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August 19, 2018

Reengineering the civil service


August 19, 2018

The room is packed with an eager audience of journalists. Advocate Khurshid Hassan Meer, newly-appointed minister for establishment of the PPP, is presenting his government’s plan for reengineering the country’s colonial bureaucracy.

He pleads that the times require a more specialised bureaucracy, staffed with professionals at the helm. It is his government’s aim, he states, “to enable engineers, scientists and other technical specialists staff to be drawn into the stream of higher management (from which they had been barred thus far) and thus to make their advice and expertise directly available to the government at the highest policymaking level”. It is August 1973.

Fast forward 34 years. It is 2007 and General Pervez Musharraf’s aide, Dr Ishrat Hussain, is presenting the findings of a two-year-long study conducted by the National Commission on Governance Reforms. Dr Ishrat Hussain also pleads the case for a more specialised civil service structure – a goal that has yet to be achieved. Among his recommendations is a proposal to create a Pakistan Engineering Service with at least four sub-specialisations, including civil (works and housing), irrigation, roads and highways and public health engineering, so that engineers in public service may finally get their place in the top echelons of the government.

Fast forward another 11 years. It is May 29, 2018. Ahsan Iqbal, the then PML-N government’s minister for planning and reform, approves a summary to the PM’s Office demanding a more specialised civil service and specifically requests that an occupational group for engineers be created. The summary is gathering dust.

And now, Imran Khan assumes the reins of government, he too will inherit this stubborn little problem on how to reform the structure of our generalist-dominated civil service. The ‘change’ that Imran has promised cannot be brought about without addressing this governance issue.

Defying all common sense, the secretary of Housing and Works Division in Pakistan is generally not an engineer, the secretary of the Science and Technology Division isn’t a scientist, the finance secretary isn’t an eminent finance professional, and the chairman of the Federal Board of Revenue isn’t an expert in taxation.

An investigation into the affairs of the federal government, recently conducted by the Pakistan Engineering Council, has documented certain facts about the civil service. Out of the 40 divisions of the federal government, there are five whose business is purely engineering-related: housing and works; power; water resources; communication; and railways.

The business of another eight divisions – including IT and telecom – involves a substantial amount of engineering work. All 13 engineering-related divisions are headed by non-engineers. In fact, in the entire federal bureaucracy, engineers hold only half a dozen top-tier posts (BPS-20, BPS-21 and BPS-22), while the others have been usurped by generalists who mostly belong to the Pakistan Administrative Service – also known as DMG officers.

Non-engineers in charge of almost all our public works, power infrastructures, dams, canals and roads are generalists. No wonder we are facing a water and energy crisis for decades. Things aren’t very different in the other 35 divisions of the federal government. Be it the Finance Division, the Economic Affairs Division or the Science and Technology Division, specialists and professionals have been relegated to the bottom of the pyramid while generalists have been catapulted to the top.

You don’t have to be a genius to realise that in this age of specialists, this organisational structure cannot deliver. Those who don’t specialise in engineering, science, tax law, and human resource management have no reason to head government departments that deal with these matters. Service delivery cannot be improved without reengineering the civil service. If they wish to deliver on their promises, those who claim to be laying the foundation of a Naya Pakistan will have to confront this thorny issue.

Lack of tenure security and insufficient monetary compensation are often cited as the main reasons our civil service fails to attract and retain any stellar professionals and experts. But these explanations are only partially true. Perhaps the main deterrent for professionals serving in the public sector is the dominance of DMG officers with whom professionals have to compete to gain top slots. In this game, professionals don’t stand a chance.

If progress is to be made, the stranglehold of DMG officers in the higher echelons of our bureaucracy will have to be broken. This is not to suggest that there is no place in government divisions for generalist personnel like DMG officers whose primary competence is familiarity with government procedures and practices. All that is being suggested is that the rightful place of such generalists is below that of professional experts.

Our governance hierarchy needs to be reworked: at the top must be the minister who ought to be a politician who provides vision; below him/her must be a team of seasoned professionals who have expertise in the relevant field and are able to provide leadership and planning; and below them we must place as many generalist bureaucrats as required to ensure implementation.

To break the stranglehold of generalists over our civil service, there are at least three steps that the present government can and should take.

First, it must create further occupational groups. The Civil Servants Act, 1973 empowered the government to create distinct occupational groups for different types of civil servants. Between 1973 and 1974, the government actually exercised this power to create around a dozen occupations groups. One of the reasons officers of the foreign service and the police possess relatively greater specialised knowledge than your average civil servant is because they have long been organised as distinct occupational groups.

Second, the government must earmark the top slots in each division – secretaries, additional secretaries and joint secretaries – for eminent professionals who possess expertise in the relevant field. It shouldn’t let generalists usurp these positions.

Third, the government must radically revise the compensation packages of top-tier government positions. At present, the finance secretary, the power division secretary and others earn only a fifth of what the chief justice of Pakistan earns and one-tenth of what the CEO of a private bank makes. This is a recipe for repelling talent, promoting corruption and instilling subservience.

Reengineering the structure of the civil service might look easy – almost trivial. Yet, Pakistan’s history suggests that it is anything but simple. Many governments have tried and failed in this regard. It is equally clear that without these critical reforms, no political programme for change can succeed.

The writer is a partner at The Law and Policy Chamber and advises the Pakistan Engineering Council.

Email: [email protected]

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