In December 2016, Shahbaz Sharif declared (as he has many times before and since) that transparency and merit were the hallmarks of his government, and that the Punjab government’s zero tolerance for corruption from the bottom to the top of the administrative hierarchy was producing results.
Certainly, a number of schemes were introduced to ensure that 'corruption' was eliminated across the administrative departments that make up the government of Punjab, most prominently through the use of monitoring and technology (e.g. the use of smart phones and computerisation of records).
In 2017, the chief minister declared that his government’s policies have led to there being "no room for corruption as idols of sifarish, nepotism and corruption have been broken in the province."
However, a problem arises where the CM’s plans for transparency run into electoral realities, particularly politicians’ desire to dispense patronage to voters.
Well aware of this clash, Sharif and his allies developed a method to have their cake and eat it too — they started differentiating between 'good' sifarish and 'bad' sifarish: the latter was to be condemned and dismissed as 'corrupt', but the former was to be catered to with speed and efficiency.
This distinction allowed the government to achieve success in select anti-corruption measures while simultaneously ensuring that some, favoured politicians’ patronage demands were met.
In what follows, I will briefly outline the market for bureaucratic appointments in Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) Punjab, and then focus on reforms introduced in the name of merit and transparency in teacher appointments in the School Education Department.
By making strategic appointments to key posts within the bureaucratic hierarchy, the CM Secretariat was able to control the implementation of its anti-corruption measures.
As a result, the CM Secretariat empowered a group of politicians and bureaucrats above others, while still maintaining the government’s image as an advocate of merit and transparency.
The PML-N is not an ideological party. Its appeal to voters (particularly those in urban areas) lies in the ability of elected party members to 'get things done' — the laying of a sewage line, acquiring an electricity, gas or telephone connection, and, most importantly, getting a voter (or their family member) a job with the government.
Therefore, moves to eliminate corruption and improve transparency may sound wonderful in theory, but in reality, they do not sit well with constituency politicians seeking to dispense patronage amongst voters.
Government jobs, ranging from Class IV posts such as cleaners or watchmen to teaching staff, are particularly in demand as a form of patronage for a couple of reasons.
The first is relative security of tenure and a pension, attractive prospects for anyone looking for some long-term stability for themselves and their family.
And second, government jobs allow the person being posted to exercise a bit of power themselves, particularly if they manage to advance up the bureaucratic hierarchy.
This power may be nothing more than getting a family member or friend an audience with a senior bureaucrat, but the ability to do even this much denotes prestige and access to power within the person’s immediate social circle.
Therefore, the distribution of government jobs by politicians has long been a means of winning votes within communities.
The reality of patronage politics in Punjab outlined here will come as no surprise to any observer of Pakistani politics.
What is of interest is how a government touting its anti-corruption policies (transparency, monitoring, open access to information, etc.) balanced the introduction of these measures with the demands made by politicians of their own party’s administration.
The uniform implementation of anti-corruption measures would close down avenues of patronage, threatening the political economy that exists in constituencies (and by extension, the province as a whole), thus endangering future electoral prospects for not just the Members of Provincial Assembly (MPA) and the Members of National Assembly (MNA), but eventually the party itself.
So, in implementing these measures, the government determined who must conform with anti-corruption policies when it came to distributing government jobs, and who may be exempted from having to do so.
During the time that the PML-N felt secure in its political position in Punjab, the provincial government’s implementation of favoured policies, projects, and anti-corruption measures relied on appointing a group of favourite bureaucrats (most of whom belonged to the Pakistan Administrative Service – PAS) to key posts – e.g. departmental secretaries, heads of authorities, and district coordination officers (DCO).
These would typically be officers who had worked closely with the CM or the chief secretary in the past and had a proven record of ‘getting the job done’.
As one example, Fawad Hasan Fawad was such an appointee. When the PML-N formed the government in Punjab in 2008, he was posted as Secretary Services where he was in charge of assembling the team of bureaucrats who would staff senior district posts (DCOs and divisional commissioners) in Punjab.
A few months later, Fawad was appointed Secretary Communication and Works to 'accelerate the pace of work and purge the department of corrupt officials and contractors'.
It is important to note here that the appointment of these bureaucrats by the CM Secretariat (often through the manipulation of regulations on bureaucratic appointments) was not regarded as 'corrupt'.
For example, Fawad Hasan Fawad’s appointments to various Secretary posts (Services, Communication and Works, Health) were made while he was still too junior (in terms of Basic Pay Scale) for these offices. However, no action was taken to prevent this widespread practice.
Instead, appointments that are not strictly in line with the rules — for instance, the hiring of retired bureaucrats on contract basis or the appointment of junior bureaucrats — are justified as discretionary, made to ensure that the government has access to the best officials to carry out its mandate.
Bureaucratic reshuffles that take place after an election is held are a key example — they allow the new government to assemble their own people around them.
In 2013, for instance, the PML-N was on the hunt for "a team of experienced and honest bureaucrats," particularly for the federal government under Nawaz Sharif.
In light of these practices, the feeling amongst the mid-tier and junior bureaucracy I interviewed was that anti-corruption policies that enhanced monitoring and transparency targeted them but left the higher echelons of the bureaucracy — where ‘corruption’ usually involved having a finger in the pie alongside senior politicians — largely untouched.
The PAS’ reaction to Ahad Cheema’s arrest by the National Accountability Bureau over the Ashiyana scam seems to suggest the truth of this perspective. Elite bureaucrats are unused to having their (allegedly 'corrupt') actions investigated.
This attitude is by no means unique to the Cheema case though — in 2015, for instance, the senior bureaucracy resisted attempts to make officers in BPS 20-22 subject to investigations by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA).
The bureaucrats appointed to key posts in Punjab emulated the CM’s missionary zeal and micro-management within their own departments, and followed the CM Secretariat’s instructions on the implementation of policy.
Mirroring the actions of the CM, the secretary of a department would influence appointments to posts in the department’s secretariat offices and in key districts.
The secretary would be under pressure to ‘deliver’, and, in turn, he would pressure the officials working under him in secretariat offices and in the districts to ensure that targets set by the CM Secretariat were met.
In return, the CM Secretariat protected the secretary from investigations, smoothed the way for him in the implementation of policy, and ensured that, once he ‘delivered’, he moved on to a lucrative new post.
For instance, Ahad Cheema was transferred from the post of DCO Lahore when the legality of his appointment was questioned before the Lahore High Court and was appointed the director general of the Lahore Development Authority and put in charge of the Lahore MetroBus project.
And when Cheema was in charge of the Lahore MetroBus project, the CM took a personal interest in the project, pushed for its speedy completion, ensured that financing (including compensation payments) was swiftly approved, and dealt with questions regarding the project’s transparency quickly and quietly.
The dynamics between bureaucrats and the CM Secretariat allowed the former (and through him the CM Secretariat) to shape the behaviour of bureaucrats throughout the department’s hierarchy, thereby ensuring that the work of the department was transparent and merit-based, but only to the extent desired by the CM Secretariat.
When the PML-N formed the government in Punjab in 2013, the government implemented policies that regulated the recruitment and transfer of frontline staff — teachers — in the School Education Department.
Rather than allowing politicians to influence the recruitment or transfer of teaching staff for personal or electoral gains, the department decided to improve the recruitment process by computerising merit lists and displaying them publicly for candidates to check them.
In addition, the department decided to control teacher transfers by imposing a ban on all transfers during the academic year. Transfers would only be permitted during department announced transfer windows, and teachers would have to apply for a transfer by identifying an appropriate vacant post.
In my observations of bureaucrats at work in the School Education Department, however, it soon became evident that, for all the claims of merit and transparency in teacher appointments, the reality was much more mixed.
In theory, bureaucrats in the department were not permitted to entertain politicians’ requests (made either in person, on the telephone, or through parchis attached to an application form) asking them to expedite an application, to give an applicant a few extra points on his interview, or just give the applicant a job or transfer.
But, in fact, bureaucrats’ responses to sifarish varied, as per the instructions of the department secretary.
This connection between the CM Secretariat and the secretary of the School Education Department was critical to the regulated implementation of anti-corruption measures in the appointment of teachers.
Certainly, bureaucrats in the department offered no hope to ordinary citizens asking for jobs and teachers asking for transfers, stating that there was a policy that had to be followed, that the secretary would not bend, that things had changed as per the CM’s emphasis on merit and transparency in appointments.
A few people were given the courtesy that bureaucrats hung on to their parchis till after they had left the office, as if they really meant to at least think on their sifarish.
These applicants were junior bureaucrats or applicants whose sifarish came from politicians that bureaucrats considered insignificant to the CM Secretariat.
As soon as the door closed behind these people, the slips of paper joined the rest of the parchis on the floor under the bureaucrat’s desk.
But I observed a third category first hand — those with a sifarish from a prominent politician or bureaucrat — caused the official to sit up straight and immediately summon a member of his office staff to usher the person, parchi in hand, to the office of the secretary down the hall.
No questions or reassurances were necessary — this was a sifarish that would be fulfilled regardless of merit and transparency.
Such variations in bureaucratic behaviour came as no surprise to opposition MPAs and MNAs, nor to ruling party MNAs and MPAs, who did not have a close association with the PML-N leadership.
They were well aware that their demands for teaching jobs or transfers for their voters were not considered sufficiently pressing by the CM Secretariat and would therefore not be accommodated by officials in the School Education Department.
Their discontent sometimes arose in the form of complaints to the press regarding the CM’s disinterest in his own party’s politicians’ electoral needs, or privilege motions in the Punjab Assembly regarding bureaucratic high-handedness.
In 2017, for instance, an MPA complained through a privilege motion that the regional manager of Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Ltd in Sargodha had made him wait for an hour despite not being busy, and then responded rudely to the MPA’s queries about public works.
In another case, an MPA complained about the behaviour of a superintendent in the Communications and Works Department through a privilege motion, claiming that the officer had refused to act in accordance with the law and had said that he would not follow the law because "it has been created by those without any shame."
In both cases, the bureaucrats had to present themselves in front of the Committee on Privileges and apologise to the MPA.
Though privilege motions allow politicians to impress their dignity and position on bureaucrats by dragging them in front of the committee, and press interviews allow them an avenue to vent their grievances, the politicians I spoke to were nonetheless well aware that any sifarish they made would be subject to the rules set by the CM Secretariat.
While a sifarish from an ordinary citizen, or someone not close to the CM could be ignored, a sifarish from someone in the CM’s inner circle would be catered to immediately.
The sheer volume of appointments that go through the School Education Department’s bureaucrats (with over 400,000 employees across the province and teaching posts in such high demand) make the distinctions drawn between different kinds of sifarish particularly visible.
However, these distinctions were not unique to the School Education department — similar practices prevailed in the Higher Education Department, and likely in others as well.
They allowed the CM Secretariat and its chosen bureaucrats to maintain the veneer of reform, touting merit and transparency as its hallmarks, while consolidating power in the hands of the CM and his closest political and bureaucratic allies.
Those with access to the CM were still able to dispense patronage at will, meaning that teacher appointments continued to be politicised.
But the exclusion of ordinary citizens and some politicians and bureaucrats from government largesse allowed the CM Secretariat to claim that the government’s anti-corruption measures were producing results.
As the Punjab government became more and more centralised, entwining the party’s leadership with a small coterie of politicians and a cadre of politicised bureaucrats, excluded politicians had to either seek alternative means of satisfying their voters or convince the CM to compromise his anti-corruption measures in order to accommodate electoral realities.
Luckily for the ruling party politicians at least, political realities change and the party leaders’ priorities change with them.
With the 2018 election approaching, and the party facing a leadership crisis, the electoral calculus shifted.
Though the CM continues to advocate for merit and transparency, the PML-N government can no longer afford to ignore its politicians.
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