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October 24, 2020

Reform where necessary

Opinion

October 24, 2020

The Civil Service Reforms by Dr Ishrat Hussain have been underway for the past two years. The litany of complaints against bureaucrats and their (in)capacity to deliver is unending. One is at a loss on how to defend these relics of the colonial era. The general sentiments are that the permanent steel-frame of governance is no more able to sustain the expectations of a modern democratic government.

All the sporadic reforms, deep or shallow after 1973, are projected to have failed to fix the expanding corruption, inefficiency and erosion in self-respect palpable among this class, which served the country well until the 60s. What is left of Pakistan due to their antics now is a quagmire no government can fix. Is a complete overhaul in federal services the missing panacea? Clearly, there cannot be more than two responses, one in the affirmation and the other in negative. There is no third answer.

Here we are dealing with the present and future bureaucracy that would energize national governance on a permanent basis. Therefore, we have to plant humans, not trees or corn, if we plan for the next hundred years or so. Their main job would be to look after implementation of national policies in accordance with rules and practices allowed under constitution. They will have to be apolitical and transparent in dealing with the ruling elites.

PIDE organized a webinar on ‘Civil Service Reforms’ with Dr Ishrat on October 7 to clear the cobwebs surrounding the reforms meant to improve the state of civil service. Dr Ishrat Hussain explained that a three-fold approach is being used to bring civil service reforms. He explained how some of the key institutions of economic governance, such as the State Bank of Pakistan, the Federal Board of Revenue, Railways, PIA etc direly need to be transformed in terms of their structures, processes, human resource capabilities and technological adoption.

He also spoke about the restructuring of the Federal Civil Service consisting of 440 organizations working under different ministries, which can be classified under 16 different entities. Dr Ishrat Hussain wants to classify them under six categories and two types of organizational structures, namely autonomous bodies and executive departments to establish a clear division between policymaking, its implementation and regulation. The regulatory functions will be completely independent of the ministries. Around 330 organizations were grouped according to this method and the rest 110 are to be privatized, liquidated, merged, or given to the provinces.

The most controversial aspect of the reforms is Civil Service Value Chain Management. It starts from induction and covers training, performance management, career planning, promotion, compensation and benefits, and retirement, and severance. Dr Ishrat is against creating a general service, and proposes clusters. For example, those who want to qualify for the financial services, audit accounts, taxation, or commerce and trade will have to take electives papers in finance or economics, for the police service two electives in criminology and criminal procedure court and for the Foreign Service, international relations and diplomacy.

Dr Ishrat Hussain rightly said that in an era where knowledge and innovation drives economic growth, it is important to train these officers and ensure that promotions are dependent on performance and training. Is this a new recipe? All past reforms claimed performance based evaluation after studying various models on how to create verifiable key performance indicators rather than a subjective criterion. Where the existing laws, regulations and rules were found lacking, the higher courts created a robust body of law.

The main problem is not remuneration alone. The key problem is how bureaucrats in all occupational groups are policed, managed and controlled by an alliance of ruling elites, religious leaders, feudal mindset, compliant judiciary and military. There are enough rules, laws and procedures but at every level every one tries to impede implementation of these rules. National politics has become lucrative business and the bureaucracy is heavily politicized by subverting rules. The resentment among the service structure as a whole is much deeper; it goes beyond the running rivalry between occupational groups. This black hole situation needs national probes beyond the bureaucracy, in the realm of the ruling alliance and their perceived sacrosanct vested concerns.

If the real purpose of reforms is to create a resilient bureaucracy, fragmented reforms like clustering and elective subjects and GMAT type induction tests will not do. Pakistan has multiple challenges. It needs bureaucracy that has the capacity to create a narrative and evolve it with new developments. This may need larger surgery. When a vital organ starts failing, antibiotics do not work. Clustering will not bring angels into federal services. Induction into the Foreign Service with two elective subjects alone will not deliver another Agha Shahi or Inamul Haque or Riaz M Khan or Munir Akram. A lot has gone into making them star diplomats.

What else should be done? All segments of society cannot be reformed in one go. But to say that healing is not possible is also not correct. Lee Kuan Yew rightly comments in his biography 'From Third World to First', "Pakistanis are a hardy people with enough of the talented and well educated to build modern nations.” We need not panic. No system, no reforms, no argument is perfect. The best strategy is to correctly pinpoint the disease endlessly draining Pakistan's resources. Make the services apolitical and rule of law supreme in practice, punishment and rewards transparent in line with verifiable performance indicators sanctioned by laws. Reform only where it matters most so as to improve the desired delivery to marginalized segments of the population.

The writer is a former ambassador, political analyst and advisor to CRSS, an independent think tank.

Email: [email protected]