Tenure security: a red herring?

September 20, 2020

The link between tenure and performance on one hand, and tenure shortening and political interference on the other, is a tenuous one

Civil Services Academy, Islamabad.

A campaign theme of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf before coming to power was the frequent transfer of civil servants; it was as though they considered tenure security a key measure of depoliticisation. After assuming power, a summary was presented to the cabinet in the latter half of 2018, highlighting this linkage. During the past two years, however, the average tenure of civil service officers overall, especially of high-ranking officers has been shorter in comparison to previous democratic governments. Can this be seen as a sign of growing politicisation?

In Pakistan in 2012, a group of concerned mid-career civil servants filed a case in the Supreme Court of Pakistan to ensure tenure security, so that any officer once posted can only be prematurely removed under very specific circumstances. The case, known as Anita Turab Case, was successful, highlighting the existing principles and articulately restating the law on the subject.

Did it make a difference? The answer is a simple “no”. This can mean many things. Above all, it means that the gap between de jure and de facto in Pakistan in terms of the ideals of the civil service and the on-ground conduct is only increasing with time. It also indicates that the mere passing of a law/policy does not make much of a difference, if the issue is entrenched in systematic problems.

Perhaps we have been barking up the security of tenure tree for too long, and it seems more like the pet solution driven by nostalgic governance reformers who remember the long tenures of yesteryears. Moreover, since most reformers are former civil servants themselves, this could be taken as an act of blaming politicians for governance woes. The incumbent government is not too concerned with increasing tenure terms, moreover it is highly likely that the link between tenure and performance on one hand, and tenure shortening and political interference on the other, is a tenuous one – something most shrewd civil servants and politicians know. Having said that, the adverse impacts of short tenures are no doubt catastrophic and should not be understated. It is equally important to uncover the main reasons for shorter tenures.

Short civil service tenures are a phenomenon, mostly internal to the Pakistan Administration Service, which occupies 80 percent of additional secretaries, special secretaries in addition to federal secretaries. Most shuffling is driven by factors such as retirements, promotions, internal groupings, personal ambition, collateral damage, demands of ministers, familial needs and giving the impression of a shake-up etc.

In the provincial governments, conflicts between ministers and secretaries are frequent. The provincial political economy unfortunately paints an ugly picture, unlike the federal government. There is a proper procedure for the resolution of an intractable difference of opinion between a minister and a federal secretary. Anecdotal evidence suggests that no such case has been formally raised with the prime minister, either by a minister or a federal secretary in the recent past. Whether a minister informally complains and is able to change their secretary informally is another matter. In both cases, the established procedure is not made to work, introducing a whole lot of informality in the posting-transfer system that we are following. The dynamics of this informality are grounded in the evolving relationship between the ruling classes and the bureaucracy, since mid-’80s onwards. An honest and non-pliable officer being hounded throughout his career by way of frequent transfers these days, therefore, appears mostly a myth.

The frequent reshuffles have rendered senior bureaucracy faceless. The ministry of industries has had 15 secretaries during the last ten years. Does the ministry remember any who left a mark? Short tenure have been the norm. There is sometimes a politicized hoo-ha when an IG is changed in the media. Otherwise, is the arrival of the fifth secretary in the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis & HRD Ministry during the last two years, a bombshell? No. Because, the security of tenure is rooted in the cherished notion of ‘jobs for life’ for the civil servants, and a bulk of civil servants are happy to be on the sidelines, as long as they are able to secure their coveted positions. Most senior civil servants do not want the issue of tenure security to be taken too seriously, as for some of them, a life-long career in the civil services, provides the ultimate social protection.

The need to energise the civil service with fresh talent however has not been lost to us. But, instead of devising an effective system to weed out the dead wood, we introduced in parallel and in addition, management scales [MPI, II, III] to bring in talent on a fixed tenure, contractual basis with much higher salaries. The spirit largely subsided when different departments started adopting MP scales for the long term. We also did not put in place a proper system of evaluation for MP scale officers. Now the government has brought in technical grades to advise the ministers with salaries exceeding the MP scales.

The Cabinet Committee on the Reorganization of the Federal Government has taken the decision in principle to send home 20 percent of its least performing officers. Hope the implementation of this decision would uphold the spirit in which this decision has been made. Our recent past, however, does not inspire us much. The 18th Amendment gave us an opportunity to trim the federal government but this did not happen. A large number of people continue sneaking in the civil service through PSDP projects. If you would get inducted through these routes, the courts would continue asking you to give them promotions too. Due to inter-service rivalry, there has been competitive fattening of the tops in almost all services, especially in the PAS. In India, there are about 1,700 officers short as per the sanctioned strength of the Indian Administrative Service. But the government has refused to induct larger batches fearing compromised promotions at the senior level eventually. We, on the contrary have made it almost a right for most of the PAS to get promoted to BS 22 by expanding the cadre at the top. Post Local Government Ordinance 2001, the cadre strength of PAS has grown exponentially. This has enabled the PAS officers to get promoted to the higher grades in the context of ‘jobs for life’ but the competition of getting better postings has become very fierce.

Once an Officer is promoted to BS 21 or 22, the difference in capabilities should in principle be marginal. Ministers should therefore not have much of a problem in this regard. The fact of the matter is that the issue of tenure security has been used as a red herring. The key challenge for the PAS is to balance omnipresence with omnipotence. As the leading service of the country, they need to come up with a robust solution to the linkage between the performance and the security of tenure on one hand and performance and reward and penalties on the other hand. The senior leadership of PAS has handed over a structural problem to the current leadership, which only the PAS can solve. If an individual is removed within first year of the posting, this indicates mostly a flaw with the original choice.

In India, as a result of public interest litigation (PIL) filed by 83 retired bureaucrats their Supreme Court, in its judgement passed in October 2013, issued directives to the central and state governments ‘’to ensure that all civil servants be given a ‘minimum assured tenure’ at a particular posting before they are transferred and ruled that a Civil Services Board, comprising of senior bureaucrats, be formed to advise the government on matters such as postings and premature transfers.’’ This system is in place in India now.

The current government has established a committee headed by a federal minister which considers the postings of new federal secretaries. The same committee could be entrusted to assure minimum tenure and any proposals for a premature transfer should first go to this committee and the sponsor division should justify their proposal in writing. This would help introduce some sanity in the system and would save the government from incurring additional blame.

The desire for the security of tenure, without any linkage to performance, is rooted in our ideal of ‘jobs for life’ for civil servants. Given the received wisdom about the performance of our bureaucracy, the ‘jobs for life’ have become a curse for us; be it staff jobs or officers. Pakistan is one of the few countries with such a love for their inefficient bureaucracy. The size of our bureaucracy has been keeping pace with its inefficiency, with one additional feature; top-heavy pyramids.

The author is a former civil service officer and currently serves as the executive director for Social Protection Resource Centre & Sustainable Capacity Analytics and the Convener of Pakistan Alliance for Social Protection

Tenure security: a red herring?