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The unchangeable?

September 09, 2018


CIVIL service reform is one of the top agendas of the new government. Dr Ishrat Husain, in his book Governing the Ungovernable, has mentioned a National Executive Service at the federal level and a Provincial Executive Service. As per the proposed plan, civil servants in BPS-19 and experienced professionals from outside the civil service would be inducted into the NES. The criterion for selection would involve eligible candidates sitting for an exam.

As per the original scheme, the NES would be open to professionals from the open market as well as BPS-19 officers in the civil service. Inducting professionals from outside the civil service appears to be a good idea on paper, but would it be practical? The outcome of such an induction is not likely to achieve the results envisaged. The reason is simple: civil servants would not accept an outsider as the boss. They would see an outsider as somebody having the best of both worlds — the private sector and the public sector.

A hint of that can be observed even within service groups, such as the recent appointment of a Pakistan Administrative Service (PAS) officer as chairman of the Federal Board of Revenue, a move that both junior and senior income tax officers are fretting over. Imagine the level of resentment when someone from not only outside the occupational group but from outside the service altogether would be in charge. So only serving senior civil servants should be eligible for the NES exam.

Civil servants will not accept an outsider as their boss.

There is a need to look for an arrangement where professional expertise comes without sowing the seeds of discord amongst civil servants. The professional acumen deficient amongst civil servants due to lack of capacity building can be acquired by introducing a system of secondments of civil servants to the private sector. This investment will bear rich dividends for the civil servant and will also help separate the wheat from the chaff. The Singapore civil service is already successfully making use of this arrangement.

Hardly any single civil servant in Pakistan has experience of how huge enterprises are run in the private sector, where the battle for survival is won by competing rather than by receiving subsidies and bailout packages from the government. How can a civil servant who has never worked in an organisation that turns a profit every year turn a loss-making enterprise around? He simply does not have the required experience. He might be working very hard, but modern enterprise is as much about smart work as it is about hard work.

So we need to open up the civil service by exposing civil servants to better training, signing MOUs with multinational companies and even other governments to give them exposure. All this can be done through secondments where the civil servant spends a total of at least three years in secondments of one-year duration in different private-sector organisations.

For the postal service, it can be a courier service such as DHL or TCS; for the information group, it can be the print and electronic media; for audits and accounts, income tax, and the PAS it can be law and audit firms of repute, and so on and so forth.

Civil servants have a habit of taking training and suchlike assignments too casually; this should be checked by handing over performance appraisals of the civil servants to the management of the host organisation, just as they do for their regular employees. Put them under pressure and arrest the superiority complex that bureaucrats nurture for no reason; becoming a babu in this day and age is no achievement at all.

Also, this would help offset a general aversion towards privatisation amongst civil servants; they are so afraid of uncharted waters that they oppose the idea of privatisation tooth and nail. Another positive change might be an acceptance of paperless offices as most private enterprises effectively use email and other modern technology.

Pakistan will not change unless the bureaucracy changes in structure as well as style; and the bureaucracy will not change unless there is some bold and proactive decision-making. The bureaucracy will do its best to divert attention from measures that bring meaningful change by suggesting pointless measures such as austerity drives — reducing the use of stationery or air-conditioning in government offices — which is nothing more than a zero-sum game. The new government needs to steer clear of this trap; otherwise it will be what Munir Niazi aptly described in the following verse:

“Munir is mulk per asaib ka saya hai ya kya hai

Key harket tez tar aur safar ahista ahista.”

(Is this land haunted or what? Ever so fast we move but nowhere do we reach.)

The writer is a former civil servant.
Twitter: @syedsaadat52

Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2018