Civil service reform

February 10, 2019

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ON Friday, Prime Minister Imran Khan returned to one of his favourite themes when he reiterated his commitment to depoliticising the bureaucracy, “insulating it from all kinds of political pressures”. His words signified the distance he has travelled since the spirit of reform first captured his imagination. Pre-election, Mr Khan wanted to set the system right, and reforms in the bureaucracy, which is at the centre of the system, is where his focus needed to be. However, as prime minister, Mr Khan has lately been attempting to convince civil servants that his is a government that bureaucrats can trust and work with. It is a fact that the PTI refrain about change had created new expectations that many knew would not be easy to meet. For the bureaucrats, it meant shifting allegiance from the PML-N to the PTI. Before elections, and immediately after, the bureaucracy was seen as part of the problem. This created a sense of insecurity and apprehension among the bureaucrats when their boss — the prime minister — demanded they be at their most efficient. But a new realisation is dawning: the government needs at least a working relationship with the bureaucrats. This has been relayed in the prime minister’s statements on the topic of late. His words are more measured, perhaps even tilted in favour of the civil servants, indicating how difficult it is for a new party and a new leader to enlist the trust of a bureaucracy politicised over the years. Government servants in crucial positions are not yet responding to the prime minister’s directions as he would like them to. This is surely frustrating for Mr Khan, who had promised people widespread reform.

The government constituted a task force under Dr Ishrat Husain who was asked to find ways of turning the civil service into a competent outfit. Mr Khan is in favour of restructuring and reforming the bureaucracy “to make it progressive and innovative”. But this could take a long time, and in the meantime, the government will have to make do with the civil service in its current form, even as attempts at transforming the system continue in the background.

It is no surprise that Mr Khan had to adjust his pre-power position to show that he is here to protect the bureaucracy from undue pressure. A convenient way has been to give assurances to the bureaucrats at the expense of the political class that is perceived as making unfair demands of the government servants. This is true to a large extent but the prime minister would do well to recognise and address one basic flaw, regardless of whether the person in charge of a situation is a politician or a civil servant. This is the centralised structure of the bureaucracy. Reform must begin with efforts to decentralise authority in order to promote initiative and participation at all levels.

Published in Dawn, February 10th, 2019