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September 24, 2018

The administrative mindset


September 24, 2018

Following in the footsteps of its predecessors, the PTI government has set out to retool the civil service. In his address to senior bureaucrats on September 14, the prime minister promised to come up with a special package in two years, which would usher in a more professional, efficient and accountable civil service.

While the bureaucracy has undeniably slackened off over the years and, therefore, the government must pick up the slack to stem the rot, the point at issue is how to get round this problem.

Going by the familiar PTI logic, which sees strong political will as the magic bullet for every problem no matter how intractable, the ruling party should not get in a sweat about reforming the civil service. Armed with the power to legislate, promulgate ordinances, amend the rules of business and pass executive orders – no, there is no need to amend the constitution – and to top it all, having a sure-footed skipper, the federal government can restructure the civil service without much ado – it has already set up an institutional reforms commission.

But having been in office for a month, the prime minister must have sussed that the issue at hand isn’t as black and white as it would have appeared to him from the other side of the table. Instead, it has quite a few shades of grey.

The edifice of the civil service at both the federal and provincial levels rests on two assumptions. The first assumption regards governance as essentially a matter of general administrative skills, rather than specialised knowledge. Hence, a member of the administrative service is deemed competent enough to handle the most intricate of situations and grapple with the most fiendish of issues. Whether it is negotiating with foreign donors, leading the country in trade negotiations, handling the security situation, maintaining law and order, spearheading budget-making, drawing up fiscal policy, meeting revenue targets, supervising infrastructure-related projects or steering human capital development, an experienced-cum-adroit – and only such – administrator can captain their department into the right direction. We may call this assumption ‘the administrative mindset’.

The second assumption, which logically follows from the first, looks upon administrative changes, such as scaling-up or slashing the budget, and reshuffling a few members of the team, as the appropriate response when things go haywire. For example, when revenue targets aren’t met, the familiar recipe is to replace the head of the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) with a ‘better’ administrator. This is what the PTI government did when it gave the bullet to the FBR chairperson immediately after it came into power. Not surprisingly, the new FBR head is from the administrative, and not the revenue, service.

In line with the administrative mindset, the Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) ruled the roost in the first two decades after Independence. It monopolised the key positions in local administration – commissioners and deputy commissioners (DCs) – as well as central and provincial secretariats.

The other category of services, called the functional services, worked as an adjunct to the CSP and were completely subservient to it. The Pay and Services Commission 1959-62, which represented one of the earliest attempts to restructure the bureaucracy, in its report inveighed against the concentration of powers in the CSP and called for winding them down. However, its recommendations failed to impress the government.

It was left to Z A Bhutto to restructure the civil service. He abolished the CSP cadre and instituted a common training programme for all occupational groups, including the district management group (DMG), the successor to the CSP.

In a first, Bhutto appointed non-CSP/DMG officers as heads of the cabinet and establishment divisions and the Prime Minister’s Office – the three most powerful positions in the civil service. To date, many ace bureaucrats have not forgiven Bhutto for having tried to put the different services at an even kneel. Bhutto, however, failed to cut the administrative service down to its size. In fact, his nationalisation policy ratcheted-up the powers of the DMG.

The second major attempt to restructure the civil service was made by General (r) Pervez Musharraf. However, since those reforms were part of the devolution of powers plan, changes were made only at the local level, which resulted in the abolition of the offices of the commissioner and DC. At both the provincial and federal levels, the administrative service continued to call the shots. If we ask any serving or retired DMG officer what, in their view, was Musharraf’s mortal sin, the answer in ten out of ten cases will be: not the subversion of the constitution, but the decision to scrap the DC office.

The governments of the PPP and the PML-N, which followed the Musharraf regime, together upended his reforms pertaining to both the civil service and devolution. Meanwhile, the DMG was renamed Pakistan Administrative Service (PAS) after the fashion of its Indian counterpart, the Indian Administrative Service. Things were back to square one.

The administrative mindset is flawed for at least two reasons: As a rule, the generalist’s approach is only skin-deep. There is no substitute to basic knowledge. If you aren’t well-versed with the fundamentals of a discipline, your understanding of it will remain superficial regardless of the amount of secondary information you may be provided with.

That’s why a generalist can’t go to the heart of the problem at hand and, therefore, comes out with only quick-fix solutions. Specialists working under a ‘dynamic’ generalist are grinded down for losing themselves in the labyrinth of technicalities and causing inordinate delays in disposing of the matter. Having been wimped out of confidence, specialists follow the precept that discretion is the better part of valour and meekly submit to the generalist’s view. Those who still have the heart to call a spade a spade are overruled. The final outcome may catch the eye, but it usually doesn’t appeal to the mind.

On his part, since the generalist is generally not well-versed in the matters that he is dealing with, he feels a sense of insecurity. The combination of ignorance and a sense of insecurity make him highly susceptible to succumbing to the pressure from the top. That is why political masters on balance prefer a ‘clear-headed’ and ‘quick-witted’ generalist to a ‘confused’ and ‘hairsplitting’ specialist. The stage is set for politician-bureaucrat logrolling, which has impaired both competence and integrity of the civil service.

The administrative mindset scaled new heights under Shahbaz Sharif’s model of governance (2008-13) in Punjab. The junior Sharif appointed relatively junior PAS officers either as heads of provincial departments or as project directors to ensure speedy service delivery, and got things done through them allegedly in a whipper-snapper manner. Some of those officers are now in hot waters.

Arguably, the most serious challenge that the government will face in its efforts to shore up the performance of the civil service will be to lead the institution off the beaten track by deconstructing the administrative mindset. While Imran Khan looks keen to shake up the civil service, two factors may throw a spanner in the works. One, wittingly or unwittingly, he is a great exponent of the administrative mindset.

The leitmotif of his politics has been the belief that the man at the top makes all the difference; all other considerations are at best secondary. Two, his star advisers on institutional reforms are the retired or in-service officers of the CSP/DMG/PAS cadre, who have full faith in the principle of administrative efficiency. It is not that they will lead the prime minister down the garden path by design. But they are tuned to think in the familiar fashion. Anyhow, good luck to the new team.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi