Civil Servants and Ministers

Civil Servants and Ministers the respective roles and functional relationship of civil servants, especially secretaries and ministers, are guided by the rules of business. The historical antecedents of this relationship date back to the Government of India Act, 1935. Under this Act, the role of the ministers was limited to aid and advise the governor general in the exercise of his functions as the chief executive of the government of India. The Act also laid down that the governor general was to exercise his authority either directly or through officers subordinate to him. Under this framework, the secretaries as official heads of the ministries had direct access to the governor general.

This legacy continued to govern the relationship between elected ministers and civil servants even after the end of British colonial rule. The Rules of Business of the government of Pakistan gave considerable authority to the secretary, assigning him also the role of an adviser to the minister in taking decisions.

Under the Constitution of Bangladesh, the Prime Minister is the chief executive and the President had to act on the advice of the prime minister in all matters except that of appointing the prime minister. However, the authority to make the Rules of Business was vested in the President.

Early in 1975, the Constitution was amended to provide for a presidential form of government and a council of ministers. The amendment also provided for one-party rule. The role of the ministers was relegated to what was there in the Government of India Act, 1935. This was a short-lived experiment because in August 1975 a military coup led to a change of government and in the form of government as well.

The Rules of Business were first framed in 1975 when the country was under military rule. Under the rules, the position of the ministers was the same as that provided in the Government of India Act, 1935. However, the ministers were made responsible for policy matters and their implementation. They were further made responsible for conducting the business of their respective ministries in the Parliament unless otherwise directed by the President.

Under the Rules of Business of 1975, the secretary was declared the official head of the ministry/division. Subject to the minister's responsibility in policy matters and their implementation, the secretary was made responsible for administration, discipline, and proper conduct of business assigned to the ministry/division. The secretary was also designated as the principal accounting officer of the ministry, its attached departments and subordinate offices. He was made further responsible for keeping the ministers generally informed of the working of the ministry/division and of any important cases disposed of without reference to the minister or the state minister/deputy minister.

It was also laid down in the rules that no officer below the rank of a joint secretary should take the initiative in approaching a minister in connection with official business. A minister, however, might call any officer of his ministry for discussion. The head of an attached department or autonomous body may hold discussion with his minister, but has to communicate the contents of such discussion to his secretary at the first possible opportunity.

Under the secretariat procedure again, an additional or a joint secretary who has been assigned a distinct sphere of duty can send files directly to the minister, but such files after disposal of the case by the minister has to be sent back through the secretary. The secretary, however, has the authority to call for such files, and may also request the joint/additional secretary concerned for consultation before the files are sent to the minister.

The framework of relationship as delineated above was examined by a high powered committee in June 1987. The recommendations made by the committee which mainly related to curtailing the authority of the secretary and increasing that of the minister, were not accepted and approved by the President. However, an important change was accepted and incorporated in the Rules of Business. Previously, the secretary was required to keep the minister generally informed of the working of the ministry/division. Under the change adopted, the word 'generally informed' was deleted. It was laid down in rules that 'The secretary shall keep the minister-in-charge informed of the working of the ministry/division and shall work under his supervision.'

Under the latest rules issued in 1996, the requirement that the secretary shall work under the supervision of the minister, was dispensed with. All other functions relating to the authority of the secretary were kept unchanged. As regards the secretary being the official head of the ministry/division under his charge, the word 'official' was substituted by the word 'administrative'.

The relationship between the secretary and the minister as shown in the Rules of Business and the secretariat procedure wholly relates to the regulatory framework which is supposed to govern the relationship between them. In the real world of government and politics, the relationship depends more on whether the persons involved are capable of a fair understanding and accommodation of each other's points of view. [AMM Shawkat Ali]

Bibliography AMM Shawkat Ali, Aspects of Public Administration, Nikhil Prokashan, 1996; Rules of Business, 1996.