Civil service reform

November 22, 2016


THE UNDP country director Ignacio Artaza recently wrote in this paper on the prospect of civil service reform in Pakistan. Earlier his predecessor, Marc-André Franche, also shared his pessimistic parting thoughts about poverty and inequality and the Pakistani elite’s callousness towards the poor. The more optimistic Mr Artaza pointed out the need for an efficient and accountable civil service, indicating that most reforms so far have focused on short-term, episodic gains and failed to make an impact even if he sees hope in the demand for reforms at policymaking levels.

We can only be reminded of our problems by others. The solution must be decided and implemented by us, even if the reminder is a wake-up call with regard to our misplaced priorities and public debate. While the public suffers at the hands of a corrupt, inefficient public service, the national discourse is focused on the political power structures. The civil service reform debate does surface intermittently but fails to generate a consensus on the nature and extent of reforms and gets mired in the process and ownership of new systems,

The fact that the civil service is inefficient is taken as a given.

What has been highlighted is the significance of a stable Weberian-type civil service. Civil services are still significant but have outgrown the Weberian model as the nature of public sector has changed from rowing — leading national economic growth post-Second World War — to steering and facilitating economic development post-Cold War. In the UK and elsewhere, public-sector reforms have resulted in the shrinking of the civil service on the one hand and a proliferation of regulatory agencies on the other. Civil services are now expected to be professional, performance-oriented and output-driven, and government departments to operate as self-sustaining service providers.

Pakistan did experience this transition with devolution, decentralisation, privatisation and regulation, but post-2008, reforms have taken a back seat. The second-generation reforms through the National Commission on Governance Reforms and Pay and Pension Commission have failed to take off.

Civil service reforms mean many things to many people. Bureaucrats only favour those reforms which bring more power and perks while the politicians’ intentions are mostly to gain more command and control over the bureaucracy. Policy radicals want to do away with the civil service altogether while revisionists hope to bring back the glory of the Covenanted Service from the days of Warren Hastings. We are still not sure whether we want a stronger bureaucracy which crowds out other institutions or a weaker version which fails even to provide basic public services.

Historically, the struggle before independence was to have more powers for representative institutions as compared to the executive but after independence, priorities changed to having control over the executive — without accountability. Public-sector reforms generally and civil service reforms specifically have occurred on two continuums. One is the structure and nature of the public sector and the second the changes in civil service human resource. The former has been gradual and occurred in response to changes in global governance and the economy, the latter have been either hasty and politically motivated or stuck in inertia.

Structural reforms have taken place in three phases. First was the phase of administration which oversaw infrastructure development and the growth of public-sector enterprises as witnessed in the 1960s and beyond. This was followed by the management wave due to the New Public Management movement in the West and included privatisation, corporatisation and deregulation in the 1990s. The latest era of governance, with promises of transparency, integration and networks, coming in 2000, is being resisted owing to capacity issues despite lip service at the policy level.

Human resource reforms have been trickier, sudden and generated more controversy than public-service structural changes. These involved dismissal, lateral entries, removal of constitutional protection and the merging of cadres. The irony, however, has been that public service skills and competency are on the decline with civil services reduced to a stack of generalists pandering to politicians for survival.

As Andrew Wilder noted in his research on Politics of Civil Reforms in Pakistan, the motivation for joining public service has changed from power, prestige and career security to patronage, corruption and lack of better career opportunities. The squabbles over civil service reform have also stalled any possible capacity building among the lower cadre.

The fact that the civil service is plagued with inefficiency and corruption is now taken as a given while the constituency for reform is small and subdued. Outside actors like media and civil society are more concerned about immediate issues while those within the civil service suffer from insecurity, inertia and ineptitude.

The present civil service reform initiatives have also been superficial and unable to address core efficiency and accountability issues arising out of the hierarchical, input-driven design of public-sector departments and the unskilled human resource manning those departments.

The writer is a civil servant.

Published in Dawn November 22nd, 2016