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Pakistan hasn’t succeeded in reforming its bureaucracy in the past. Can the PTI deliver?

Updated October 26, 2018

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—Illustration by Mushba Said
—Illustration by Mushba Said

'Reforms', as a buzzword, seems to be back in fashion again.

Ever since the new government was sworn in, the one constant we have heard repeatedly is their urge to push through reforms.

Committees have been made, people have been appointed, yanked out and reappointed. All in all, it seems like a lot of dirt is flying around the buzzword of 'reforms'.

But as with everything in Pakistan, if you scratch beneath the surface, the realities are slightly different.

For the purpose of this article, I am specifically talking about the civil service reforms as a case to make my larger point that, to have real reforms in the country, we need to fundamentally change the whole reform process.

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What do I mean by that? In short, the same people who were supposed to reform Pakistan’s bureaucracy and civil service between 2002 and 2008 cannot be expected to reap a different result when they are put on the exact same job in 2018.

The overall profile of the people — and even some individuals — is the same as those involved in earlier efforts. Trying to do the same thing repetitively while expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

The simple fact is any reform instigated under the current process will not succeed because every single player part of it today has been involved for at least two decades and has achieved absolutely nothing.

What is the alternative then?

What we know

We know the bureaucracy is bloated and we know the Pakistan Administrative Service (PAS) overpowers others.

We are aware that the recruitment is flawed and we know we are hemorrhaging money through what Dr Nadeem Ul Haque calls ‘perks and plots’.

The Universal Pay Scale is a joke that needs to end and we cannot parachute people into the 21st Grade of the federal government from the provinces.

We have learned this over the last five decades. So, it is pointless to create a committee that will figure out what reforms are needed because we categorically know what we need to be doing.

How we are going to start out on these?

Where we begin

We begin with altering the way we go about this.

We know what we need to do but change won't be forthcoming when the bureaucracy is resistant to it and would most definitely drag the process long enough to water it down to a point where it amounts to practically nothing.

Based on the fieldwork I have done for my research, the biggest issue in Pakistan is the relationship dynamic between the bureaucracy and the governing coalition.

The bureaucracy is extremely well-entrenched, well-trained and understands the processes because they wrote them.

The ruling coalitions normally lack the capacity to understand governmental operations and policy making systems, and are reluctant to take on the bureaucracy due to internal capacity issues.

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The capacity issues I am talking about are strictly related to parties in power and their ability to understand nuanced issues of governance.

For instance, no party in Pakistan has a specialised internal policy cell that deals with issues of investment, privatisation or even aviation.

This shows when a party comes to power and tries to formulate policy on these matters — they are forced to rely on the bureaucrats who have been through multiple governments.

Even with a new government, then, the policy prescriptions are roughly the same.

For any reform to work, the ruling coalition must invest significantly in its internal policy think tanks.

The governing coalition’s relationship with the bureaucracy needs to shift from the reciprocal you-scratch-my-back-and-I-scratch-yours mantra to a more assertive, hierarchical one where the government has control on the policy making process and is not totally dependent on the bureaucracy.

For instance, if the government has party-level experts on issues like investment, they can take a more rational stance with regards to privatisation of state owned enterprises.

But this requires the government to expand its own capacity — not through committees, but through full-time party members.

That is where they need to start. Before any reform can take place, the relationship with the bureaucracy needs to change.

Once that shifts, one can move on to reforms.

What we do

A good place to start is the Haque Thesis that Dr Nadeem ul Haque has put forth, which essentially goes after the 'perks and plots' of the bureaucracy as well as the Universal Pay Scale.

The logic behind this is straightforward: pay them market rate for their service but take away the perks that cost taxpayers a lot more money than simply paying bureaucrats a high salary.

It also clears up public property for other purposes.

The issue of the Universal Pay Scale is logical too: why should people with exceptional capacity and ability be stuck getting the same salaries as someone who does the least possible legally required work?

In all this, the logic behind the argument is purely economic: why should government employees get the benefits and cost government significant money through the 'perks and plots' structure when most of the private sector employees with similar or better abilities barely save enough at the end of their career to afford a single plot of land?

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'Perks and plots' burden the national exchequer. Take for example a Grade 20 and above officer: if they are based in Islamabad, they are living in sectors F–6, F–7, G–6 or G–7.

The property they are being given by the government for practically free would normally cost over Rs100,000 per month if rented privately.

Add to that the cost of refurbishing the house, that is another Rs100,000 to Rs150,000 per year depending on the grade.

Take into account the cost of government cars, fuel, educational fee support and other perks, the grand total for a government officer (Grade 20 and over) to taxpayers is anywhere between Rs750,000 to Rs one million per month.

Pray tell what private sector job with similar experience pays this much? And herein lies the problem.

But beyond this, a major change needs to be the separation of federal and provincial civil services.

One of the biggest issues currently is how someone from the PAS can serve most of their career in the provincial civil service across departments and then simply jump over to the federal government in Grade 21 and start off as an additional secretary and potentially be a secretary.

Under what common sense are we expecting someone, who has spent all their life in provincial civil service, to jump into, say the Board of Investment or Ministry of Commerce at Grade 21, to fulfill the duties of someone who is an expert in those fields?

This hopping over needs to end. This is also why the PAS has such a significant choke hold on the bureaucracy as they get to jump to the federal and overtake career diplomats, commerce and finance people.

Building on this, the federal and provincial bureaucracy needs to be separate but equally prestigious.

Add to this the complete ban on deputation: a person who gets inducted in Pakistan Post or Pakistan Railways cannot make their way to commerce, taxation or the Foreign Office.

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This leads to the largest of all reforms: recruitment system.

Once you separate the federal and provincial services and kill off deputation, you can focus on recruiting people into federal service with clear focus on expertise and departmental needs.

If someone applies for the Foreign Office and does not make the cut, they should not be deputed to railways; instead, cut them loose.

Why should someone who has no interest in a service be stuck with it? Because that is what happens now: people spend years trying to get reassigned to what they really want, meanwhile never really doing the work they are supposed to do in the positions they ended up getting.

They are bitter and all they want to do is move to where they feel they deserve to be. But they stay because of the 'perks and plots'.

In essence, then, we have employees doing the bare minimum to retain their jobs and never really trying to think out of the box or actually improve.

The simplest way to end this is to recruit people directly into the service they apply for.

Making a move

It does not take a committee to figure out what needs to be done.

The question is whether we have the political will to push through these reforms. Or is the government going to chicken out when blackmailed by the bureaucracy?

A hundred well-intentioned committees will not get us what we want if there is no desire to change the relationship dynamic between the ruling coalition and the senior bureaucracy.

I truly hope the government pays attention to these problems because we can either waste time and repackage failed ideas into mediocre success or we can really make a move.


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