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Background on The Cabinet Office

Although the Cabinet Office is one of the great offices of State in most developed Commonwealth countries and some less developed ones (such as Jamaica) it has been of rather late vintage.

Whereas, for example, another great department of State of the United Kingdom, the Exchequer (or Treasury) was developed as a separate institution in England in the late 12th century, it was not until December 1916 that a Cabinet Office was created by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. The development was partially driven by the imperatives of the First World War when a War Cabinet was created.

Two writers on the Whitehall system of government, tell us that:

…prior to the 1916 Reform, Cabinet was almost comically inefficient in its conduct of business. It often operated without an agenda and hardly ever kept minutes, the only record of debates — instituted by Lord Melbourne in 1837 — being a letter sent by the Prime Minister to the Monarch at the end of each Cabinet…Sometimes Ministers distributed memoranda for discussion but this was not regular practice and no control means existed for recording and circulating papers

Lloyd George’s creation of the Cabinet Office “killed two birds with one stone” by: (a) establishing a system with an agenda, minutes and the circulation of decisions; and (b) creating a powerful office in the affairs of the State.

History of the Cabinet Office

The Government of Jamaica adopted the model of a Cabinet Office and the position of Cabinet Secretary as part of its executive government from as far back as the existence of the Executive Council in 1945. The Cabinet Office continued through the period of internal self government and then into Independence. However, unlike most of the Commonwealth developed countries, the role of the Cabinet Office, though of a highly sensitive and confidential nature for obvious reasons, was largely confined to secretariat functions via:

  • composing the agenda of Cabinet meetings;
  • recording abstracts of the Submissions, Notes or Reports presented to these meetings and the decisions made; and
  • communicating the decisions to the appropriate persons.

The appointment and role of the Cabinet Secretary post Independence is established in Section 92 of the Jamaican Constitution which states:

There shall be a Secretary to the Cabinet who shall be appointed by the Governor General acting on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, from a list of public officers submitted by the Public Services Commission.

The Secretary to the Cabinet shall have charge of the Cabinet Office and shall be responsible, in accordance with such instructions as may be given to him by the Prime Minister, for arranging the business for, and keeping the minutes of the Cabinet and for conveying the decisions of the Cabinet to the appropriate person or authority and shall have such other functions as the Prime Minister may from time to time direct.

The role of the Cabinet Secretary and the Cabinet Office is integrally supportive of the Cabinet’s constitutional role as the principal instrument of policy and the body that is charged with general direction and control of the Government.

Evolution of the Jamaican Cabinet Office

A series of Public Sector reforms were commenced in the 1980s and accelerated since the 1990s to modernize the machinery and operations of Government. Partially in pursuit of these ends, in 1991, two retired senior British Public Servants, Sir Kenneth Stowe and Mr. Geoffrey Morgan were engaged through the UNDP to focus on three main areas of administrative reform, namely:

  1. The structure of Ministries and Agencies and the relationship between them;
  2. Corporate planning for the Government as a whole and for individual Ministries so as to deliver Government’s objectives; and
  3. The management of the Public Service including, in particular, control of costs and manpower, defining of objectives and the monitoring and measurement of progress in achieving them.

In regard to the Cabinet Office, the authors recommended that:

  1. The first priority was to get the machinery at the centre right — i.e. to fill the void by establishing a capability under the Prime Minister’s personal authority to command and control the determination of strategy and the deployment of resources (money and people to implement it).
  2. The Cabinet Office should house a strengthened Cabinet Secretariat enhanced so as to take on:
    1. Full responsibility for bringing together issues which bear on the Government’s strategy and presenting them to Ministers via the Prime Minister for collective decision;
    2. The lead role in corporate planning for the Government as a whole; and
    3. Monitor, and as necessary, direct the implementation of policy.
  3. The holder of the post should be designated Head of the Civil Service. (Formerly, this position was held by the Financial Secretary and later, in 1973, when a Ministry of Public Service was created, by the Permanent Secretary of that Ministry.)
  4. Responsibility for the size, structure and functioning of the Public Service should be in the Office of the Cabinet. The Prime Minister should be formally designated Minister for the Public Service and supported by a senior Minister with authority to implement the Reform Programme of the Public Service.

The main recommendations proposed by Stowe and Morgan, particularly those in relation to the Cabinet Office were supported by a High Level Committee of Advisers on Government Structure in 1992 (The Nettleford Report). The recommendations by these two groups were accepted for the
most part and, in July 1993 the Cabinet Office substantially re-organised and revamped to fulfil its newly defined roles and responsibilities by the simple expedient of utilising the last few words Section 92 (2) of the Constitution viz:

The Secretary to the Cabinet…shall have such other functions as the Prime Minister may from time to time direct.

These changes heralded the strengthening and transformation of Government’s policy management system and the overall improvement in Government operations, service delivery and public value.