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Reality of reform

December 25, 2018


The writer is a former civil servant.
The writer is a former civil servant.

“THE definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” The prime minister’s taskforce on civil service reforms seems to be an effort to test out the veracity of this claim. How?

First and foremost, the PTI government was expected to break the status quo, do away with red tape and come up with ­solutions that are pertinent to the modern world, but what they actually have come up with is nothing new. A taskforce that is slow, and perhaps looking to implement a whole new system — when, in fact, the modern concept of reform is to introduce incremental changes, one at a time so that they can be adopted quickly as well as easily and can be assessed for their effectiveness. But these are just the minor issues, the real problem lies in the very composition of the taskforce.

There is a general resentment towards the Pakistan Administrative Service among the various service groups of the civil service. The officers in other service groups think that the PAS usurps the rights of other service groups. An unusually large quota in senior-level promotions and the fact that, in the past and even today, PAS officers are often posted as head of institutions such as the Federal Board of Revenue, Capital Development Authority, National Highway Authority, Pakistan Railways and as federal secretaries — sometimes even when they hardly qualify for these positions — adds credence to this claim.

This they manage to do by having each other’s back; a PAS officer protects and promotes another PAS officer and, in this way, perpetuates this oligarchy of sorts. Now, one would think that the purpose of any reform would be to uphold merit instead of this oligarchy. But the so-called taskforce has 19 members — and out of those 13 are either serving or retired PAS officers or their nominees. This should be enough to kill any notions of reform.

The real problem lies in the very composition of the taskforce.

Furthermore, the Provincial Manage­ment Service’s officers do not have any representation on the taskforce despite the fact that, in recent years, they have been aggressively protesting the lack of promotions, as well as the appointments of PAS officers against their prized posts in Punjab. This omission becomes even more significant when one considers that, in the field, PMS officers outnumber PAS officers.

Engineers and doctors badly need a service structure and a say in policymaking for health and infrastructure, but there is no engineer and only one doctor in the said taskforce. Academics and lawyers are also members of the taskforce. How many non-bureaucrats have hands-on experience of the problems faced by civil servants serving across Pakistan? Anyway, their opinion would be diminished by the sheer number of PAS officers with decades of experience on the list, so it would not matter whether they do or don’t know the pulse of civil service. Nonetheless, they do fulfil the purpose of making the taskforce look weighty and dynamic, which may be a reason why they have been added.

All four provincial chief secretaries, secretary finance, secretary establishment, secretary planning and secretary cabinet are members of the taskforce. I wonder how they would provide valuable input on reform, which is required mostly at the entry- and mid-management-level of the civil service. If you fix the structure at those levels, everything would be fixed within a couple of decades.

The young officers in the field are the eyes and ears of the government, and are the ones who form the first line of response for good governance. But they face ­challenges everyday due to a non-responsive civil service structure marred by hierarchy. They are the ones who know, perhaps better than most, what kind of reforms are required to improve governance.

But how many young officers are on the reforms taskforce? None. If the intention behind adding the chief secretaries to the reform body was that they would provide feedback of the young officers, then let me tell you: such is the culture of government offices that no young officer dares to disagree with the top man of the province. He is considered the law. They just watch him in awe and bow to him. Any difference of opinion is not welcome in this hierarchy, let alone rebels.

Truth be told, not all, but the majority on this taskforce are privileged individuals who were either born with those privileges, or worked their way up to becoming privileged years ago and now hardly remember what it was like on the other side of the fence. In a nutshell, it is, by and large, a group of over-aged and privileged individuals, trying to reform a culture that they themselves created in the first place.

Harsh? Maybe. True? Indeed!

The writer is a former civil servant.

Twitter: @SyedSaadat52

Published in Dawn, December 25th, 2018