For good governance, Pakistan needs civil service reforms. But which reforms are the right reforms?

Investments in civil service training are critical to help build the state’s capacity to deliver.
Updated Dec 14, 2019 10:38am

Pakistan ranks within the bottom third percentile of all countries included in the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators. More worrying for government policymakers is the fact that over the past two decades there has been little improvement in these key indicators such as government effectiveness, rule of law, and control of corruption.

Governments can deliver only if the people serving as part of it have the motivation and the capacity to do so. A well-functioning and effective bureaucracy is fundamental to state capacity and imperative for meeting the needs of its citizens.

For any institution to perform well — be it state or non-state — a key factor is the quality of its human resource. Investments in civil service training are thus critical to help build the state’s capacity to deliver.

A rapidly urbanising and diverse population of over 200 million makes public service delivery in Pakistan more challenging than in several other countries. The state-citizen relationship is complicated further by an increased flow of information and open media creating the need for a nuanced approach to governance.

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Use of ICT and technology based smart solutions for service delivery calls for a civil service that understands the dynamics of the new modes of governance. An expanding role of the private sector and the recent popularity of public limited companies to undertake service delivery demands skills beyond those delivered through conventional civil service trainings.

Providing competencies required at various levels to meet these challenges is the core function of civil service training and capacity building exercises. But how do we ensure that recruited civil servants perform at the level required to meet varied developmental objectives and heightened citizen expectations?

How has the government responded to the need for reform?

Past attempts to reform Pakistan’s civil service have had limited success. The lack of progress is primarily due to ineffective political strategies for pushing through their implementation which was traditionally met with resistance from those preferring the status quo.

Moreover, a focus on actual training systems has mostly been overlooked in the debate on the kind of civil service reforms that should be introduced. So far, there has been no comprehensive impact assessment of trainings delivered, no benchmarking with other countries, and no assessment of the quality of civil service as a product of this training.

The PTI-led government is taking steps to address this. It has established a Federal Task Force on Civil Service reforms led by Dr Ishrat Hussain. The Task Force has dedicated a full subcommittee on assessing the current landscape of training and developing proposals that allow for upgradation of existing talent within the federal government workforce.

The proposals include extending training to ex-cadre officers before their entry into the federal government, granting more autonomy to training institutes and linking them with top universities and research organisations.

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The Ministry of Planning Development & Special Initiatives is also committed to understanding the current training system and its challenges. With support from UNDP, it has engaged the Consortium for Development Policy Research (CDPR) to undertake a first ever comprehensive Training Need Assessment (TNA) of civil servants.

A key contribution of the TNA has been the successful completion, for the first time, of a detailed survey of close to 500 civil servants across Pakistan. Sixty per cent of these respondents were past and current probationers of the Civil Service Academy, while the rest were Grade 18 and above officers. The assessment also includes a comprehensive organisational analysis of key training institutions and their facilities.

Training Pakistan’s bureaucrats

Officers in grades 17 to 22 are considered to be at the heart of the bureaucracy and run the engine of the government. A few hundred are hired each year in grade 17 as young officers and almost everyone goes on to retire at grades 21 or 22. The central training system targets this tier of civil servants.

The first phase of training i.e. pre-service training begins immediately after induction before the start of an officer’s career and is concerned directly with administration and permanent bureaucracy. The Common Training Programme is offered by the Civil Service Academy (CSA) in Lahore while the Specialised Training Programme (STP) is conducted by specialised training institutions or STIs across the 12 occupational service groups.

Officers (grade 18-21) then undergo a second phase of training i.e. in-service training. This is mandatory for promotion to senior grades and is conducted at three levels.

Overall, Pakistan’s bureaucrats are prepared to be well-rounded officers that can serve in multiple capacities, having the security of tenure. But the training system does not foster specialisation. Traditional focus remains on content that is general and that aims to develop broad leadership and management skills, seldom designed to improve the capacity to deliver ‘specific’ services.

Civil servants risk becoming unenthusiastic about training when they see little benefit for their specific area of work. Passing these courses is merely a requirement for promotion with no real implication on career pathways.

Learning from others — the army model

What works for civil service training in Pakistan has not been sufficiently explored especially in what one can learn from local and international experiences.

Understanding global best practices and cross-country learning can be useful. The inadequacies found in Pakistan’s current civil service training are comparable to overarching problems faced by several other countries. Case studies of reforms that have been successful, such as in Singapore, New Zealand and United Kingdom, have been extensively documented and are easily accessible.

However, most context-relevant solutions arise from local examples, embedded in familiar political, social, and economic frames of reference.

The Pakistan Army, as a strong and effective state institution is a well-established case in point. However, the role of its training system — that provides sound governance and administrative training to the military — has not been highlighted much. Notwithstanding the military’s access to more funds, the army has developed a robust training system based on sound governance, adapting some of the best global practices to local conditions.

Linking training with promotion

Performance during army training is deeply linked to opportunities for promotion. Right from the start of their training — two years at the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) — the performance of army officers during this training determines their ranking, impacting career progression and seniority in subsequent years.

An Officer Efficiency Index (EOI), based on an officer’s performance across courses and sports and in annual reports, encourages continuous high performance by the officers. The index not only determines promotion to senior ranks but also foreign assignments and eligibility for foreign courses.

To enter the Staff College, army officers, after becoming majors, are required to clear a highly competitive entrance exam for which they are granted up to four tries. Without clearing courses at the staff college, promotion to higher ranks is unlikely.

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To move on to the ranks of a General, completing the War Course at the National Defence University is mandatory. Here, the number of seats is restricted, and selections are based on officers’ performance reflected by their OEIs.

Performance of civil servants (both young and senior bureaucrats) on the other hand, has little impact on their career trajectory. They are less motivated than army officers to perform well. Exceptional performance during trainings is not rewarded through better postings or a higher chance of promotion.

Domain specific training

In addition to the initial ‘special to arms’ training (equivalent to the STP for civil servants), specialised training continues throughout an army officer’s early career (from Lieutenant to Captain and then to Major). Hence, army officers, unlike civil officers, do not have to face long gaps before their next major training.

Attracting faculty

The military just like the civil bureaucracy has internally inducted faculty for most courses. The difference, however, is in the caliber of those imparting these trainings. Faculty positions at the army’s Staff College are considered one of the most prestigious postings, awarded to only the best army officers, especially those who excel in the course itself. Such postings also bring officers one step closer to the topmost ranks. Unlike government officers, army officers actually desire the position of an instructor.

In the civil service training system, there is very little prestige associated with postings at the training institutes. Even monetary incentives are not adequate enough to motivate the most competent officers. This is a real challenge as the efficacy of any training institution is predominantly dependent on the quality of its trainers.

Upgrading content of training

A critical aspect of training is the quality of its content. A dedicated unit, Inspector General Training and Evaluation (IGTE), housed at the General Headquarters (GHQ), monitors the curriculum and methodology across all army institutions. The content is modified regularly to reflect new uses of technology, global trends, and need for new skill sets.

The curriculum used in civil service training programmes demonstrates a weak integration of the modern drivers of change. There is need for a more well-defined process for curriculum review across these training institutes.

What is next?

While the agenda for civil service reform is broad, a sound training regime remains a foremost tool at the disposal of the government to improve the capacity of its bureaucracy for meeting the citizens' needs.

Replicating the training model of the Pakistan Army is not the complete nor the only solution to improving training outcomes of civil servants. Yet thinking about some lessons that can be drawn from a local institution can be useful.

Ishrat Hussain’s Report of the National Commission for Government Reforms (NCGR) on Reforming the Government of Pakistan is also well-known. The recommendations therein were not implemented earlier but are being deliberated upon now, with some suggestions already tabled by the task force before the cabinet.

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A key path for improving performance of civil servants during training is to strengthen its linkages with opportunities for promotion. Yet, a recent move by the government to alter the promotion criteria for senior bureaucrats and allotting more discretionary powers to the Central Selection Board, undermines the role of evaluation of the officers during their training in determining promotion to senior ranks.

Thus, some steps are in the right direction while others may be questionable.

In a globalised world, Pakistan’s bureaucracy and ultimately its governance will fall behind the rest of the world if it does not evolve its civil service training system to respond to the demands of the modern world. Because what Pakistan needs today is government officers that can process information and harness technology to formulate policy and provide sound service delivery to the public.


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