A new federal administration

January 16, 2020

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I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

MUCH credit is due to Dr Ishrat Husain, head of the task forces for the federal administration’s restructuring and reform of the civil services, for taking notice of the present writer’s column on administrative reform published in this paper on Nov 28, 2019).

The points raised in that column were: the people had a right to be informed about the large-scale restructuring of the federal administration. Some questions were raised. Why were the reform proposals not shared with the people? At what level had the reform been sanctioned? How many departments were going to be disbanded and what was going to happen to the people who would lose jobs? Who had replaced the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council (PMDC) with a commission and decided on the Federal Board of Revenue’s (FBR) restructuring? What was the criterion for fixing priorities in implementation? Why shouldn’t the reform package be approved by parliament? And it was pointed out that only the reforms the people could own had a long life.

Thanks to Dr Husain’s kind response, we have been enlightened on quite a few points. We have also been favoured with a printed copy of a report on Reorganising the Federal Government, prepared by the Task Force on Austerity and Government Restructuring and published by the institutional reforms cell at the Prime Minister’s Office.

The sequence of developments is now considerably clear. Soon after assuming power the federal government set up two task forces, both headed by Dr Husain — one to recommend restructuring and reorganisation of the federal government, and the other to suggest reform of the civil services. We have been provided information in the printed report and otherwise only about reorganisation. It is said that the task force includes, besides serving and retired officials, experts from civil society and academia. (The report does not reveal the names of these experts and one would wish to know who they are.)

What the task force has done is to suggest the reorganisation of federal organisational entities.

The task force toured the country and sought the views of 1,400 officials but there is no reference to any meeting with non-officials. The task force head also briefed the Senate Standing Committee on Cabinet. There was no truth in reports that 400 departments were being disbanded. Only eight units were going to be wound up because they had become redundant. Nobody was going to lose their job. The decisions about dissolution of the PMDC and the move to reorganise FBR were not made by the task force.

What the task force has done is to suggest the reorganisation of federal organisational entities (OEs). The cabinet has approved the proposal that out of a total of 441 OEs, the federal government should retain 324 under the two categories of executive departments (87) and autonomous bodies (237). The remaining OEs are to be transferred to Sarmaya Pakistan Ltd (43) and to the provinces (14), or be merged with other OEs (35),or reconstituted as training institutes (17).

The point about the sanction for reorganisation and approval by parliament is met by asserting the competence of the cabinet under the Rules of Business as provided in Articles 90 and 99 of the Constitution. But Article 90 says nothing about the Rules of Business and Article 99 allows the president to make rules for the allocation and transaction of the business of the federal government only until the rules are framed by parliament. It is also necessary to look at Article 98, which says: “On the recommendation of the Federal Government, Majlis-e-Shoora [parliament] may by law confer functions upon officers or authorities subordinate to the Federal Government.”

The information now available to us does clarify some of the points raised in the column referred to earlier. What becomes clearer is the fact that so far the objective is a proper parking of the federal government’s OEs. That makes sense. The assumption one had about the revision of administrative procedures, allowing for decisions to be taken quickly and fairly at the lower levels, instead of matters going to the top, was premature. One does find a reference to a comprehensive reform of the civil services to “improve their efficiency in policymaking and implementation for better delivery of services to common citizens”. We have to wait for the finalisation of the recommendations in this area before commenting on the quality and adequacy of the reform agenda.

Two issues regarding the reorganisation, however, remain unaddressed. The consultations so far have been largely limited to the bureaucracy; the need to allow a public debate has not been realised. The issue is not one of form; it touches on the substance of reform. Informed citizens could have helped improve some of the reorganisation proposals. For instance, the Quaid-i-Azam Academy is to be merged with the Quaid-i-Azam Mazar Management Board. The latter entity is responsible for the mausoleum’s maintenance, arranging for dignitaries’ visits, and seeking local authorities’ help in controlling demonstrations. The functions of the Quaid-i-Azam Academy, one should like to hope, are somewhat different and possibly beyond the board’s interest in and capacity for dealing with academic matters.

Secondly, while carrying out administrative reform or even mere reorganisation by the cabinet under the Rules of Business may be defendable technically, the method is not sound in political terms. The Rules of Business are not sacrosanct, and have been abused in the past. President Farooq Leghari created a controversial National Security Council by amending them as Gen Ziaul Haq’s amendment to the Constitution for the creation of such a body had been rescinded. Indeed, the demand for parliament to revise the Rules of Business has been pending for decades.

Bypassing parliament, which is the repository of the people’s sovereign rights, goes against ­democracy. The transition to democracy demands maximum parliamentary oversight of governance and not cosmetic homage being paid to the ­representatives of the people. If nothing else, ­copies of all decisions and reports relating to administrative restructuring may be placed on the tables of all legislatures, provincial as well as federal.

Published in Dawn, January 16th, 2020