THERE is no shortage of detractors of civil servants in this country and around the world. An English poet once described them as civil to all, and servants to the devil. They take most of the blame for society’s corruption, for its lack of development, inefficiency and many organisational failures.

If their slanderers are many, no less are the wise men who offer advice on reform. Such wise men mostly populate multinational agencies. Bees gather nectar from many flowers; they flash their global experience. But their advice has not made any country richer. The premise — to think of reforming civil service in isolation — is flawed.

MNA Capt Muhammad Safdar (retired) publicly accused the prime minister’s personal secretary at no less a forum than the National Assembly. This raised eyebrows for two reasons. One, the accuser was the prime minister’s son-in-law. Two, the accused was allegedly involved in favouritism, playing with the careers of government officers, many who have been in service for up to 30 years. If true, then for what purpose? To indulge personal whims as powerful men tend to do? Nothing is more important to government servants than to rise to the top towards the latter years of their career. For this stage, good civil servants will forgo fatal temptations and toil profusely.


Bureaucracy can’t be reformed without reforming government too.


For more than a decade, the honourable MNA must have been privy to many important pronouncements. Give him credit for starting to speak up. One hopes that he keeps the course. The man who hears all must have heard what he said. Did anything move? Was the matter looked into and were any promotions that may have been made on the basis of favouritism reversed? Were all deserving officers elevated and the sycophants dropped? Did any heads roll? Did the National Assembly, guardian of the nation’s whatnots, take notice? Business goes on as usual.

This is not the first time that such an allegation has been made about a powerful bureaucrat sitting next to the seat of power. For instance, there were similar allegations against Tariq Aziz under Pervez Musharraf.

It is the government that manipulates the bureaucrats — the bad ones just take advantage of the type of government in power. Lord Bancroft, head of the British civil service, said: “Conviction politicians, certainly; conviction civil servants, no.” Civil service is like a machine. It depends on how the government makes use of it.

The first government in Pakistan to tamper with this machine was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s. To this day, succeeding administrations have been doing what Bhutto had started.

No one can reform the civil service unless you reform the government. What is government? Section 90(1) of the Constitution of Pakistan defines the federal government as: “Subject to the Constitution, the executive authority of the Federation shall be exercised in the name of the President by the Federal Government, consisting of the Prime Minister and the Federal Ministers, which shall act through the Prime Minister, who shall be the chief executive of the Federation.”

If the government is not functioning as it should be, it is these two dozen or so people who are to be blamed. Reform this small category or let them reform themselves; no civil servant dare refuse to follow suit. Improving the technical capabilities of civil servants is the easy part.

Many people put the burden of bad governments on the shoulders of civil servants — more than it is fair to do. They expect every one of them to simply defy wrong orders. That is too much to expect be­­cause, in this imperfect world, collaborators are always present. What happens in such situations is that the really bad ones take over. The wilful ministers lose nothing. There are shining examples of conscientious Pakistani civil servants who put their heads on the block. But it is they and their families who suffer, the system did not change. Place the blame where it belongs — on the government.

Reforming the state is more arduous. Neither the Constitution nor political scientists can clearly define the state. It is the most opaque term in political vocabulary. The state means, essentially, the entire fixed political system, the setting up of authoritative and legitimately powerful roles through which we are finally controlled. Thus, the police, army, civil service and judiciary are aspects of the state, as is parliament and local authorities.

Reforming the state is like drawing a knife through a bowl of marbles. But until government is reformed, civil servants will continue to say, “Yes, Minister! No, Minister! As you say, Minister!”

The writer is a former civil servant and minister.

raufkkhattak@gmail.com

Published in Dawn December 1st, 2016

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