Going around in circles

Published Jan 01, 2013 12:20am

GIVEN the state of the writ of the state in Pakistan, finding civil servants with happy faces is a rarity these days. But lately I have found plenty of them.

There are a few pertinent reasons behind the happy faces, one of them being the Supreme Court judgment of Nov 12 on the petition filed by a civil servant, Anita Turab, for protection of civil servants. The judgment by the apex court emphasises security of tenure for civil servants, better measures to cease victimisation, so on and so forth.

The judgment, authored by Justice Jawwad S. Khawaja, goes to the extent of stating that “Civil servants owe their first and foremost allegiance to the law and the constitution. They are not bound to obey orders from superiors which are illegal or are not in accordance with accepted practices and rule-based norms.”

Then there is a more individualistic reason for the happy faces: 33 officers got promoted to grade 22 recently. Most of them are over the moon except for a few who feel getting so high up at this age might be detrimental to their health.

Being an optimist myself I would have preferred the company of the happier among the lot. But as fate would have it I bumped into someone who was not all that upbeat. One obvious reason behind the grumpy mood might be his impending superannuation. But the rest of the reasons were very thought-provoking and somewhat alarming.

“Do you know what and how I feel about this promotion?” he asked, as if insinuating that I should have taken the initiative to ask the question myself. Without waiting for my response he continued: “You must have seen an ox which goes around in circles to run the mechanical contraptions used for drawing water from a well or crushing sugar cane.

“That ox is blindfolded to ensure it keeps going without being distracted. I feel like that ox who was actually going around in circles but the blindfold made it believe that it was passing through exotic landscapes and travelling to some wonderland. But when they take the blindfold off its eyes it realises that it is standing at the same place where it was when it all started. The SC judgment, this promotion and impending retirement has felt like somebody has taken away the blindfold.”

“Wow,” I said to myself at the relevance of the analogy the classy bureaucrat drew and the essence of the conversation that followed.

Along with the recent approval of promotion of 33 civil servants to grade 22, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf has also approved comprehensive guidelines for streamlining the civil service in light of the Nov 12 judgment. Remarkable as it may seem, this is nothing different from the dozens of rules, guidelines, regulations and codes already present in the system, some of them as old as the first official activity of the East India Company in the subcontinent.

What we need now is not yet another guideline but reforms in the civil service which are surgical, objective and minimise the arbitrariness which has smeared the face of this institution.

The world has moved to standards measurable to decimal points in every field including sports, scientific research, university admission tests and even processing of immigration visas. Most readers must be aware of the scoring system used by Canadian or Australian immigration authorities.

Political influence simply cannot be exerted if laid-down rules for posting against a particular post are objective and measurable. For example, for a civil servant to be appointed as DCO Lahore, a degree in town management/law, a minimum of 10 years’ experience as town administrator, previous membership of a team which has completed a couple of development projects each worth at least Rs500m, service in at least two provinces of the country etc can be the prerequisites to be considered.

Similarly, if an ambassador to China has to be appointed then a degree in International Relations, fluency in Chinese language, a minimum of 15 years of diplomatic experience of which five should be in China can be the benchmark. The Inland Revenue Service, Pakistan Customs Service, Pakistan Post and Pakistan Railways can have exceeding revenue targets by 10 per cent in the last posting as a requirement for appointment to a more pivotal position.

What the Supreme Court’s decision or guidelines approved by the prime minister want to achieve can only be realised by formulating and implementing such standards.

We do not need to reinvent the wheel; what is needed is a will to put the wheel on the right track. Guidelines similar to the ones that have been present for decades would not serve the purpose. Keeping a check on undue pressures and undesirable influences on civil servants would seamlessly become part of the system when reform is directed towards inducing change through modern management techniques and tools.

An acceptance of change — that too not of a specific, final stage but an acceptance of the need for change as a permanent state — is a must.

Lastly, a comment by the senior bureaucrat whose self-critical appraisal inspired this article, about the dilemma our bureaucracy faces today: “Taking the blindfold off is not enough. You’ve got to make them see the goal as well, otherwise they will keep going around in circles.”

The writer is a civil servant.


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Comments (6) (Closed)

shah zain
Jan 01, 2013 07:16am
Great article!:)
shah zain
Jan 01, 2013 07:25am
superb article!:)
Jan 01, 2013 07:23am
Totally agreed!
Jan 02, 2013 02:57am
Saadat you have talked about 'surgical' reform in civil services, devising objective posting criteria. According to my understanding, the civil servants are generalists and not specialists. Your example of our Ambassador to China: (a) Masters degree in International Relations - every career diplomat, having gone through rigorous specialized training and with practical on-job experience can rival an ivy league IR Masters; (b) having served five years in China - there is a strange phenomenon called localitis. Investing too many years in one place of posting, one tends to confuse his/her world view. Moreover, one should remain a Pakistani, and not become too affectionate with all that is Chinese. Then, what's the guarantee that a person applying himself too seriously in China specialization, does not end up in France; (c) 15 years job experience - to claim any Ambassadorial assignment, a career diplomat should have 20 years job experience. To sum up my argument, the decimal approach does not really come into play dealing with not so tangible. It may suit revenue, customs, etc. but not some other services. A similar approach of defining (numeric) goals/targets/timelines was introduced during former PM Shaukat Aziz's government. While filling in those lengthy tables, one could feel the futility of the exercise, since numbers were not involved. I wish your sage Grade-22 officer had applied himself more in his younger years, not to face this trauma at a time when he is required to devise crucial policies.
Jan 01, 2013 03:29pm
SC judgement is repetition of inanities. Civil servants are already unaccountable and their performance is not measured. Giving them further protection minimizes chances of any accountability. No wonder they feel vindicated!
Dr. D. Prithipaul
Jan 01, 2013 06:20pm
How would a sharia bureaucracy function in a 21st century state? If it would be more efficient, and bring the people closer to god, then why not use it?