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January 19, 2018
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A mixed formula

Opinion

January 19, 2018

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The revised criteria that were recently introduced by the Establishment Division for the promotion of senior civil servants is a mixed bag. While it marks some improvement over the previous formula, it leaves the principal lingering issue unaddressed.

Section 9 of the Civil Servants Act, 1973, as amended, stipulates that the promotion of federal government employees who are BS-20 and BS-21 officers is to be made on the recommendations of the Central Selection Board (CSB) as per the prescribed criteria. The board is headed by the chairman of the Federal Public Service Commission and includes parliamentarians and top bureaucrats representing different ministries and occupational groups.

While evaluating the case of a civil servant, the CSB may recommend an employee’s promotion, declare him to be superseded or simply defer his/her case. Supersession implies that the civil servant is not fit to be promoted for one reason or another. Deferment is not a judgement on the fitness for promotion. A civil servant is deferred because he does not, for the time being, fulfil any of the mandatory conditions for promotion. These include the minimum length of service; the complete record of performance evaluation reports (PERs); and training in the prescribed institution.

The promotion criteria and the way they are applied by the CSB have often raised questions. On several occasions, the criteria or the board’s wisdom has been the subject of a judicial review. For its part, the federal government has, in many instances, amended the criteria as well as provided guidelines for the CSB.

In the recent past, the Establishment Division, through a memo issued October 24, 2007, revised the promotion criteria to making them objective, comprehensive and measurable. As per these revisions, PERs now carried a 70-percent weightage in the total marks while the training evaluation reports (TERs) had a 15-percent weightage. The remaining 15 percent marks were given to the CSB. It was further provided that qualifying marks for promotions among BS-20 and BS-21 officers would be 70 percent and 75 percent, respectively. No officer who meets the aggregate threshold would be superseded under these criteria.

The overwhelming weightage accorded to PERs – also known as annual confidential reports (ACRs) – reflected the belief of the policymakers that these reports, which summarised the service record of an official as judged by his seniors (the reporting officer and the countersigning officer), were the best index of his character and capability. As a result they held the key to his promotion. In theory, PERs may serve this purpose. But in practice, they often do not.

The 15 percent marks allotted to the CSB have put the avowed objectivity of the promotion criteria under question. How would the CSB exercise its discretion fairly and objectively? The candidates who are being considered for promotions do not appear before the board for an interview.

With the possible exception of the secretary of the division concerned – who is an ex-officio member of the board – the rest of the members do not personally know the official. Their knowledge of his character and competence rests solely on the service record that is provided to them in the form of his PER dossier. There is every possibility that the discretion would be exercised arbitrarily.

Not surprisingly, a single-member bench of the Islamabad High Court (IHC) held in a writ petition that some criteria were required so that the board’s discretion was based on proper reasons. In another petition, the IHC asked the Establishment Division to “restructure the provision of awarding 15 marks” by the CSB. In a similar petition, the Lahore High Court (PLD 2013 Lah 413) ruled that the process adopted by the CSB in awarding marks was at variance with the principle of due process enshrined in the constitution.

The federal government, through a memo issued on October 12, 2012, provided guidelines for the CSB and drew up a new “objective” assessment form to enable the board to evaluate the candidates fairly. As per the new guidelines, the 15 percent marks were broken down into three categories: Category A (11-15), Category B (6-10) and Category C (0-5).

The memo also stated that a candidate who otherwise meets the prescribed promotion threshold can be superseded if he/she is placed in Category C by the CSB. Instead of limiting the board’s discretion, the new guidelines increased it. It was only a matter of time that they would be challenged by the affected officers before the superior judiciary. In one of its judgements (2014 SCMR 817), the Supreme Court set aside the promotions based on the new guidelines and ordered the government to put in place an objective promotion criteria.

As a result, another assessment form for the CSB was drawn up by the Establishment Division and circulated through a memo issued on February 10, 2014. An officer was required to obtain at least three out of five marks for “integrity, general reputation [and] perception”. However, the total 15 marks along with the three categories into which they may fall were retained. So, little was done to bring objectivity to the CSB evaluation.

A number of petitions were filed before the IHC to challenge the CSB’s recommendations under the new guidelines. The IHC accepted the petitions and directed the government to reframe the promotion criteria. The IHC’s decision was upheld by the Supreme Court in its short order from March 13, 2017.

In the latest revised promotion criteria, the weightage for PERs has been reduced from 70 percent to 50 percent while the weightage of TERs has been increased from 15 to 35 percent. However, the CSB continues to have its 15 percent discretionary marks. As the Establishment Division puts it, PERs tend to be inflated as in an overwhelming majority of cases officers are given “outstanding” or “very good” reports, which runs counter to their actual public service delivery.

The government has introduced another performa whereby different cadre controllers (the divisions concerned) will prepare a note about the officers awaiting promotion to help the CSB make “more informed and evidence-based recommendations”.

Over the years, PERs have been the capital device to assess an employee’s performance. However, the way the reports are written has little to do with fair assessment. Although it is the responsibility of the reporting officer to complete the PERs in time, the officer reported upon has to run after his reporting officer for the report. Every year, a considerable number of officers are denied promotions simply because their PER record is not complete.

Even when PERs are compiled in time, they are quite often markedly deficient in an objective and fair assessment. A competent officer may earn an average report while an incompetent officer may be given an inflated report for reasons which have nothing to do with the quality or quantity of his output or even his personal integrity. On the other hand, TERs tend to be far more objective as the mandatory training programmes are a comprehensive exercise involving a variety of activities whose results can be easily quantified.

The government has, therefore, done the right thing by increasing the weightage of TERs in the promotion formula. At the same time, it should also have reduced the discretionary 15 marks of the CSB to a maximum of five. The remaining 10 marks should have been given to TERs to make its weightage in the promotion formula at least 45 percent. As in the past, devising a new performa is not likely to facilitate objective assessment by the board. Its wide discretion remains unchecked.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

Email: [email protected]

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