If the maladies of civil service are not properly identified any future reforms initiative would be meaningless.
By: Jahanzeb Awan
‘With every passing year of our career, we increasingly feel a steep decline in our morale and motivation. There is a disjunction between what we idealised to do for society and what the real life has offered’. This is what you will hear from most of the civil servants in any candid and informal discussion. But this is just one side of the story. On the other side, citizens, ideally the tax paying clients of public services, blame civil servants for inefficiency, callousness, corruption and arrogance. What it implies is that something has been pathologically wrong with the civil service in Pakistan.
In the books of rules, the definition of a civil servant is very broad and all-encompassing but I am referring only those who represent a widely-known misnomer i.e. ‘Central Superior Services’ because the members of these services and occupational groups run the entire state machinery.
The issue of civil service reforms has practically remained an unfinished agenda in Pakistan during different regimes as either it could never make a headway beyond the stage of policy drafts or if on a couple of occasions past governments took practical steps, they failed because of their lackluster motives. In future, prior to any reforms initiative, it will be important to understand the underlying causes of the decay of civil service before anything else. Without proper diagnosis, even the most well-trained physician would do more harm than curing an illness. The diagnostic framework for civil service reforms will require seeing the problem from the perspectives of civil service, politics and global political economy.
Like all other major institutions of state, Pakistan inherited the institution of civil service which was created by the British Indian Empire. During the heydays of the empire, the civil service as an institution was acknowledged and glorified as ‘the steel frame of the Raj’ due to institutional ability to maintain law and order and collect taxes. The structure of civil services was based on Weberian notions of political neutrality, merit based recruitment, guaranteed tenure and a decent salary. After independence, however, a gradual decay started and with changing circumstances the survival-instinct of civil servants ushered into a culture of Faustian bargains which promised immediate gains. The result was a new trend of collusive partnerships both with dictatorial regimes and political governments.
The temptation of dividends accruing from a culture of patronage is too strong to resist, like cardinal sins, both for political parties and civil servants. This is detrimental to the collective public interest as it robs the civil servants of their required ability to speak truth to power when it is required in matters of public policy importance. However, in Pakistan’s political culture; the political-bureaucratic relationship has become quite deep rooted due to nature of social power relations which manifest themselves in terms of power and patronage based politics at constituency level. In this perspective, it would be naive to expect a total detachment of civil service from politics. This implies that in future if governments want to reform the civil service the process must begin with a dialogue to determine the contours of rules of engagement between politicians and civil servants.
For the prevailing state of affairs of civil service it would be unfair to place entire blame on politicians. Corruption, inertia, rent-seeking and turf wars between civil service cadres speak volumes about the contribution of civil servants themselves. Astonishingly, none of the civil service cadres have ever proposed any structural reforms themselves apart from tug of wars for vested interests. Quite recently, they have demonstrated a determination to go even to the extent of blackmailing a government by threats of collective resignations or strikes. Even the upright among the civil servants often lose moral ground when they readily extend the favours on the requests of close aides, which they otherwise may refuse to politicians in the name of merit or rules.
The ascendance of neoliberal philosophy, since Thatcher and Reagan eras, to create favorable investment conditions for global capital requiresderegulation, privatisation and minimalist states. This was relatively easier to be implemented in debt-ridden countries such as Pakistan by coercively imposing the IMF sponsored ‘Structural Adjustment Programs’ demanding withdrawal of subsidies and implementation of global ‘good governance’ agenda. Under such pressures, the reforms in tax structure or administrative decentralisation during Musharraf era could not prove successful as imposition of such structural transformation under external pressure lacked basic ingredients of will and determination which ensure positive outcomes.
The French philosopher Michael Foucault says that the most sophisticated form of power is an ability to control thoughts and ideas. This is what the IFIs and donors have successfully done by making our elites believe in what they want them to believe. For example, the idea that private sector always epitomise efficiency and therefore companies should do the work of government. But private businesses too often collapse. Likewise, a belief that for every domestic problem there exist some one-size-fits-all type ‘international best practices’ which if simply copied can solve all domestic policy riddles. For example, the notion of ‘Public Private Partnership’ is widely believed as a magic wand while ignoring that private sectorenters any partnership only for secure profit maximization.
The imported ideas like exotic seeds can often fail to bear fruits unless tested and improved for local soil. Our peculiar history, culture, values and evolution of society demands home grown policies and practices. If some foreign ideas seem indispensable, their adoption should precede an exhaustive evaluation of adaptability to indigenous circumstances. The genuine grievances of civil servants such as poor correlation between their qualifications and responsibilities vis-à-vis their meagre salaries or issues like absence of tenure protection too merit substantial consideration. Similarly, a renegotiation of balance between exigencies of politics and requirements of meritocracy is important to ensure a fair and just social order while catering to the requirements of political system. The ability to critically analyse the prescriptions of donor institutions and to suggest indigenous solutions embedded in domestic realities can pave the way for effective civil service reforms. If the maladies of civil service are not properly identified any future reforms initiative would be meaningless.
The writer is public sector social and development policy analyst
Published in: http://dailytimes.com.pk