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Opinion

June 16, 2016

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Reforming the bureaucracy

Reforming the bureaucracy

The bureaucracy in Pakistan has become a relic. It is a place where people accept defaults without question, follow rules without explanation, and clung to traditions and technologies long after they have become obsolete. Except a few lonely wolves here and there, most people working there never question long held assumptions. Conformity is encouraged and rewarded. Anyone who comes up with innovative ideas is considered a heretic, a disrupter and a trouble-maker. The seniors, in particular, like subordinates who never challenge their authority and wisdom. Critical feedback is construed as insubordination and against the principle of esprit de corps. All this leads to inefficiency, lethargy, and rigidity.

Last year, a lady was diagnosed with the Hepatitis C virus. She was advised to use interferon injections for six months. Unfortunately, the treatment proved ineffective and she had to try Sovaldi (sofosbuvir), which costs around two hundred thousand, for another six months. Due to financial difficulties, she applied to Pakistan Baitulmal for support in January this year. The case has been going through the multi-layered, obsolete, corruption-ridden system since then and God knows how long she will wait to finally get a response.

As a matter of principle and need, the bureaucracy in Pakistan should go on superannuation if it cannot reform itself into a modern organisation. It suffers from inertia, red-tapism, and over-centralisation. Public administration in Pakistan emerged from circumstances and values that were fundamentally different from those which underpin and shape the country today. Pakistan inherited an administrative system that was geared to serve British interests in the Subcontinent and had very little to do with provision of public services.

After Partition, it was decided in principle to continue with the present organisation and administrative system and make a few adjustments for the new functions. The 1948 Pay and Service Commission led by M Munir reflected this approach. The focus was on streamlining pay structures of public servants working in different departments. This patchwork neither feasible nor desirable given the requirements of dynamic development activities. Another exercise was done in 1955 under the supervision of Barnard Galdieux for creating an entirely new machinery for socio-economic development, but this too proved ineffective due to resistance from vested interests and political disorder in the country.

The most radical civil service reforms were introduced by Z A Bhutto in the 1970s, and later by General Musharraf in the form of the devolution plan. In both cases, attention was focused more on a narrow objective of taking away the powers of bureaucrats than on modernising and strengthening institutions for the purpose of good governance. Actually, the problem is not the people working in the public sector; it is the rotten system which encourages and rewards sluggishness and selfishness.

Many countries have transformed public organisations into effective instruments of service delivery by bringing in management practices from the private sector. For example, instead of paying employees on the basis of qualification and experience, a new system of performance-based pay and promotion has been introduced in most OECD countries to punish free riders and reward high achievers. Another way of increasing efficiency and reducing wastage is to make extensive use of information technology. The concept of e-government has revolutionised many services in the public sector around the world. Creation of autonomous bodies with governing boards is yet another tried and tested reform initiative for enhancing efficiency and effectiveness of the public sector.

Where it is not possible to revamp public organisations, the government may choose to go for privatisation. In most OECD countries, the role of government is to provide policy framework to the private sector for delivering such services as healthcare, education, sanitation, and communication, and energy production and distribution etc. In Pakistan, organizations like Pakistan Steel, PIA, and Pakistan Railways have yet to realise their full potential. Overstaffing and organisational politics have turned them into white elephants. We already have success stories in the telecommunication and banking sectors. The business of government is not to do business but to provide an enabling environment to the private sector for service delivery by putting a credible regulatory regime in place.

The writer teaches at the Sarhad University. Email: [email protected]

 

 

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