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Civil servants in limbo

January 23, 2014


QUITE a few recent decisions regarding senior bureaucrats have raised doubts about the federal government’s capacity for a fair management of human resources.

First, NADRA’s head was axed in circumstances and in a manner that did little credit to the government. The Islamabad High Court overruled his dismissal but the officer decided he had had enough. The matter is closed, but it has left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.

The case of the Pemra chief’s summary removal is still pending in court. The IHC has also set aside the decision to send the accountant-general of Pakistan (revenue) on forced leave.

These cases have given rise to a question whether the government’s desire to plant yes men at bureaucratic heights has made it oblivious of the rules of administrative propriety. The matter also touches on the rights of civil servants. However tarnished their public image, the bureaucrats’ rights, especially their right to be treated according to the law, cannot be denied.

It is possible that the government is not entirely in the wrong but the message that has gone out from the establishment is that there is little protection for independent-minded officials, especially those who dare to disagree with their ministers.

The dangerous consequences of such indications can easily be imagined. Bureaucrats working directly with political authorities could be persuaded to avoid freely expressing their opinions on issues before them. Sycophants might prosper at the cost of merit and efficiency. The government will lose the advantage of assessing a variety of views. Ultimately the people’s right to a fair administration will be compromised.

In a healthy administration civil servants are expected to help the policymakers with their expert advice and they need to be encouraged to speak their mind without fear of losing their jobs. The political authorities may have reasons to ignore the bureaucrats’ opinions, but the latter’s right to spell out the pros and cons of any issue before them can be suppressed only at the cost of public interest. In fact, the government should value and protect civil servants who know their job and are capable of disagreeing with their bosses more than dim-witted yes men.

The government’s inclination to keep positions in the administration vacant till it can find favourites to occupy them is confirmed by its tardiness in filling a large number of vacancies.

The Punjab Service Tribunal has recently resumed working after having remained dysfunctional for eight months while the number of appeals pending before it exceeded 11,000. Some time ago the Federal Service Tribunal was also reported to be having similar problems. Delays in resolution of service complaints not only cause frustration and disaffection among public servants, the possibilities of corruption also multiply.

The key office of federal ombudsman has been lying vacant for a long time. Although the reports that under an acting head the office is maintaining a good disposal rate are welcome, the loss to the public cannot by ignored. The absence of a permanent ombudsman discourages citizens from filing their complaints. The handicaps under which acting heads of institutions work are known. The government should realise that blocking of grievance mechanisms, however unsatisfactory their functioning may be, is the easiest way to alienate the citizenry.

Notice must also be taken of the curtailment of the mandate of the three-member committee, headed by the federal tax ombudsman, that was set up to process the selection of chief executive officers of public sector corporations. The provisions of the Companies Ordinance have aided the relevant authorities’ efforts to free themselves of the committee’s hold. However, the wisdom of leaving the public sector institutions out of the regulatory authorities’ oversight is not clear.

Despite the loss of face the executive has suffered over the past few years, the evil of favouritism does not appear to have been overcome.

It is not necessary to dwell on the havoc favouritism causes in any society. It leads to miscarriage of justice, maladministration, waste of revenue and blocks the country’s progress towards higher levels of efficiency and probity. Bad practices of the administration are soon adopted by the society.

The essential issue is why should an authority prefer its “own” persons to holders of merit? Obviously, there are possibilities of officials doing what suits the political bosses regardless of the harm it does to public interest. Elimination of these possibilities is necessary to ensure clean and honest administration. Once that happens, the political authorities will have no problem working with honest bureaucrats. They will not be misled by time-servers who can embarrass the head of state by, for example, asking for privileges for their family the law does not grant them.

Tailpiece: Lahore — that once prided itself on being a city of learning and culture — has surely fallen from grace. It has swallowed without a whimper the decision by the Punjab University to rent out 50 kanals of its campus land for the establishment of a lorry adda (bus terminal).

One can understand the university authorities’ need of financial resources, but a surrender to the lure of lucre is not the only answer. That a university should indulge in a venture that is not even remotely related to its charter is a scandal that should have shaken up the conscience of Lahore’s residents.

But the Lahoris who cared for their heritage and cultural traditions seem to have been numbed into atrophy under persistent onslaughts by the latest cabal of vandals. But what is being done to Lahore is a subject that needs more time and more space.