Better bureaucracy

19 Sep 2018


PRIME Minister Imran Khan recently acknowledged the bureaucracy as the main tool for implementing his agenda of change. He addressed senior officers in Islamabad, flanked by his advisers, and promised everything they wanted to hear. He promised protection against undue harassment by NAB, depoliticisation of the service, and acknowledged the benefits of a minimum tenure of postings. He requested them to bear with him for two years, after which he believes the government’s financial state would be sufficient to provide them a decent pay package.

He gave lucid examples of the generous salaries in years gone by, when, according to him, his father’s salary was enough to buy a car every month and a federal secretary could buy 70 gold tolas from his salary. He rightly praised the efficiency and effectiveness of the bureaucracy of the ’60s. Since I was a member of the bureaucracy in the ’60s, and am therefore biased, I would agree with him. But I am assuming his judgement is based on how he saw his cousins, who were illustrious members of the bureaucracy.

All that was said was music to the ears of the bureaucracy, but the result will depend on how he walks the talk. The first signs, though, are not encouraging. Just a day after his speech came the news of the deputy commissioners of Rajanpur and Chakwal being issued show cause notices for not following the chain of command when — perhaps fired up by Mr Khan’s earlier election pledge to end political interference — they alleged specific instances of such misconduct by PTI MNAs and MPAs.

It is obvious that, in their enthusiasm, the DCs copied their letter to all and sundry, which is technically not right. But perhaps the situation could have been better managed had the government not taken any covert action against them, other than call them to be reprimanded in person. In this alternative, they could have also called for an explanation from the MNAs/MPAs, to make matters appear even-handed. The action taken, however, makes it appear as if the complaints of the officers were not correct. This kind of handling of the matter throws water on the officers’ morale, negating the very purpose of Mr Khan’s address to them.

More than structural flaws, basic issues plague the civil service.

Similarly, simply requesting the NAB chairman to be kind to the officers against whom they receive complaints may not be enough, because the NAB bureaucracy is following some rules. Unless those rules are rehashed, there will be no change.

Then there’s the elephant in the room: the media, which thrives on discussing details of alleged official misdemeanours, naming names without offering the ‘accused’ a chance to air their version too. The media trial of even one innocent officer damages his legacy, demeans him before his family and friends, and impacts the morale of the entire force. The media rarely mentions their good deeds. Government officials don’t have the privilege, connections and resources to defend themselves like politicians do, through press conferences and talk shows. So, for the sake of the bureaucracy’s morale, the media ought to evolve and implement some code of conduct.

Speaking of administrative reforms, every successive government in this country includes them as an integral part of its agenda, and the PTI is no exception. On average, this exercise is repeated every three years, considering there have been about 26 prominent commissions, task forces, and one-man squads created to deliver good governance since Pakistan’s creation. While in the earlier years, administrative reform commissions were headed by British officers, since 1958 they have been headed by the likes of G. Ahmed, Justice A.R. Cornelius, Khursheed Hasan Mir, Justice Anwarul Haq, Justice Dorab Patel, Raja Zafarul Haq, Hamid Nasir Chattha, Fakhar Imam, Dr Shahid Amjad, Gen Naqvi and the latest by Dr Ishrat Husain. But the impact of these commissions has thus far been the opposite of what they were set up for. Governance and the writ of the state have been gradually deteriorating since 1947.

Mr Khan has very rightly identified the concerns of the bureaucracy in his speech and promised to set them right. These are harassment by NAB, political interference, uncertain tenures, poor salaries and disempowered heads of departments/ministries. Most administrative reforms, especially if they are planned across the board, lead to a lot of uncertainty, rumours and tentativeness. More often than not, the result is a further decline in delivery and the writ of the state. A recent is example is the cataclysmic reforms carried out by Musharraf in 2002.

Rather than waste valuable time deliberating major administrative reforms, let us rectify the obvious flaws in the bureaucracy first — by using the next two years to make a determined effort to reset the bureaucracy. After these basic flaws have been fixed, if it is still felt that there are deficiencies in the system, then perhaps administrative reforms can be attempted.

The writer is a former civil servant.

Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2018