A LARGE-SCALE administrative restructuring has apparently begun but since the exercise has not been revealed to the public no assessment of its benefit or otherwise is possible. This is rightly causing widespread concern.

Public interest in the matter is justified because it is necessary to find out how the revamped administration will improve the state’s functioning and whether any gains will accrue to the people. All administrative actions affect the people’s lives, interests and rights that a responsible authority is supposed to protect.

The people also have a right to be informed of the process chosen for administrative changes and whether these changes are part of a comprehensive overhaul of the system of management of national affairs or whether departmental affairs are being straightened out in a piecemeal manner. The question of the sanction behind the whole operation too is important. At what level and by whom are final decisions about the changes made?

There should be firm guarantees that neither the planning of reform nor its implementation is left in the hands of powerful bureaucrats or political novices. At the same time, one should like to be assured that in the new scheme of things civil servants will not be victims of political bosses’ whim and caprice and that they will be free to express their opinion on matters brought before them.

The enormously important task of restructuring should have the sanction of parliament.

We do not know whether the replacement of the Federal Board of Revenue with a ‘Revenue Authority’ and the new order for medical teaching institutions are included in the administrative reconstruction or whether they are unrelated to the larger scheme. Will changes in other areas of administration have a better reception from the people working in them than the reaction of the FBR personnel or the doctors? There is no indication that the staff of the departments, one of the important stakeholders, chosen for changes was consulted.

Considerable loose talk has been going on about disbandment of 400 departments/units/cells. What were these offices supposed to be doing? Have the tasks assigned to them become unnecessary? If not, to which departments will their responsibilities be transferred? And what is to happen to the people who will be discharged? Those rendered jobless by the dissolution of the Medical and Dental Council are in the streets. Should we brace ourselves for more protesters on the roads?

All of these questions need to be answered, and answered soon and satisfactorily.

That administrative reform may have become essential will not be contested. The installation of the section officer as an effective factotum in the bureaucratic hierarchy, as recommended by the Akhtar Hussain Commission, is an old story, and the way Gen Tanvir Naqvi’s plan to put the district administration under elected representatives has been undone has created quite a few problems. Hence no eyebrows were raised when one of the first actions the new PTI government took was to set up an administrative reform commission under the chairmanship of Dr Ishrat Husain, who commands respect within the government and outside, and who had done a detailed study of Shahbaz Sharif’s initiatives to improve government efficiency by turning departments into authorities and companies.

If the government is proceeding on the basis of Dr Ishrat Husain’s report, it is only fair to demand that it must be immediately published. All the interested parties will then find out whether the report has been accepted in toto or whether some portions of it have been passed over, and if so on what grounds. The public should also like to know what criterion has been used to determine priorities during the implementation phase. This is necessary, among other things, to dispel the impression that the ‘super-babus’ who are going to head new authorities are hoping to have a windfall in the form of huge increases in perks alone.

Administrative changes in the past, when democratic institutions were under eclipse, had been carried out by executive orders, but now that Pakistan is supposed to have become a genuine democracy, the enormously important task of administrative restructuring should have the sanction of parliament. A debate in houses of elected representatives will also help the citizens to learn all about the form and direction of reform.

Unfortunately, confrontational politics and its lack of a majority in the Senate seem to have persuaded the government to avoid the parliamentary route even for urgently needed legislation. Ordi­nances are being issued while parliament can be summoned at a short notice even if it is not in session.

Perhaps the government does not want to defer its reform agenda till the Senate election in 2021 when, according to the federal law minister, PTI will not need the opposition’s support for parliamentary sanction for anything. This is not a happy situation and the government and the opposition both must find ways of settling matters through mutual understanding. Otherwise, all issues that are required to be settled through bipartisan accord, vide the procedures laid down in the 18th Amendment, will remain unresolved, and ugly episodes like the impasse over selection of members of the Election Commission might be repeated.

Since the possibility of different parties acquiring control of the two houses of parliament in future too cannot be ruled out the political parties may consider adopting a constitutional amendment to provide for a referendum whenever an important issue cannot be resolved through democratic give and take in parliament.

Meanwhile, the only way to ensure that the administrative reorganisation does not proceed without meeting the democratic requirement of an open debate is that the whole scheme should be made public and. put on the table in all legislatures, provincial as well as federal. Official think tanks may be encouraged to debate the reform proposals and hopefully civil society will not be shy of contributing to reform through consensus.

Let nobody forget the lesson of history that reform projects that are owned by the people have the best chances of success, and that even the most idealistic measures that are backed by executive fiat alone are most likely to fail.

Published in Dawn, November 28th, 2019


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