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Civil service reforms needed

May 21, 2013

GEORGE Bernard Shaw said, “I am afraid we must make the world honest before we can honestly say to our children that honesty is the best policy.” The same can be said in light of last week’s elections.

Civil servants are of the essence in terms of fair elections. In an article published in this space last week, the very experienced former civil servant Kunwar Idris said that “woefully, the standards both of personal ethics and commitment to a code of conduct among officials have been steadily declining because the principle of merit has been progressively abandoned in their recruitment, placement and promotion”.

I would like to take the argument to the next level and propose an out-of-the-box solution to inculcate institutional integrity in the civil service. But before that, a brief history of the politicisation of Pakistan’s civil service.

From 1947 to 1971 the civilian bureaucracy was largely independent and the politicians had hardly any influence. 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. The bureaucracy, particularly the elite Civil Service 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. The former managed to hold its own owing to the nature of the institution, but the structure of the civil bureaucracy was turned upside down.

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. The seeds of political influence in the functioning of the permanent executive of the country were sown and political manipulation became a norm.

The civil bureaucracy became even more complacent when, instead of rebuilding the system, subsequent military regimes eroded it further through measures such as large-scale inductions from the military and showed 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; they became puppets in the hands of the rulers, military and political.

Can the problem now be reversed? The best bet under the present circumstances would be to provide the civil service with a nucleus — a godfather, so to speak — that each pillar pivotal to the governance of the state of Pakistan already has.

The Pakistan Army as an institution always has a patron in the form of the army chief. The office of the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan has seen a meteoric rise in stature and this ascent has been institutional rather than on an individual level.

The political executive and legislature is on track and towering leaders will emerge in due course. The media, by virtue of matchless influence in forming public opinion, is its own godfather. This leaves the civil service as practically the only institution that lacks direction and strength of purpose. The only way to provide the requisite strength to this pillar of state is by allowing for a ‘chief’ of the civil service. The incumbent to such office would be appointed for a fixed term protected by the Constitution, neither extendable nor terminable.

The establishment division of the cabinet secretariat might claim to be performing a similar function already, but events such as someone as senior as the establishment secretary being made ‘officer on special deputation’ overnight or succumbing to political pressures to allow illegal inductions in the civil service leave little merit to that claim.

With a chief of the civil services, nobody — not even the sitting prime minister or one in waiting — would be able to influence him for administrative matters such as appointments, transfers, postings and recruitments. This would provide unflinching resolve for civil servants in taking decisions without pressure.

But there’s many a slip ’twixt the cup and the lip, one being the requirement of a constitutional amendment for the setting-up of such an office. All the political parties promised change in the build-up to the elections; the question is, once in the driver’s seat will they remain committed to real change or settle on a cosmetic one? Also, can an opposition that promises to be real push through some real change?

Such measures, being far from public focus, might not bring new votes and would actually block the way of bogus ones. Yet they would be the vanguard of the real change people so richly deserve for showing their faith in democracy by coming out to vote. The suggested change in the structure of the civil service is akin to keeping an endangered species in protective custody until it’s strong enough to survive in the wild: there’s no doubt that the ‘most obedient servant of the state’ is an endangered species.

The writer is a civil servant.

syedsaadatwrites@gmail.com