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Photo Courtesy: Creative Commons
Photo Courtesy: Creative Commons

‘Aren’t bureaucrats the source of our national failures,’ we ask? Their corruption, nepotism and customary incompetence have often been a scourge on Pakistan. Yet, the question is why the Pakistani bureaucracy is so ill-organised? The paradox is that if the state has to provide services, administer justice, maintain law and order and bring about prosperity, and if it has to be effective, it has to have a good bureaucracy.

A country of 180 million people cannot be managed as a tribe on the basis of personal dealings and Jirga morality. It needs rules–based and impersonal decision-making, which is the hallmark of a real bureaucracy. To rebuild Pakistan, the first priority should be to restructure the bureaucracy, because that is the ‘machine’ that maintains law and order, implements public policies and produces services.

Pakistan’s civil services worked relatively effectively until the 1960s. The British legacy of requiring public servants to resist social pressures and act according to rules lasted a few years after 1947. But our clannish proclivities could not bear the relative neutrality and inapproachability of civil servants. Steadily, the walls between the public and private interests were breached. Thus began the rot of public services, which continues unabated.

Public servants began to be rewarded and punished for their willingness to collude with politicians, notables and the military. The deadly blow to the bureaucracy’s professionalism and integrity was given by the Prime Minister Bhutto, who removed the constitutional security of tenure for civil servants. After that the authority to post, transfer or retire began to be used to beat public officials into submission. What he began was completed by the president Zia ul-Haq and Prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto.

President Musharraf packed civil services with military officers at the top, and politicised local administration from the bottom. The erosion of professionalism in public services has further accelerated in this round of the PPP’s rule. Provincial administrations, though weak to begin with, have gone down the same path. Politicians and the military have demoralised the bureaucracy, turning it into a collection of self-serving individuals, instead of an institution based on rules, the hierarchy of authority, accountability and professional ethics.

Not that political rulers should have no part in public administration. They lay down the laws, define objectives and decide strategic policies. Yet, transforming laws and policies into actions is the job of professional bureaucracy, to be carried in transparent and accountable ways. Bureaucracy can be effective only if it has the assurance of protection from the vindictive actions of rulers.

Recently, the Supreme Court has started taking notice of the ministerial nepotism and arbitrariness in the appointments and promotions of officials. It is a good start to restore public officials’ rights. This initiative should be followed by a bill to enact the security of tenure and containment of the discretionary powers of rulers for appointments, transfers and promotions of public officials. The reconstruction of Pakistan’s bureaucracies has to begin with restoring the rule of rules in public services and ensuring security of tenure with accountability.

Pakistan’s bureaucracies are plagued by many ills other than insecurity and loss of professionalism. There is a wide-ranging confusion about the standards of right and wrong. This confusion arises from the mores of corruption and nepotism, but it has been compounded by the clannish loyalties, notions of piety and narratives of Islamic religiosity, which provide justifications for disregarding institutional ethics.

Pakistan’s bureaucracy needs new codes of ethics for public responsibilities. A wide ranging exercise should be undertaken to formulate detailed codes of conduct for various services. A new moral order of public service has to be framed and enacted.

Apart from changing the behaviourial norms of the bureaucracy, its structure and processes need a major overhaul. All steps in the public decision-making processes, from record keeping, information gathering, noting and drafting to the decision criteria and performance evaluation of officials have ossified.

To witness how a Pakistani agency becomes dysfunctional, a new book by an American anthropologist is a must read. It shows how the administrative procedures of Islamabad’s Capital Development Authority breed the failure of its policies and induce corruption. It is a peep inside the Pakistani bureaucracy. (Matthew S. Hull, ‘Government of Paper’, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012). To reconstruct bureaucracies, extensive and sustained efforts, spread over years, have to be made to rewrite rulebooks, redefine rules and reorganise responsibilities. A task that does not need large resources or foreign aid but imagination, knowledge and commitment.

Finally, administrative reconstruction cannot be sustained without the transparency of decision-making and enactment of citizens’ right to information and answerability. Exposure of public agencies to the citizens’ scrutiny and the media’s gaze will make them efficient and reduce the scope of corruption.

This is the moment to bring administrative reforms to the top of the election agenda. National elections are upon us. Political parties are making loud promises of bringing peace, establishing law and order, creating jobs, ending load-shedding and controlling corruption. If they are sincere in these promises, they would have to realise that public agencies are the instruments for carrying out their programmes. Civil society and the media should mount a strong campaign to make administrative reforms as the top priority for the platforms of political parties.


Mohammad A. Qadeer is the author of the book, ‘Pakistan- social and cultural transformations of a Muslim nation’. He can be reached at


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (20) Closed

Naved Jan 11, 2013 03:30am
Unfair and unjustified quota system is the root cause of this ailing system. If you want competent people at the helm of affairs, reinstate merit and only merit. Nobody in Pakistan says a word about it..............shame on us.
Ahsan Ali Jan 09, 2013 03:06pm
Very well written , I would say this is thought provoking article. The problem lies in the heart of the Pakistan, (Bureaucracy). The good thing about this article is that writer proposed or highlighted the problem which never remain under the consideration of the agenda of any political party. Pakistan needs structural reforms in its bureaucracy and should ensure the rules application over the civil departments..
Neer Nayan Jan 09, 2013 06:14pm
Undoubtedly, the need of the hour, globally, is a confident and foolproof bureaucracy, committed to the cause of humanity, and the one that can observe, assess, decide and execute, to the best of its far reaching say!
Riaz Jan 11, 2013 01:58am
Pakistani bureaucracy, inept and corrupt is serving a nation of 180 million people, just as inept and corrupt. Finding honesty in Pakistani society is like finding needle in a hey stack. Pakistani society blames the politicians, the army and the bureaucracy for corruption; it is about time it realized that the very heart of corruption is this society itself.
Syed Jan 09, 2013 06:35pm
Finely described the state of affairs inside our bureaucratic elite. Old Bhutto was the one who destroyed the bureaucratic structure in the country, with his sarcastic slogans against "Afsar Shahi". He along with industrial disaster brought cultural, Social and moral deterioration. Bureaucracy selected on pure merit, appropriately paid, free of political and parochial strings, are the deadliest requirement of today, to stop this rampant corruption, conducted by these so called politicians in the name of democracy.
Cyrus Howell Jan 09, 2013 08:18pm
They will do a study to see if feasibility study is needed to do a feasibility study. After that it must be tested in court to see if firing bureaucrats is constitutional. Where upon the president will take notice all 96 of his cousins are being discriminated against.
Cyrus Howell Jan 09, 2013 08:27pm
When Mustafa Kemel took control of Turkey he wanted to fire the Sultan's bureaucracy, whom he detested, but found it impossible as they were the only educated ones who could keep the country running smoothly.
Cyrus Howell Jan 09, 2013 08:30pm
Those who minister to poverty and disease are accomplices in the two worst of all crimes. George Bernard Shaw
riz Jan 09, 2013 08:59pm
very well explained. unfortunately we in pakistan lack many basic legislation related to civil services and if they were consider and enacted things will take a definite positive turn.
Sandip Jan 10, 2013 11:02pm
This group of people come from general public. It reflects what the public is. How many of you educated and selfless folks want to go to public service (none). Who wants to deal with all that politics. And at sometime you have no choice. Either you take the money or you get killed. What do you prefer? Not everyone has body like Salman Khan with bullet proof chest. It about moral of entire society going down or even if people have morals they are not ready to stand up what is right. Put this with slow justice system its impossible to get anything done.
Chaman Jan 10, 2013 12:45pm
Apart from the interference by politicians, the public servants themselves have become greedy, selfish and corrupt. It is largely a societal issue. The public servants immediately after the partition were British trained, highly educated and men of integrity. They were truly public servants but now they are called officers who are more interested in self promotion at any cost but at the cost od general public interest. British given discipline and national interest has been replaced by self interest and irresponsibity at every level in the governance of the nation. Law and order have been replaced by misrule andcexploitation and genuine bears racy by mobocracy. It needs men of honor, integrity and commitment to the cause who can make a difference. I do not such men around these days.
Hadi Sakey Jan 10, 2013 03:09am
You have missed one point : Ayub Khan dismissed 302 Senior Civil Service Officers from various cadre. When Yehya took over he dismissed another 300 Civil Servants. Pakistan was left with green horns in the Civil Bureaucracy otherwise from Sub-Divisional level to Central Secretariat Civil Servants were very well regimented and disciplined officers. From Bhutto era downward Civil Service has gone down the drain into any abyss.
Naveed Jan 10, 2013 04:55am
so true, to the point
Hasham Jan 10, 2013 05:23am
the author gets it head on!! the only way to progress and development is efficient bureaucracy with a sense of service.
danish125 Jan 10, 2013 05:23am
excellent article: full of knowledge and ideas
mansoor alam Jan 10, 2013 06:39am
very good. bt i dont think it will top the election agenda of any party coz it does not make sense to the voters!
ali wadood Jan 10, 2013 07:40am
Pakistan was made by bureaucrats, and every government is their make, but the lack of leadership and too much temptation destroys everything. Ghulam Isaac Khan was a good one he made a college also, after him everything went down. In short they make it and are responsible for what is going wrong. lets us hope for the best, and be prepared for the worst.
Sajjad Ashraf Jan 10, 2013 01:36pm
Qadeer Sahib has said something very fundamental and profound. I retired amongst the highest echelons, after 36 years in the foreign service. It is a norm to blame the army, the politicians, the judiciary for this downward slide in Pakistan. No one looks at the bureaucracy. I know many of my colleagues in other services will not like it but much of ruin in Pakistan is because the bureaucrat has failed. What constitutional protection? It is only an excuse for failure... it has become our national psyche to pass the blame to others for our own inadequacies. Not for a day, I have felt insecure, have not have given in to pressure to do anything against the law. The so called absence of constitutional provision makes no difference if you are honest to your work. Senior bureaucrats are only looking for perks and lucrative appointments after they retire. Once they reach BPS 20 they become hostage to plots that are given to BPS 22 - a bribe to keep them towing the line. No independent thinking is tolerated. . If this not imperial system - what is it? Unfortunately, the downward spiral in public services continues unabated. Look at the National School of Public Policy - a place which should prepare our bureaucrats for top positions. It's a place that actually breeds a culture of elitism shamefully in a country where much of the millions are below rthe poverty line. Instead of public service the NSPP is breeding imperialists. It is manned by people of mediocrity and some even with questionable credentials. The school is a national waste with bulk of money going into foreign tours which have made zero improvement in service delivery. Malaysia did a ten year makeover of its public services. Look at Singapore's public service We must change and unless this entrenched class is changed nothing will change for good in this Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
Sima Jan 10, 2013 01:39pm
ONe of the most absurd bureaucratic system, designed to perpetuate arbitrary rules, oppress people and inherited without any change from British, is in vogue in Pakistan. To understand, if Rehman Malik, under threat from Taliban, plans to visit Peshawar, he merely has to write/inform IG Police KPK about his arrival who will in return ask the RM to visit. But a man, namely Home Secretary KPK, intervenes and asks Rehman Malik to write/ inform him about his visit, the former will in turn inform IG Police to ensure adequate security. The IGP after taking all measures will inform Home Secretary and the latter will ask Rehman Malik to carry out visit. What this middle man is good for?? Nothing, but perhaps he can write letter in English. But again, the IGP too and his team are CSP Officers and are equally good in writing english letters. Our bureaucratic system needs complete over-haul right from induction, training to post retirement amenities. Besides, its size needs to be truncated as in other developed countries.
Akai Jan 10, 2013 03:52pm
"All politics are local" is a famous saying, and one of the verities of political science. Local governments, with directly elected chief executives, need to be instituted just as they are in all developed societies. At present, the D.C. has excuses because none of the services, like health, education, and road maintenance are under his control; they are controlled by departmental heads located in the provincial capital. Actually, if individuals or groups of people are breaking the law by using "Kunda" to steal electricity, he should come down with a heavy hand and punish lawbreakers. Similarly, if schools are being used to provide shelter for cattle, that's also breaking the law. The D.C., however pleads innocent. Why? Because, he is not held accountable by the people over whom he is exercising power. The author of the article has correctly identified the weaknesses in civil service structure, and these must be addressed. His observations are particularly relevant to large, centralized bureaucracies. Presently, it is common for bureaucrats to spend most of their time and energy to curry favor with politicians, with scant regard for the job they are holding. The mess that we have is just ridiculous.