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Sunday April 21, 2024

Different reforms

By Mian Salimuddin
October 31, 2018

In keeping with its election promises, the PTI government has constituted a number of task forces to bring about the much-needed changes to improve the functioning of the government.

However, in its eagerness and enthusiasm to bring about rapid changes, it appears to have erred in the composition and guidelines to the task forces about the expected outcomes of their efforts. Take for example, the 17-member task force on institutional reforms.

Dr Ishrat Husain, the task force leader held his first meeting with the Punjab bureaucracy in Lahore in the first week of October 2018. He reportedly ask the provincial government secretaries to identify departments which could be disbanded, reshaped or merged into others and asked for proposals on how to ‘right size’ the government.

A provincial civil service delegation also met Dr Ishrat and wanted to be a part of the task force “to redress their long standing issues”. Dr Ishrat was also informed that civil services of other provinces have also constituted a body seeking representation in the task force.

If the past is any guide, any effort to introduce civil service reforms brings up the perennial and sometimes acrimonious disputes between the provincial civil servants and Pakistan Administrative Services (PAS), previously the DMG group.

There is a lurking fear among neutral observers that this issue is a ploy to thwart any meaningful reforms being introduced in the civil services. PAS and provincial civil services may have their issues but these should have been settled through normal administrative channels, rather than being kept lingering to be raised every time civil service reforms are initiated.

All previous civil service reforms have fallen victim to this seemly long outstanding problem. As a consequence, the reform packages in the past have been a compromise between the views of the ostensibly warring factions. Any meaningful reforms are stalled and this has been going on for decades.

Whether provincial or federal, the majority of senior bureaucrats have been accomplices in an era of loot and plunder. Others have been silent and helpless witnesses to the orgy of pillage. They may have even suffered at the hands of ‘go getters’ after being sidelined.

Having been rewarded by the corrupt system and flourishing in it, many bureaucrats will be loathe to any ideas on developing objectives for their departments to improve their operations. All issues about responsibility and accountability for their departments’ outcomes will be vehemently opposed. Even if agreed, the repercussions for poor outcomes will be kept as vague and translucent as possible. Under these circumstances, asking these bureaucrats for suggestions and proposals for the improvement of their departments is counter-productive. And this is exactly what the task force on institutional reforms has done in its meeting with Punjab government secretaries.

There is an alternate and better method to overcome these drawbacks. First, the size of the task force should be reduced to single digit. You do not create a large bureaucracy to fight another large bureaucracy. This lean task force should then select departments and undertake their reviews. The mandate of the department should be brought out, tasks undertaken to fulfil its mandate should be spelt out and the money consumed in the process should be detailed.

These reviews will also help identify the “silent and helpless witnesses” mentioned earlier. After thorough reviews, the task force will receive documentary response to its earlier questions. These review documents should be enough to initiate improvement efforts. This has been the pattern followed wherever civil service reforms have been undertaken.

Ambitious government-wide reforms are certainly not the answer. The PTI experimented a lot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the fields of education, health care, local bodies and the police with varying degrees of success. Let lessons from these experiments now be carried forward to Punjab and on maturity replicate them in Sindh and Balochistan.

Government departments have their own history, traditions and work culture which cannot be changed by a decree. Trying to improve everything at once has not worked in the past and is not likely to work in the future. Initially, we can only attempt to improve the existing work processes, not change them.

Based on the outcomes of the reviews, each department can then be asked to prepare its objectives, and the means and resources needed to achieve them on an annual basis. A timeframe would have to be specified for the entire government machinery to complete this part of the reforms. For the reforms to proceed to the next stage and become sustainable, two absolutely vital conditions have to be fulfilled: political will to provide unflinching support to the reforms and legislation to make them a permanent feature of governance.

Strong political will can overcome any obstacles in the path of reforms, make them sustainable and an attribute of governance. Success in even the initial part of the reforms would give confidence to the bureaucracy. Cultural changes and attitudes held by civil servants will then follow suit.

Email: miansalimuddin@gmail.com