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December 4, 2019

The importance of being a generalist

Opinion

December 4, 2019

The government’s faux pas before the apex court in the matter of the extension of the army chief has brought to light the incompetence of the bureaucracy.

While it is convenient to point the finger at the PTI, which is having the first bite of the cherry at governing the country, for having put together a rather slack team for running the administrative and economic affairs, the malaise goes much deeper. The situation is emblematic of the tailspin into which one of the key institutions of the state has fallen.

Pakistan’s civil service is a legacy of the British India. The civil service of colonial India rested on the principle of administrative efficiency, whose embodiment was the Indian Civil Service (ICS). In essence, the principle stipulates that governance is essentially a matter of general administrative skills, rather than of specialized knowledge; therefore a member of the administrative service is deemed competent enough to handle the most intricate of situations and sort out the thorniest of issues, even if they don’t possess the relevant qualifications. While Britain itself has come a long way from this once cherished principle, Pakistan has retained its creed like devotion to administrative efficiency.

At the time of independence, the Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) marked the continuation of the ICS. An elite cadre, the CSP monopolized the key positions in local administration — commissioners and deputy commissioners (DCs) — as well as in federal and provincial secretariats. All other federal services, such as the Foreign Service and the Police Service, were much lower in prestige and powers, and known as functional services. For more than two decades, the three most powerful posts in the bureaucracy — secretary to the chief executive (president or prime minister), cabinet secretary, and establishment secretary — would invariably be held by officers from the CSP cadre.

In the entire civil service hierarchy, the office of the deputy commissioner (DC) was unique. S/he was the chief revenue officer (or collector) in the district. S/he was also responsible for maintaining law and order — the district police officer was responsible to him/her — as well as coordination among various government departments. To top it all, the DC was the chief magistrate (or district magistrate) in criminal matters.

The combination of administrative, revenue, police and judicial authority in one office was reminiscent of colonialism. Even today in ten out of ten cases, the most cherished period for a senior or retired official of the administrative service is when they had the privilege to serve as DC. In ‘Shahhabnama’, easily the most well-known autobiography of a civil servant in Urdu, more pages are devoted to the author’s tenure as DC than to any other part of his illustrious career.

In its report, the Pay and Services Commission 1959-62, which represented one of the earliest attempts at reforming the civil service, contained a rollicking against the concentration of powers in the CSP. However, its recommendation that those powers may be held down were set aside by the government. Such was the influence of the elite service.

It was president, and later prime minister, Z A Bhutto, who as part of his civil service reforms replaced the CSP cadre with the district management group (DMG) and instituted a common training programme for all occupational groups. Bhutto for the first time posted non-CSP officers as heads of the cabinet and establishment divisions and the Prime Minister’s Office. To date, many octogenarian and septuagenarian bureaucrats have not forgiven Bhutto for having tried to rein in the CSP. However, contrary to Bhutto’s intentions, the nationalization policy, which made the state the principal player on the economic scene, actually shored up the role of civil service, particularly of the DMG, which had become too well entrenched to be collared.

The civil service structure didn’t undergo any change during the following two decades. Meanwhile, the DMG had come to command the same powers and prestige as belonged to the CSP. General Pervez Musharraf, as part of the devolution plan, abolished divisions as administrative units together with the office of the commissioner. The office of the DC was replaced with that of a much emaciated district coordination officer (DCO). The judicial powers of the district magistrate came to be vested in the sessions judge. In the eyes of many ace bureaucrats, that act of Musharraf was more condemnable than of subverting the constitution.

It seemed the sun was finally setting on the DMG empire. But that was not to be. Although subdued at the local level, the DMG managed to safeguard its pre-eminent positions in federal and provincial secretariats, because the administrative shake-up was part of the local government reforms. After the exit of Musharraf, his administrative reforms were rolled back, and the offices of the commissioner and DC were revived. Meanwhile, the DMG was renamed the Pakistan Administrative Service (PAS) after the fashion of its Indian counterpart, the Indian Administrative Service. Things were back to square one.

On the strength of the principle of administrative efficiency, DMG/PAS officers are deemed thoroughly capable of spearheading any activity associated with governance: finalizing deals with foreign donors, spearheading the country in trade negotiations, handling the security situation, maintaining law and order, leading budget preparations, drawing up fiscal policy, meeting revenue targets, supervising infrastructure related projects, steering human capital development — and what not! Country positions in multilateral institutions of economic governance, such as the IMF and the World Bank, are also filled by the members of the administrative service. It’s like asking a lawyer to do an engineer’s job, and entrusting a doctor with maintaining the accounts of a mega enterprise.

The Economists and Planners Group (E&PG) is a specialized cadre, which, as the name suggests, takes the lead in economic management. Be that as it may, economic management remains an almost exclusive domain of the PAS. The economic ministries, such as finance, commerce, economic affairs, and planning divisions are invariably headed by bureaucrats from the PAS, whose core competence consists in administering districts and divisions. The E&PG officers are relegated to a subordinate role. Generalists are thus the boss and specialists are their caddies.

The principle of administrative efficiency has some obvious flaws. One, as a rule, the generalist’s approach is only skin-deep. They can’t go to the heart of the problem on hand, and thus come out with only quick-fix solutions, such as scaling up or slashing the budget and reshuffling a few members of the team. Specialists working under a ‘dynamic’ generalist are given the shaft for losing themselves in the labyrinth of technicalities and thus causing inordinate delay in disposing of the matter. The final outcome may catch the eye but usually it doesn’t appeal to the mind.

Two, since generalists are generally not well-versed in the matters they are seized with, they feel a sense of insecurity. The combination of ignorance and insecurity makes them highly susceptible to succumbing to the pressure from the top. That is why political masters on balance prefer a ‘clear-headed’ and ‘quick-witted’ official of the administrative official to a ‘confused’ and ‘hairsplitting’ specialist. The stage is set for politician-bureaucrat logrolling, which has impaired both the competence and integrity of the civil service.

The principle of administrative efficiency scaled new heights under the Shahbaz Sharif model of governance (2008-13) in Punjab. The junior Sharif — to make for speedy service delivery — appointed relatively junior PAS officers either as heads of provincial departments or as project directors, and got things done through them.

The PTI government has set out to retooling the civil service through the commission on administrative reforms. Leading the civil service off the beaten track by discarding the administrative efficiency principle holds the key to meaningful institutional reforms. Ironically, the head of the commission is a former member of the CSP and other key officials who are advising the premier on civil service are present or retired DMG/PAS officials. But we shouldn’t be pessimistic.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi