THOSE working in Pakistan’s public sector can be broadly categorised into two types of people: the mere mortals who reach the age of 60 and retire; and the influential indispensables who refuse to leave office.
Our country seems to be all about old men — usually at their ‘best’ — refusing to hang up their boots. This desire to not let go transpires in various ways at the public offices where they serve. At times it results in individuals pulling strings to extend their tenure as public servants, and at times it ensues in the government ignoring all regulations or restrictions to award NOCs for assignments in foreign lands. Sometimes, several cases of this ‘desire-to-not-retire’ can also trigger a military coup and send an elected prime minister directly to jail, reminiscent of the way it is done in a game of monopoly.
However, the seemingly innocuous civil servants too have a heart, but their ways of fulfilling the desire to perpetuate employment are much more subtle. In this group, retired civil servants and judges take the lead in managing to create plenty of chances for re-employment. Posts such as ombudsman, chairman and members of the Federal Public Service Commission, National Accountability Bureau (NAB) chairman, advisers to government and ambassadors are just a few examples of the areas where (un)retired bureaucrats find themselves after the age of 60.
As if these re-employments were not enough, the task force on civil service reform has come up with a suggestion to create a supervisory committee for NAB. As per the minutes of a recent meeting of the task force, it has been proposed that any action by NAB — including filing of references, investigations and arrests of civil servants — should not take place without the approval of this committee. The proposed committee would comprise a retired high court judge, three individuals who have retired as federal secretary or from an equivalent position and three senior professionals from the fields of banking, accounting and civil engineering.
The desire to not let go is strong in retired bureaucrats.
This committee would review the evidence presented by NAB and, if it finds that the bureau has enough evidence to take action, would accord its approval. Obtaining the approval of a supervisory committee is amusing to say the least because the accountability watchdog claims to specialise in investigating white-collar crime. If it needs a supervisory body to oversee evidence, it implies that perhaps the bureau is not qualified to review evidence gathered by its own officers.
The composition of this committee makes it reek of a re-employment package. Aren’t there any young men and women who have the vigour and intelligence to do this job? Unfortunately in Pakistan, there is a notion that a retired federal secretary or a judge is a cure for all ills, when the likes of them are often part of the problem. If appointed as members of the proposed committee, given the way how such matters usually work in Pakistan, the retired judge or senior bureaucrat would rule the roost and end up sidelining professionals and field specialists.
On the issue of selection of the members, it was proposed that they be chosen through a majority vote by a 15-member parliamentary committee nominated by heads of the large parliamentary parties. This amateur suggestion ignores the ground realities of Pakistani politics and democracy. Imagine a politically-aligned civil servant being evaluated by a supervisory panel comprising individuals who got there via a majority vote from nominees of the same political party.
The task force needs to be reminded that the job at hand is to look for indigenous reforms relevant and effective for the Pakistani civil service. It really does not matter whether one is unscrupulous or not, to live without the perpetual fear of being harassed in this country of ours, one must find a godfather. Civil servants find it in political affiliations while men in uniform find it in their institution.
The solution lies in simply strengthening the role of the office of the secretary establishment as the father of bureaucracy and making sure that NAB proceeds via his office to pursue cases against civil servants. It would also behove NAB to work more secretively rather than issuing press releases at the drop of a hat. In the developed world, gag orders on the reporting of ongoing cases have been the norm for quite some time.
However, NAB might not agree to these suggestions because the bureau seems to be working for advertisement rather than the process of accountability. And then there is a breed of aging retired individuals who want to have a finger in every pie.
The writer is a former civil servant.
Published in Dawn, October 1st, 2019