The paradox of civil services reforms

The government has to pursue its reform agenda as a vision-based, institutionalised, corrective process of change management

A civil service is to the state what a cardiovascular system is to the human body. Its primary function is to transmit the value created by the constitution and state institutions to the society, community and the individual citizen, just as cardiovascular system supplies organs and cells with oxygen and nutrients.

In this context, Pakistan’s civil services, popularly called the bureaucracy, have been a subject of ceaseless debate. While there are divergent views on the reasons and causes, there is a fair unanimity on one thing: the services are infested with problems. In their current shape and the way they have evolved, they do not inspire much confidence even when it comes to routine functions of the state— much less extraordinary situations like the coronavirus pandemic that the nation is facing right now. So, inevitably, there has been an undying call for reforms that cannot go unheeded.

Expedient upon this, the popular change dictum of the current political government has unequivocally landed on the civil services as well, in the guise of Civil Services Reforms championed by a veteran civil servant, Dr Ishrat Hussain. The reform process appears to be top-down, centrally controlled, and apparently non-participatory and discontinuous.

Paradoxically, however, there is a wide array of research showing that any top down reform effort is essentially bound to fail if implemented without a proper consultative process and producing ambassadors of change who will not only spread the message but also create short-term wins to shape an environment of trust and certitude. This seems missing in this enterprise.

‘Reform’ essentially mean a ‘change’ from a problematic ‘form’ to a problem-free ‘form.’ So, the best way of analysing this would be to juxtapose the reforms exercise with the model of change being applied, if any. In view of its critical nature, it has become imperative to examine the reform initiative, in the light of best practices of management of change.

What actually do these reforms mean? Are they genuine, authentic, and workable? And by what measures, design, planning, implementation, and monitoring of these civil services are the reforms to be aptly guaranteed.

The first and foremost requirement is defining the vision and purpose of the change paradigm. Saying that the bureaucracy is not performing is not enough. To visualize, know and let it be clearly known to all the stakeholders as to what it would look like when it will be seen performing is a fundamental enquiry before proceeding into any process of reform. On this count, nothing can be foggier.

The government may have elucidated its vision of the civil services reforms but in isolation, as this vision is largely invisible on any statement of purpose, policy documents, online resource, or any other marketing or publicity material. Nearly two years on, nothing to this effect has been made available to the public for open debate, critique and feedback. Without such exercise having been undertaken, the quality and applicability of solutions proposed through these reforms will remain shorn of necessary validation and acceptance.

A reform is an institutional process. Does the current reform initiative put in place institutional arrangements to spearhead the elaborate process of management of civil services reforms? This question also seems to have gone unaddressed. On this count also, the government does not appear to have the institutional penetration required to inject the desired dose of change into the system.

Like the vision, these institutional arrangements, if there are any, seem exceptionally obscure and opaque. The public at large and civil servants in particular do not know as to what extent the reform champions are serious to define and achieve a public policy imperative. There are no substantial institutional preparations.

There is a need to look at the reforms as an ongoing process instituted within the system, instead of externally conceived episodic packages of change. This requires extensive data gathering, executing scrupulous consultative and feedback sessions, developing consensus and empowering people and finally performing joint action planning to implement any reform initiatives. Sadly, all of these theoretically established and practically cherished steps have also been largely ignored by the government.

Once the existing conditions are deconstructed to the sufficient degree so that the problems and their underlying causes are fully exposed, comes the solutions devising phase.

Here again, the Ishrat-driven reforms are nowhere close to adequately answering some of the fundamental questions concerning management of civil services reforms. What are the remedies? Where will they be inserted? Through what mechanism? In what order? What will be the speed, spread and the direction of change? What might be the unintended consequences? How are the reforms going to impact the recipients?

It is by no means an exhaustive list of questions. The point is, if the reform agenda has to succeed, this domain of questions cannot be overlooked. Otherwise, our civil servants are so prone to the traditional mode of bureaucratic supremacy that they are unlikely to come out of their comfort zones.

Once the reform process is in the implementation stage, the policy makers need to closely monitor the results and gather data about the change processes to make the necessary adjustments and alter the policies further, if required. The real test of nerves is the consolidation of the whole reform process and anchoring new approaches. It is no more a secret that many a reform effort has been implemented in Pakistan but without ensuring sustainability and continuity.

Reform of civil services is not an ordinary exercise. It is going to impact the entire assortment of government functionaries that in turn will have long lasting impact on the effectiveness of public services and good governance. Therefore, it is crucial that these reforms are continuous, long term and self-sustaining.

The reforms are likely to be effective if people identify themselves with the system and take pride in it. Moreover, cultural integration is of paramount importance to ensure that the reforms are fully embedded in our social fabric and relevant to our value system. This might seem superfluous to reform leadership but actually it has very strong implications for our country – especially given a long history of system nullification vis-à-vis cultural idiosyncrasies.

What has been described above is a standard template for institutionalizing change in organizations, institutions and departments. The question is: have Dr Ishrat Hussain and his team taken the fundamental considerations and concerns into account while operationalising their reform agenda? The kind of answer we get will determine the extent to which the current civil service reforms are genuinely motivated and consummately authentic.

Bottom line: the government has to pursue its reform agenda as a vision-based, institutionalised, corrective process of change management. If some of the basic elements of this approach are missing from the proceedings of the current reforms, their validity and authenticity will remain in doubt; their viability and sustainability will remain in question; their impact and effectiveness will remain unmeasured; and above all, the strategic intent, however noble it may be, will remain unrealised.


The writers are senior public policy professionals. Feedback is welcome at [email protected]

The paradox of civil services reforms