The elusive promise of civil service reform

What works for civil service reform hasn't been sufficiently explored. The PTI presents an opportunity to rectify this.
Updated 23 Aug, 2019 02:12pm
Illustration by Mushba Said
Illustration by Mushba Said

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s focus on an overhaul of the bureaucracy has remained one of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf's (PTI) central pillars. The government wants a bureaucracy that is progressive, innovative and responsive. But this could take a long time to materialise.

Civil service reform may be the single most critical policy change this government intends to bring, as it will impact the success of several other political and economic reforms. After all, a capable civil service is fundamental to state capacity and attaining policy objectives.

For a country as diverse and densely populated as Pakistan — fast urbanising, with a population surpassing 200 million — a well-functioning and effective bureaucracy becomes even more imperative in meeting citizens' needs.

However, what works when it comes to civil service reform in Pakistan has not been sufficiently explored. The PTI government presents an opportunity to rectify this.

Bureaucrats reforming bureaucrats

As has been the case with most other policy reform efforts under this government, a restructuring of the civil service began with the constitution of a federal task force mandated to identify ways to reform the bureaucratic system.

Dr Ishrat Hussain, adviser to the prime minister on institutional reforms and austerity, is leading the effort. Incidentally, he also headed the National Commission of Government Reform (NCGR) a decade ago but his work was never implemented. Since then, numerous reform efforts to overhaul Pakistan’s civil service have met little success.

Moreover, in the present era of National Accountability Bureau (NAB) inquiries, the bureaucracy is reluctant to spearhead any reform. This lack of motivation is hampering the government’s efforts to create an efficient civil service.

Just recently, in a bid to resolve this concern, the task force proposed a role for supervisory committees, whose members will be chosen by a parliamentary committee. The purpose of these supervisory committees would be to convey a sense to civil servants that adequate safeguards are in place in the wake of a NAB inquiry, and at the same time, pave the way to strengthen accountability. The proposal, however, has not yet been sent to the cabinet for approval.

Related: Taking an experimental approach on civil service reform

In addition, a lot has already been said about the task force composition, which is heavily tilted towards ex and current civil servants. They may have an understanding of the deep-rooted structural problems facing the civil service, but little incentive to change the status quo. At least, the perception surrounding the task force is that not everyone’s interests will be looked after.

The extent to which reform can be brought through the task force is also questionable. While the task force is deliberating on key issues and has presented solutions, it lacks executive power, just like all other task forces, to implement any of its suggestions. It has no operational authority and lacks clear timelines or terms of reference to execute.

So far, under this government’s tenure, there have been some accomplishments, but there remains a fear that if reform efforts do not target the centres of influence and counter the disincentives for change, the task force will not be able to achieve much.

What has PTI promised?

While the agenda for civil service reform is broad, the proposed thinking is underpinned by key elements of the NCGR report. At the outset, it appears that the PTI understands that governments can only deliver if people serving as part of it have the motivation and capacity to deliver. In brief, it aims to find out:

Suggested reform points towards the creation of a National Executive Service (NES) at the federal level along with a Provincial Executive Service. This would allow civil servants in BPS-19 and experienced professionals from outside the civil service to be inducted into the bureaucracy.

The purpose of the NES would be to ensure that top positions are not monopolised by generalists and that there is room for lateral entry of technocrats in various bureaucratic cadres. The selection would involve eligible candidates sitting for an exam. However, there is resistance to setting up the NES as it will disturb the career paths of current bureaucrats.

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

The PTI is also committed to improving the overall induction process to attract the right skill set and talent. The key tool for doing this would be to restructure both the induction and training mechanisms. It is proposed that entry-level exams be designed to test analytical ability, domain-specific knowledge and aptitude of candidates.

At the same time, the government wants to ensure that the existing bureaucracy remains motivated and that political interference and politicisation is minimised.

This would require changes in internal processes, decentralisation of decision-making and removal of discrepancies within different service groups. For example, currently there is high concentration of power in certain ministries (finance, planning commission) as compared to others, giving certain service groups clout within the bureaucracy.

What has PTI delivered?

Overall rules of business have been amended to ensure space for delegation of powers within ministries. There has been a change in the way signing off on projects is done so that there is delegation of responsibility and reduced red tape for the disbursement of funds.

So far, several proposals have been made by the task force that have entered the policy domain. As stated in its meeting minutes and also reported by The News, these include the following:

All of this seems praiseworthy, but how will it bring any real change is yet to be seen. Formation of various committees will only bear fruit if consistency is ensured across the board and the decisions made by them are actually implemented.

Indeed, appointments of senior policymakers, such as the chairman for the Federal Board of Revenue, were not made through these selection committees. There is also a concern that these committees lack permanence and are unaccountable, due to which it is difficult to ensure sustainability of reforms or integrity of decisions pushed through these structures. A system to ensure enforcement of their mandate is needed.

What is under deliberation?

Induction and training reform is in the pipeline. The task force has suggested restructuring the Central Superior Services entry process, to rest on a revised examination structure.

The nature of the current examination will be converted into an evaluation of analytical core skills rather than simple knowledge of theory and facts. This will ensure that candidates with domain-specific knowledge and aptitude join specialised streams or clusters, enabling a specialised bureaucracy, streamlining allocation and, at the same time, encouraging linkages with universities to offer pre-service training.

Four stages are proposed as part of revising the recruitment system: a screening test, followed by cluster-based specialised recruitment and psychometric evaluation and interview of the candidates who qualify for the final selection. This proposal has buy-in from the Federal Public Service Commission, but is awaiting cabinet approval.

A proposal to reform training is underway as well. The Ministry of Planning, Development and Reforms, in collaboration with United Nations Development Program, is currently being supported by a team of researchers based at the Consortium for Development Policy Research to undertake a training needs assessment of civil servants. For the first time, a detailed survey of close to 800 civil servants is being done. The task force is awaiting these findings.

In-depth: A look at PML-N's selective anti-corruption drive

Several inadequacies in the bureaucracy are underpinned by the civil service training structure. At present, Pakistan’s bureaucrats are prepared to be well-rounded officers who can serve in multiple capacities, having the security of their tenure.

But the training system does not foster specialisation. The traditional focus is on content that is general and that aims to develop broad leadership and management skills. Courses are rarely designed to improve the capacity to deliver specific services (except for in a few groups).

In addition, training is mostly focused on senior and mid-level officers instead of lower tiers — where most of the government-citizen interface takes place — and is de-linked with promotion. The Annual Confidential Reports hardly ever measure performance against goals. To this end, a human resource management system is also being developed for the establishment division to ensure better career planning and placements.

What is missing?

According to some estimates, about 85 per cent of government wage bill is spent on subordinate grades. This staff is an integral part of the bureaucracy, but has poor capacity to provide support and has low or no value addition (with the exception of technical staff in the engineering or some social sector departments).

Civil service reform mostly caters to the needs of officers in Grade 17 and above. In Punjab alone, 83.4pc of the civil servants work in Grades 1 to 15. Hence, subordinate staff requires a special focus.

In addition, reform is geared towards the centre and there is little focus on the provinces. No effective task force can be seen at the provincial level, which means provincial concerns are not being put forward. The federal and provincial bureaucracies need to be separate but equally respected.


Past efforts to reform Pakistan’s civil service have remained unsuccessful mainly due to the political economy surrounding civil service reform and resistance to change. This, coupled with ineffective political strategies for pushing through such efforts, has made the task even more challenging.

The PTI has taken on a difficult task. Civil service reform is tough to implement and bears limited results in the short run. As most of their potential benefits are placed in future, there is little room for governments to gain political mileage.

Moreover, bureaucracy is most comfortable when it sees things in their familiar form, flowing smoothly. While they may accept some change, they clearly lack the motivation to put them in effect.

Hence, there is a need to counter such disincentives. The success of reform inevitably depends on the stability of the political regimes and the assurance that governments will be accountable for their actions.

Are you working on government reforms in Pakistan? Write to us at


Author Image

Hina Shaikh is currently working as a country economist at the International Growth Center's Pakistan programme. She can be reached at

Author Image

Zara Salman is currently working as a senior research associate at the Consortium for Development Policy Research. She can be reached at

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (10) Closed

M. Saeed
Aug 22, 2019 06:40pm
Instead of Civil Service reforms, Government must revisit the action taken during Ayub times when he made the Secretary to the Federal Government the highest paid person in the country. All other services, including private services were ordered to pay salaries and perks, less than that of the Federal Secretaries, so as to give due honor and respect to the top Government position. Salaries and benefits of all other positions were adjusted accordingly.
Recommend 0
Masood Habib
Aug 22, 2019 07:09pm
Nothing will come off it!
Recommend 0
Mhammad Qadeer
Aug 22, 2019 08:30pm
A thoughtful piece about the current efforts on the reforms. Yet it only passingly mentions the need for training and upgrading the clerical and subordinate staff. They should be given adequate salaries, responsibilities and most of all opportunities to advance to higher ranks through education and performance. Also the reforms are focussed on the internal structures. How about accountability to the citizens. Citizens dealing with civil services should have legislated rights to access the bases of decisions affecting them individually or collectively and have transparency of decision -making. Citizens must be involved in policymaking at all levels through lay task forces and advisory committees.
Recommend 0
Aug 23, 2019 12:29am
A good piece, but inadequate. The fact that 85% of the salary bill is the key here, but clearly ignored by all. As an ex- civil servant, the lower staff were the bane of our lives. They are absolutely huge in number, poorly paid and nobody does anything. They all have other jobs and the government job is just a stipend, a result of their political connections. Even the simplest of tasks never got done because in the presence of 20 people, it was nobody’s responsibility. I could write a book on my experiences but what is the point?
Recommend 0
Syed A. Mateen
Aug 23, 2019 01:06am
Pakistan is facing a never ending challenge as far as reforms in the Civil Service are required. The most painful thing is that bureaucrats do not have own initiative and drive and if one of them among the bureaucrats have initiative and drive from grade 17 to grade 22 they don't want to take risk of being interrogated by the NAB. Bureaucrats are the back bones of the federal and provincial governments. If they want they can give such suggestions that fate of the country can be changed before completion of a full term of the government. It is necessary that bureaucrats should keep themselves aloof from country's politics and this only be possible when bureaucrats don't get involved with political forces.
Recommend 0
Aug 23, 2019 01:16am
If the core focus of the entire country is towards the lost cause of Kashmir, how will these reforms happen
Recommend 0
Tanwir Ahmad
Aug 23, 2019 07:53am
There must be a permanent mechanism for constant input by/ from the citizen. And that input should be able to modify constantly the working of the officers/ subordinates. There is a serious need to inculcate the notion that they are there to solve the issues, not to create the hurdles.
Recommend 0
Aug 23, 2019 02:42pm
Lets not forget the fact that any government is actually run by these so called bureaucrats and like politicians not taking pay rises, these so bureaucrats will not let anyone else to reform them. These reforms must begin from within, but I doubt it as these bureaucrats are used to all the luxuries all these times and will not let anyone take away these benefits from them. If Imran is really serious, he should start cleaning the political rulers perks before even thinking to do anything about bureaucrats.
Recommend 0
Aug 23, 2019 04:12pm
Nice and objective write up. A few points missing though: What about the very basic... induction on merit and quota free??? We need to change this system if we are to induct capable and honest people in civil service. What about improving emoluments in civil services and ensuring a KPI based appraisal that is rewarding for achievers... Follow the footprints of private sector here. And last but not the least, if the govt amends NAB laws to exclude Civil Service and businessmen from NABs scope... I doubt the intention to reform civil service would be another political slogan to a PTI voter like me who is quickly loosing faith ... for good
Recommend 0
hamza khan
Aug 23, 2019 09:13pm
good piece, the reforms need to happen. there is an urgent need to pair this govt reform with economic reform to drive sustainable economic development.
Recommend 0