REFORMING PAKISTAN’S BUREAUCRACY

Sustainable growth and equitable development are directly dependent on good governance. Policies will have little positive impact unless the institutions implementing them are effective as well as efficient. One of the main institutions required for good governance is a competent, neutral and honest bureaucracy. For ordinary citizens, it is civil servants who are most germane to their daily life. Pakistan was fortunate to have inherited a steel frame for its bureaucracy from the British. Initially, the civil services remained true to their tradition of maintaining law and order and collecting land revenue. But later on they went astray.

Pakistan and India emerged from the same British colonial setup and they inherited identical socioeconomic and administrative structures. The ‘steel frame’ of Indian — or more rightly Imperial — Civil Services (ICS) was transferred to Pakistan at the time of independence. Since then, around thirty commissions have been set up for reforms in civil bureaucracy and hardly any of their recommendations has been fully implemented. This is the very reason why Pakistan is incessantly witnessing mismanagement, corruption, political manipulation and inefficiency. Resultantly, there is bad governance in every sphere of life, stagnant progress and general deprivation all too conspicuous in the country. The race to rule between the military and political men has further aggravated the already frenzied situation.


Up till the dismemberment of Pakistan in 1971, the civilian bureaucracy was largely independent and the politicians could hardly influence them. The constitutions of 1956, 1962 and the interim constitution of 1972 provided safeguards for civil servants against dismissals, demotions or compulsory retirements on political or nepotistic grounds.

Pakistan’s civil services system and processes did not adapt to changed circumstances. They remained frozen in time and were unresponsive to the people’s needs and aspirations. This status quo suited the military regime that came to power in 1958 and the coalition of military-civil services ruled the country until 1971 — to the exclusion of the political leadership. The bureaucracy, particularly the elite Civil Services of Pakistan, maintained its integrity and institutional autonomy by virtue of reasonable control over the selection, training and posting of its members. The downfall of Ayub Khan and the rise of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, however, gave the political class an opportunity to assert its power.

Once the eastern half of the country seceded, the military and the civil bureaucracy were left severely discredited.

Keeping in view the urgency of reforms in bureaucracy Mr Bhutto decided to redress the power imbalance between the elected and unelected institutions of the state by withdrawing constitutional protections for civil servants in the 1973 Constitution. This exhibited a general distrust for civil servants. Over time, bureaucrats lost the plot altogether and became the most obedient servants of the rulers or rulers-in-waiting instead of the state. The seeds of political influence in the functioning of the permanent executive of the country were sown and political manipulation became a norm.

Today, the situation is so worse that Pakistan has one of the most ineffective and corrupt bureaucracies in the world. The public sector is plagued with corruption, absenteeism and red-tapism. Most of the procedures and rules of business are archaic, records are still manual and great emphasis is placed on procedures and methods rather than on delivery, with limited and no accountability. These structural problems have rendered the state paralytic; unable to respond to present and future challenges.

For bureaucrats, there is little effective accountability or differentiation on the basis of performance. Everyone gets a similar performance evaluation, and in nearly every budget, all public sector officials get a raise, and after specific periods of service, a whole batch gets promoted. Officials who manage to get out of turn promotions or obtain good postings, are those who dance to the tune of the rulers.

A dysfunctional bureaucracy with its outdated processes and attitudes has kept the planet Pakistan some 200 years behind the rest of the universe. Can the bureaucrats in Pakistan be made to think differently and asked to adopt ‘lean’ work processes?

A detailed blueprint and action plan for reforming the civil services was prepared after analysis and stakeholder consultation. The basic recommendations can be implemented without much difficulty provided they are taken as part of an integrated and interlinked chain. Selecting one while excluding others can prove to be disastrous.

First, the concept of the superior and subordinate services and the distinction between cadre, ex-cadre and non-cadre, should be replaced with equality of all services at all levels of government. Terms and conditions in matters of recruitment, promotion, career progression, and compensation should be similar for all.

Second, a district service should be constituted for each district government comprising teachers, health workers, sanitary workers etc., in Grade 1–16 who already work in the district. The present preoccupation of politicians with transfers and postings would come to an end with this change.

Third, recruitment at all levels should be on a competitive basis and on merit and in observance of the provincial quotas in all Pakistan and federal services. Public service commissions would hold the recruitment tests and interviews.

Fourth, the mandatory completion of training at mid-career and senior positions should be a pre-requisite for promotion. The present system of AERs should be replaced by objective-based performance evaluation system.

Fifth, a fair and equitable compensation system should be based on performance, and teachers, health workers, police, technical and professional experts should be taken out of the national pay scale and given different pay scales according to local labour market conditions. Future recruitment in Grades 1-16 except of police, teachers, health workers, technical experts should be frozen and the savings utilised to pay higher salaries to the officers.

In addition, National Commission on Government Reforms (NCGR), which was set up in 2006 by the then military regime, submitted its recommendation to PM Gilani and in May 2008 International Crisis Group also gave its recommendations in February 2010. If those recommendations are implemented in letter and spirit, bureaucracy will definitely produce excellent results with immediate effect. There is instantaneous call for the updating and intimation of government rules, instructions, regulations and circulars.

Unless the public sector is reformed thoroughly, it will be difficult for us to achieve sustainable growth. No nation can succeed without sound policies determining the course of national growth. And no policy can work unless it is translated into action by a competent and honest bureaucracy. Canadian educationist Laurence J. Peter said, “The bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.” Unfortunately, our public sector is still defending the status quo left by the British Raj, embodied not only in our public edifices, but in our laws and in our mindsets. Unless we change that, absolutely nothing can truly change.

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