came into office.

The first elected government saw reported clashes and friction between some ministers and secretaries.

During the tenure of the second government the CoS had become a very muscular body and frequently disposed of matters and took decisions without even keeping the cabinet in the picture. Some even called it a ‘mini-cabinet’ of sorts.

Once such incident was the CoS unilaterally deciding that government secretaries would not do presentations in the National Assembly or the National Council without the NA or NC seeking clearance from the Cabinet Secretary.

This stand led to the MoIC not holding a presentation to the NC on the RTI Bill in 2014 which lead to the NC refusing to table the RTI Bill, which then entered a legal limbo.

The NC in a 2014 resolution and public reply on the issue said that the bureaucracy is accountable to the elected government and it called on the former government to maintain a better control of its senior bureaucracy.

With a few more such issues the letter from the CoS to the Indian government became the final straw for the former PDP Government.

It was also widely seen as resolving the issue of minister-secretary tussle with a wider message of bureaucratic accountability to political leaders.

In response to a question on preventing a repeat of the past, Lyonpo (Dr) Tandin Dorji said, “The Prime Minister in his meetings with the senior civil servants has already outlined the expectations from them.”

Lyonpo pointed out that the CoS is not formed by an Act or any legislation and so the government has the power to both form it and also disband it.

The Cabinet Secretary said that a free and open line of communication would be established between the Cabinet and the CoS to ensure that the cabinet is completely informed and the CoS would be completely accountable to the cabinet.

The first meeting of the CoS is expected to happen sometime in January to avoid the inauspicious Dana or black month, so that a more auspicious start can be made this time around.

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