Administrative tussles

October 07, 2019

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The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

INTRA-BUREAUCRACY tussles are prevalent wherever bureaucracies exist. As institutions designed to both conserve and perpetuate existing patterns and orders of social activity, bureaucracies are wedded to how power is distributed and operationalised. This ensures that conflict is inevitable whenever intra-bureaucracy power relations are recalibrated or attempts are made to reassign responsibilities.

For the past few weeks, the conversation on reforming local bureaucracies (police and civil administration in particular) has bubbled over in an antagonistic manner. Newspapers were replete with stories of disgruntled police officers pre-empting a ‘reform package’ that would accord Justice of the Peace powers to the civil administration, thus creating, in their view, an unfavourable hierarchy between the two occupational groups.

Put briefly, these powers assigned under Section 22A of the Criminal Procedure Code allow the nominated official to order registration of cases and transfer of investigations. In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that these powers were judicial in nature, and thus cannot be performed by the civil administration.

The conversation on reforming local bureaucracies has bubbled over in an antagonistic manner.

This confirmed the larger shift in the separation of executive and judicial functions of the state sanctified by the 1996 Al-Jihad Trust judgement and enshrined in the Police Order 2002 (and the Local Government Act of 2001).

The intellectual positions across this divide are fairly straightforward (even if many of these are not necessarily made in good faith). Administrative service officers argue that police autonomy and lack of ‘oversight’ have resulted in a rapid deterioration of civilian administration at the district/municipal level; they cite law and order instances, as well as reports of corruption and extralegal acts (such as torture) as evidence of the dire need to reform the police.

On the other hand, a younger generation of police officers point out that before any substantive reform efforts are undertaken, the institution requires a quantum of resources far higher than what they are currently given. This perspective argues that the internal failings so frequently listed by critics within and outside the bureaucracy are born of capacity constraints rather than flawed incentive structures.

There are several problems with the way this debate is discursively framed, so let’s just use the base assumption of power maximisation as the ultimate goal of all institutions involved. The framing of the debate by officers of the Pakistan Administrative Service, especially an older generation, invokes the unified administrative structures of the commissionerate system as worthy of emulation. The number of times that senior (mostly retired) officers have spoken and written (including on these pages) about the effectiveness of administration under that model is countless.

Unfortunately, their claims do not stand up to empirical or theoretical scrutiny. There is no evidence out there that suggests district administrations were able to service large populations better under the old system. In fact, that administrative structure was not even designed for service delivery or local management. It was originally designed by the colonial regime in Punjab to regulate rural factional conflict (among elites), disburse patronage, and ensure social order through the management of ‘unwieldy’ castes and tribes.

Anyone who has ever picked up a colonial-era district gazetteer or read through the accounts of a field-level officer would realise that municipal management and service delivery were way down in the priority list. In the post-colonial phase, successive authoritarian regimes utilised the district administration for similarly paternalistic purposes (such as managing Basic Democrats under Ayub), rather than pursuing developmental objectives.

Secondly, even if one takes at face value the historical efficiency of unified administration, it bears asking whether the context of its deployment is even remotely similar to what it was in this so-called golden era.

The answer, simply put, is no. Today’s district administration has to deal with large, unwieldy agglomerations of urban and peri-urban spaces, teeming with hundreds of thousands (and in many cases, millions) of citizens. It also has to deal with heightened expectations of service delivery from the citizenry, a growing local media and civil society sphere, and the general pressure of electoral accountability on political elites. None of these conditions were historically present, and thus previous practices of alleged efficiency cannot be used as a comparator.

Across the aisle, the police’s insistence on resources over reforms is similarly flawed. The police too have struggled to keep up with their role given structural demands placed by democratisation, urbanisation, and modernisation of the economy (especially in land markets and real estate development, which so frequently lie at the heart of law-and-order problems).

To grow more responsive, transparent, and, for the lack of a better term, law-abiding, organisational reforms would have to accompany resource allocations, and it is worth mentioning that such provisions already granted under existing legislation have been purposefully ignored by the institution.

A more fundamental problem with this debate is that it makes no attempt to engage with what the rest of the world is doing on the same issues. Pakistan is not unique in the administrative or developmental challenges that it faces. In fact, it’s pretty bog-standard as far as low-middle-income countries with rapidly urbanising populations and weak economies are concerned. Yet, curiously enough, one would be hard-pressed to find the solutions proffered in Pakistan being offered or utilised anywhere else.

Everywhere else, governments have sought to tackle the issue of transparency and responsiveness not by creating or resuscitating unified structures of bureaucratic administration, but by enforcing specialisation at the delivery level, and democratising at the accountability level. Simply put, local governments with elected leaders monitoring performance and providing guidelines for what the bureaucracy is supposed to do remains the benchmark in most places across the world.

Democratising local governance is one obvious solution to both the developmental problem at hand, as well as any inter-departmental tussles that currently populate the system. The government would do well to frontload its reform discourse with this particular framing.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, October 7th, 2019