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June 30, 2020

The elite of the service

Opinion

June 30, 2020

Every year, the Budget is cause for much discussion throughout Pakistan; but perhaps the greatest debate is generated amongst my peers in the civil service.

Rumours abound of pay or tax increases in the weeks leading up to this crucial moment. The challenges of this year, with a global pandemic ripping through our population and the loss of many jobs, have been especially great and painful. Budgetary problems were expected and so the decision to not raise pays and pensions for the next financial year has not really come as a surprise.

Humanely speaking, if the money saved from this lack of increase is spent on health and research into a Covid vaccine, it would be money well spent. However, this spirit of sacrifice is short-lived when confronted with the inequalities within government service.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that corruption is rampant in the bureaucracy. What is perhaps lesser known though is that this narrative has been used for decades to keep government salaries low; it is expected that government servants of all class and scale will supplement their earnings with ill-gotten gains and this expectation creates a vicious circle whereby corruption becomes both justified and, for some, a ‘necessity’ to survive in times of soaring inflation. The idea that low salaries are acceptable because of the lifelong and pensionable nature of the job also does not bear scrutiny when most people cannot legitimately earn a living wage.

The inner workings of the bureaucracy appear to have become more transparent with the increasing numbers of civil servants taking to Twitter and Facebook to advertise their daily activities, and give advice on the CSS exam. What non-bureaucratic people don’t realise is that almost all the loudest individuals on these platforms belong to the administrative and police services, the two groups that are the self-proclaimed ‘elite’ of the civil service – and therefore with the greatest overconfidence in the acceptability of said advertisement.

The rest of the ten groups’ members are usually more silent about their daily experiences within the bureaucracy, and with good reason – their perception of their groups’ lack of relative importance and glamour is ingrained in them from their first day at the Civil Services Academy; the director general of CSA is usually an administrative service officer and the reality that the basic service expectations (cars, houses, drivers, protocol) are only valid for members of the administrative and police services is only brought home to the rest once they join their first posting.

Discussion of privilege by bureaucrats is mostly conducted amongst trusted friends and not in larger gatherings; almost the entire civil service of Pakistan, retired and serving, is a member of one private Facebook group but honest discussion is rare. Instead, sycophancy, colloquially termed ‘shopper doubling’ within bureaucratic circles, is the conversational norm when addressing the advertised achievements of administrative and police officers.

Recently, however, a few people gathered the courage to post anonymous salary slips of members of different service groups for comparison. The difference between the salary of a 17th Grade administrative service officer and that of a police officer in the same pay scale was recently shown to be around Rs80,000. What was left out of the discussion was that the said administrative officer was earning Rs110,000 more than an 18th Grade (ie: senior) officer in most of the other 10 services.

The difference is not a mistake – the people responsible for proposing special allowances, ensuring they come into effect, giving special permissions for procuring vehicles and inventing more privileges are all members of the administrative service, posted in the ever-powerful finance division and departments, and they look after their own.

This discrepancy led to protests last year for pay parity by officers of the Office Management Group posted in the Federal Secretariat and effectively performing the same duties as the administrative service members posted to provincial secretariats (where special allowances have been granted). It resulted in no change and the said officers were shamed by the well-paid for showing “unofficer-like behaviour” and letting the whole bureaucracy down by airing our dirty laundry in public.

This pressure to pretend that we all have the same rights and protocols as the ‘elite’ of the bureaucracy, just to save face and lord it over ‘ordinary’ people is ubiquitous. Some of it is internalized and the rest is the fear of coming across as jealous of the ‘elite’ and giving credence to the allegations of ‘sour grapes’ thrown around by its members whenever their privilege is questioned.

Much has been made of reform programmes for the civil service. Indeed, one of the expectations from the new government was that it would create a more equal and just system within the ranks of the bureaucracy. The new government, however, chose the same methods as previous unsuccessful governments to bring about this elusive reform; it asked Mr Ishrat Husain to head the reform committee. This committee was composed of 19 members, of which 13 belonged to the administrative service and the rest were specialist consultants.

What was astonishing was that provincial chief secretaries were considered essential to the reform process but the GM Railways, postmaster general, chairman FBR (who heads two service groups, IRS and Customs), the auditor general and the foreign secretary were not. The dismissive attitude towards valid criticism is illustrated by one apocryphal anecdote in which a student at one of the non-elite specialized training academies asked Mr Husain about this lopsided composition of the reform committee and was told that they had only specified that the members be federal secretaries and provincial chief secretaries, it wasn’t their concern that the said people belonged to the administrative service. An answer ill-suited to someone who has been purported to be an expert on the civil service for many decades.

This example of the reform committee is only one episode in a much larger and older drama of maintaining an essentially unjust status quo. The constant focus on protecting and enhancing elite privileges comes: first, at the cost of the rest of the bureaucracy and second, at the expense of the general public.

The former is evident from the systems sketched above and the latter is a more insidious process reflected in the lack of effective public policies, and the channelling of budgetary resources towards projects and companies set up and peopled by ‘elite’ civil servants, where money is spent on buying luxury cars, giving huge allowances and renting luxurious office spaces in affluent neighbourhoods.

The policymakers for our country are federal secretaries who almost all belong to the administrative service (the FBR, Railways, Postal Service and Foreign Service have, since their inception, been locked in an existential struggle to be headed by bureaucrats belonging to their own services and not have an administrative service member imposed on them by the sitting prime minister). In this bureaucratic climate, where the greatest purpose of these secretaries’ existence is to propose policies that provide their own service with greater protections and opportunities at the cost of other services and the general population, what systemic change can anybody expect?

If Pakistan is to survive, in the face of eroding public healthcare and increasing inequality, it is no longer enough to complain that the ‘system’ is broken and slow to change. Abolishing the privileges of the few is essential and one of the most effective ways to do this is to abolish the division of the bureaucracy into groups. There will always be a struggle to designate an ‘elite’ as long as there are divisions that make this possible and the current division is not based on any sort of expertise or qualification anyway.

There are numerous civil servants serving in offices or positions not suited to their educational or experiential expertise; the time has come to identify our human resource capabilities and give them the relevant jobs, not put them in silos based on the ‘group’ they’re sorted into at the time of joining.

The writer is a civil servant.