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October 18, 2020

Dr Ishrat’s reform package

Opinion

October 18, 2020

The country's civil service structure is finally undergoing some changes and you can get a measure of their significance while staying safely at home. Thanks to the amazing innovation of webinar, we had a ringside narration of the steps being steered by none other than Dr Ishrat Hussain, chairman of the Task Force on Reforms. The virtual presentation was hosted earlier this month by Dr Nadeem ul Haque, vice chancellor of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics – PIDE in Islamabad.

It should be acknowledged at the outset that Dr Ishrat Hussain is a guru of public administration who knows what ails the civil service. He gave broad parameters of the reform plan, disclosing that the federal services were being downsized from 640,000 to 570,000 posts, knocking off nearly one-eighth of the jobs provided by the federation. This is in line with the devolution of powers to the provinces under the 18th Amendment. He said that the 70,000 posts in Basic Pay Scales 1 to 16 which were lying vacant were being scrapped. The savings made by this major downsizing will be used for giving a pay raise to the civil servants that could not be granted one in the 2020-21 budget.

The extent of increase in the salaries and pensions of the federal services will be determined by a new pay and pensions commission. Dr Ishrat did not make a reference to the elephant in the room that is the IMF's demand for capping the expenditure on pay and pensions. This objective may be partially met by the policy of early retirement that is on the anvil. That in turn is part of the larger reform package outlined by the speaker.

The radical aspect of the reform plan, which is already making many senior cadres nervous, is a proposed system of performance evaluation leading to early retirement. How will the evaluators guarantee a system that minimises favouritism? This element could encourage some to try harder to please their bosses. How such an environment will encourage better delivery of service to the people is not clear either.

A reformatting of the Central Superior Services is under consideration. In numbers, the 6,000 CSS cadre officers are outnumbered by 24,000 professionals in various departments. However, the cadres – particularly the PAS – are controlling the bureaucracy as they get most top posts. In the reformed system, if adopted and implemented, the professionals would have greater prospects of advancement. There is a proposal to initiate a National Executive Service for the top tier, composed of generalists and specialists.

The CSS examination system may be revamped. Dr Ishrat spoke about introducing clusters of cadres, geared to fields like general administration, police, economic spheres, foreign affairs and so on. CSS candidates will be required to appear in subjects of interest pertaining to the service they want to join. This implies that the candidates must choose their area of interest before sitting for the nationwide competitive examination.

A perennial challenge has been to reduce the monopoly of one generalist cadre over the command posts in scales 21 and 22. Dr Ishrat explained that the specialist cadres will be given opportunities of advancement in their fields to eventually enable doctors, engineers, economists and others to rise to the highest posts in their respective areas.

Another issue relates to the reallocation of senior positions to the provinces in line with the 18th Amendment that greatly increased their jurisdiction. According to the chairman of the task force, 600 senior positions have been transferred to the provincial governments leaving 1050 with the centre. In yet another move, PCS officers will be given opportunities to join the PAS through selection by the public service commission.

In order to permanently resolve the problem of rising expenses on pensions, a new scheme of contributions to pension funds is likely to be introduced. The federal services have a huge tail where 85 percent payload goes to the civil servants in BPS 1-16 and 15 percent to those in BPS 17-22. Over the years, the state has been the major employer but can no longer afford a vast bureaucracy. Theoretically, that can be managed by reducing the numbers of support staff among others through recourse to digitization.

The host Nadeem ul Haque pointed out the continuing problem of over-centralisation and the hold of one cadre over all others. The professionals are treated as second class with poor prospects of advancement. Dr Ishrat said things could change with the revival of local bodies, already planned in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. But no one knows if that would improve matters or bring in more confusion.

Pakistan has followed the British tradition of cadre system and long-term careers. The other pattern is followed by the US where people are appointed to specific posts and promotions are not automatic.

While waiting for major reforms, efforts are being made to enforce Efficiency and Discipline Rules. According to Dr Ishrat, the FBR had removed fifty of its officers for malpractices.

In conclusion, the reform package is almost ready to be placed before the cabinet for approval. If adopted, it will usher most profound changes in the civil services yet seen. The full impact of those reforms may take several years to become evident. The real test will lie in their effectiveness to provide better service to the people rather than catering to interest groups within the bureaucracy.

Fundamental changes envisaged in the reform package will have to be approved at the highest level. Dr Ishrat informed the participants of the webinar that he planned to refer those proposals for approval by the federal cabinet. Now, with the political temperatures rising in the country, the civil service reform plan could very well be moved to the slow burner.

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