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Fleeting moments

October 9, 2020

Revamping the bureaucracy

Opinion

October 9, 2020

The government has decided to reform the bureaucracy. Far-reaching changes in the structure of bureaucracy would be incorporated to make it efficient and responsive to public needs. While the changes may appear laudable on paper and may suit bureaucrats, do such changes benefit the people?

The people perceive that the country’s bureaucratic setup is top-heavy. The intrinsic makeup of the bureaucracy is such that it expands with time. There was a time when a district, which is a basic administrative unit, was managed by a deputy commissioner and a police superintendent. Law and order was better and crimes were much less. Now, a district has a deputy commissioner, additional deputy commissioners, SSP, additional SPs and so on. All of them have their staff, residence, transport and security details. Has it helped to control the crime rate? Perhaps not.

A visit to any district or a divisional office would reveal the working and authority of bureaucrats; their lower staff scurrying in and out of the offices with shiny huge vehicles parked outside. The National Highway Authority (NHA) office in Lahore is a classic example of officials’ ostentatious working style. Most of the vehicles parked in the porch of the palatial office are double-cabins and other luxury vehicles with tinted windows. And every vehicle has a chauffeur because the sahib won’t drive in the unruly traffic.

During General (r) Musharraf’s rule, an experiment of the devolution plan was carried out. It was essentially meant to clip the wings of the district management group (DMG), which overshadowed other civil service groups. To restructure the bureaucracy, a high-sounding department – National Reconstruction Bureau (NRB) – was raised to plan and execute changes in the bureaucratic system. A high-ranking NRB official regularly appeared on TV to recount the benefits of the devolution plan, according to which local bureaucrats would supposedly be answerable to nazims.

All plans sounded logical and looked ideal on paper, but it’s the execution that mattered. Ultimately, the devolution exercise resulted in only cosmetic changes. The deputy commissioner was renamed district coordination officer, and superintendent police was renamed a district police officer. Whether a change in the titles of bureaucrats made them more efficient and responsive to public needs, and brought positive changes in the lives of citizens is not known.

A similar exercise by the present government is on the cards under the stewardship of Dr Ishrat Hussain, the government’s adviser on civil service reforms. He intends to change the basic bureaucratic structure, ranging from the procedure of civil servants induction, recruitment, training, performance, promotion, compensation and retirement to institution building, devolution, accountability and service delivery.’ Dr Hussain expressed that “the new Local Government Acts approved by Punjab and KP assemblies would strengthen the local bodies whose heads would be directly elected by the people and operate with the assistance of the civil servants”.

So, we will soon have another devolution plan to strengthen the local bodies. The bureaucratic plans are usually wrapped in jargons and are beyond the understanding of ordinary citizens. In his essay Clutter, William Zinsser wrote, “Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important. The airline pilot who announces that he is presently anticipating experiencing considerable precipitation wouldn’t dream of saying that it may rain”.

The people want to know in simple terms how the new bureaucratic system in tehsils, districts and divisions will solve their problems after its reformation agenda is put in place.

While reforming the bureaucratic structure in the country, it’s important to consider if we need layers-upon-layers of bureaucracy. Every now and then, new departments are established or existing ones sub-divided into two or three to accommodate bureaucrats and reward them with promotions. Our bureaucracy is top-heavy and needs immediate pruning. For instance, for decades the chiefs of American CIA and the FBI have been called Directors. But our departments have director general, additional director general and secretaries general. Consequently, it’s the heavily indebted economy that bears the financial burden of the top-heavy bureaucracy.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Lahore. Email: [email protected]