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Grass-root reforms

February 19, 2019

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

A WEEKEND visit to Lahore by the prime minister culminated in an announcement that important administrative reforms in Punjab will be soon made. A day later came news of the decision to have seven additional chief secretaries as ‘champions of change’ reporting to the chief secretary, in order to have better focus on related sets of departments.

Interestingly, this change was reportedly based on the recommendation of the finance adviser, while none of the recommendations of the advisers on establishment or austerity and institutional reforms have seen the light of day, except for a proposal to ensure tenure for federal secretaries, which the cabinet immediately shot down.

It seems that the more things are not working in Punjab, the more ‘innovative’ steps are desperately being taken to get the bureaucracy moving, without dispassionately assessing the reasons why the civil service is not working.

I am of the belief that the majority of bureaucrats are not aligned to any political party, excepting a handful that go out of their way to prove their loyalty to the party in power. I have always enjoyed interacting with junior colleagues in the service. As a matter of fact, many of them seek me out to share their burdens. Last week, I ran into a young couple, both grade-20 officers in the Punjab government, and asked them why they were not working.

Bureaucracy is confused, as political interference seems to have increased.

They said bureaucracy works under a direction. Under Shahbaz Sharif, they knew who to take orders from, or who to advise to amend his orders. Now, however, orders in Punjab are coming from four different directions. Sometimes it can take days before the transfer of a clerk can be settled between conflicting desires of the various camps. Bureaucracy is confused, as political interference seems to have increased.

They said most ministers are new and still struggling to find direction. They seem exceptionally cautious in putting their signature to anything. They are sensitive to and scared of the media. The Annual Development Programme has been slashed and there are hardly any funds being released for initiatives that are expected to be undertaken.

They further said that there is very little support from their seniors and, with senior officials as scared of arbitrary accountability as they are, the current situation seems to be a case of every man for himself. The influence of the Prime Minister’s Office is also being felt in Punjab, which is adding to the confusion by bringing the tally of Punjab’s power centres up to five.

In another informal meeting with a very senior officer of another province in a sensitive post, I asked him the same question: why isn’t the bureaucracy working?

He answered that the fear of the National Accountability Bureau is so real that no one wants to put their signature on anything. He said most secretaries bumble their way through a posting without taking any serious decisions for a few months and then get themselves posted to other departments, to start the process all over again. In this they are aided by the governments, who like to transfer officers at the drop of a hat.

He said, in the field in the past, the session judges never summoned deputy commissioners, superintendents of police or other senior officers to the court and rubbed them the wrong way in public. But now, with the precedent set by the superior courts, and the media in a coverage frenzy, exaggerating the drubbing given to civil servants in the courts, the district courts are also following suit. So while the civil servants are being hounded by the accountability organisations and courts in tandem, more and more of them are operating on survival mode: making sure to do as little as possible to stay under the radar. They are working on the maxim that if you do no work, you will make no mistake.

In the good old days, an officer looked for ways to find solutions to petitioners’ problems. Now they look for ways to evade making a decision or — if they have to make one — it will be as advised by the clerk. So there is practically no difference between an officer and a clerk.

Now, you can dispute the views of the three officers that I have cited and dismiss them as their personal views, but what they said has been corroborated by other sources. Furthermore, I know that they were not great beneficiaries of the previous governments and had no political axe to grind.

Rather than brush these views aside, the government will be better advised to start their reforms from the bottom. Adding another tier of additional chief secretaries to the present four tiers, from section officer to secretary, will only compound the confusion. My advice for the government is to sit with the junior- and mid-level civil servants in a friendly setting, and try to find genuine solutions to their concerns and fears, rather than simply bashing them.

The writer is a former civil servant.

Published in Dawn, February 19th, 2019