A bureaucracy paralysed

October 31, 2019

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THE impression that the bureaucracy is reluctant to discharge its responsibilities because of the fear of various accountability processes has been confirmed in an authoritative study that has made the administration’s fine-tuning a priority task.

The study, titled Bureaucratic Decision-Making Amid Multiple Accountability, has been done by senior administrators Shahid Raheem Sheikh and Saifullah Khalid, for the National Institute of Public Policy, of the National School of Public Policy at Lahore, and issued as an NIPP policy paper.

The study is based on 610 full responses, from 721 civil servants in BPS 17-22. The sample is significant. Out of the 581,240 civil servants on federal government posts 95.02 per cent are in BPS 1-16 and only 4.98pc are in BPS 17-22. These officers hold positions at crucial decision- making levels.” Of the respondents, 49.1pc are in BPS 17-18 and 49.3pc in BPS 19-20. While 13.5pc of them have service experience of between three and five years and 21.9pc of 13-17 years, a much higher proportion (61.5pc) have been in service for more than 17 years.

The respondents were asked for their views on the stated current state of bureaucratic indecision and what their opinions were regarding the four factors that are contributing to indecision. The respondents’ replies deserve serious attention.

About the public perception of their indecisiveness, a majority of the civil servants say that although they are working hard and are competent enough to solve complex problems, (a) the bureaucracy is not taking decisions, (b) the bureaucracy is avoiding responsibility, (c) the bureaucracy is not accessible to the public, (d) the bureaucracy lacks a problem-solving approach, and (e) the bureaucracy gives preference to personal interests instead of to public interests.

Civil servants and students of public administration will benefit from a detailed study on the bureaucracy.

As regards the role of NAB, a majority of the respondents agree that (a) NAB is not independent of external influence; (b) NAB officers lack strong professional experience or technical competence; (c) there is a lack of clear boundaries between different accountability organisations; (d) governments have used NAB as a weapon against civil servants considered close to political opponents; (e) accountability procedures are generally insulting and humiliating for civil servants; and (f) NAB arranges media leaks against civil servants.

As regards perceptions about the role of the judiciary and public interest litigation, the majority of respondents say: (a) the purpose of judicial review is to safeguard public interests; (b) the intervention of the judiciary in administrative matters is not judicious; (c) frequent use of suo motu powers does not improve administrative decision-making; (d) public servants are delaying decisions because of fear of judicial accountability; and (e) the superior judiciary humiliates the bureaucracy during court appearances.

As for the role of the media, the majority view is: (a) the mainstream media does not accurately report administrative decisions; (b) the media does not avoid sensationalism; and (c) the media reporters are generally not well-educated about administrative processes.

As regards the impact of political influence, the majority view is: (a) a politician-civil servant nexus exists; (b) this nexus causes stagnation in development work; and (c) this nexus leads to financial corruption.

The study also takes note of civil servants’ views on internal control and discipline mechanisms the Civil Servants Conduct Rules (1964) and Efficiency and Disciplinary Rules (1973). A large majority (70pc) of the respondents’ claims awareness of the Conduct Rules of 1964 and about 55pc consider these rules as detailed for checking any malfeasance. However, 42pc of the respondents think the rules are not frequently used and 37pc feel that these are not preventing bureaucratic misconduct, Over 82pc of the respondents are familiar with the Efficiency and Disciplinary Rules, about 63pc perceive the rules as detailed for checking any malfeasance, but only 44pc consider them as sufficient to prevent corruption.

The remedies suggested are as follows:

The challenges to decision-making must be honestly accepted.

A sustained and mutually respectful dialogue between the bureaucratic leadership and NAB is necessary to address adversarial perceptions.

Judicial oversight is necessary but personal humiliation of civil servants is neither necessary nor helpful in improving the decision-making climate.

Formal guidelines should be available to the bureaucratic leadership to allow for mitigation of media misrepresentation of subordinate officials.

Efforts to shield bureaucratic decision-makers from the undue influence of political bosses should continue.

Further efforts are necessary to probe the reasons for stagnated decision-making.

To these points one may add the need for strict enforcement of internal conduct and disciplinary mechanisms.

Some other factors contributing to civil servants’ fears are said to be the arrest of Ahad Cheema and Fawad Hasan, Brigadier Asad Munir’s suicide, and cases against a number of civil servants that made the establishment secretary declare that the bureaucracy is frightened by the current accountability drive as many officers are being harassed (by NAB and FIA). (This view was rebutted by the NAB chairman.) And the bureaucracy hasn’t forgotten the purges carried out by the Ayub, Yahya, Bhutto and Ziaul Haq governments.

Civil servants, students of public administration and commentators will benefit considerably from the publication as it includes a good literature review and a useful discussion on decision-making.

One factor of indecision that is missing in the policy paper is the decline in the quality of talent available to the civil services, thanks to the falling educational standards and lack of respect for the reports of the Federal Public Service Commission. Perhaps a survey of the curtailment of civil bureaucracy’s writ also is necessary.

Even after making allowances for subjective factors the study makes a strong case for removal of the bureaucracy’s fears as an administrative paralysis is only one step short of disorder. Regardless of citizens’ grievances about the bureaucracy’s insensitivity to public interest, the country cannot do without an efficient bureaucracy and guarantees of protection for honest officers, especially those who can give correct advice to their political bosses.

Published in Dawn, October 31st, 2019