System improvement?

18 Aug 2020


The writer is a former civil servant.
The writer is a former civil servant.

THE PTI government, despite two years of doom and gloom, has come up with a couple of positive developments: the control of Covid-19 and the positive movement in the economy based on incentives to the construction sector.

Even though sceptics attribute the success in controlling Covid-19 to some innate immunity in Pakistanis, credit should be given to the government for having achieved something that a number of countries have not been able to do so far.

Similarly, the construction industry, incorporating the 40 connected industries that our prime minister is fond of mentioning, has started getting good orders. But the industry’s gain is the genuine buyer’s loss as most plot prices have shot up by 15 per cent to 20pc. Black money is now welcome again, while earlier, forcing the holder of black money into the formal sector was the stated objective of the government.

However, the sector in which the government continues to move towards the cliff is good governance being attempted through institutional reforms.

It is better to have no reforms than bad reforms.

A presentation made to the cabinet recently (slides are doing the rounds on social media) attempts to fix everything in government. The first segment focuses on fixing all federal institutions eg FBR, SECP, Railways, PIA. The second tries to fix all federal ministries; and the third all civil servants. The impression one gets is a) that persons responsible are trying to justify their jobs, and b) it is new wine in old bottles with impressive jargon.

For instance, Railways would be unbundled into four companies — a holding company and a company each for passengers, freight and infrastructure. It is the same route Shahbaz Sharif took by making 54 companies in Punjab for quick fixes, indicating that since he couldn’t fix the government machinery he might as well show results by spending unaudited and unauthorised money. We know the end.

How do the proposers intend to transform the century-old railway culture and work ethics into company culture? The pace at which things are moving, it will take them until the end of the tenure of this government to find four regular CEOS for these companies.

Similarly, the bifurcation of the Civil Aviation Authority is planned. They haven’t been able to find a regular director general for the last two years; how will they find two? How will laxity and corruption be sorted out in the CAA’s licensing division, which allowed pilots with dubious licences to fly, by designating the deputy DG as DG?

It is proposed that market-salary-based (MP scales) executives be hired from the private sector to get efficient people in the government. This facility already exists in the form of specialists funded by multilateral agencies based in Islamabad. Even this MP scale offer, though on the table for some time, has only been availed by one or two ministries.

The premature retirement proposal for civil servants or the new promotion rules have all been attempted before in some form or the other.

These proposals can only give a false sense of security to the government; actual reforms require political will which is in short supply as the government is walking on thin ice.

What needs to be done but will not be done are things like introducing reforms in the posting of officials on merit. Posting a few federal secretaries on merit is not enough. What impacts governance is ensuring merit in officials at the operational level such as DSPs, ACs, immigration and tax department staff etc. These officials continue to be posted on political basis and other factors.

Reforms must be made so that every head of department, whether it is the inspector general of police or the chief secretary of a province or someone else, is empowered and allowed to work without interference in his domain, just as the government ‘allows’ the military chiefs to work.

Officials once posted should be allowed to work in peace. Shifting officers seems to be the only power known to the apprentice rulers. After two years in power, they must have learnt something by now. So let a bit of stability return to the system and let an officer work for at least two years in a slot before expecting results.

Introduce reforms so that honest officers don’t fear NAB. So far, there are only assurances but no practical reforms. Make reforms so that officials are not disgraced by the courts. This is not only happening at the higher judiciary level, it has also trickled down to the district judiciary. While courts have taken upon themselves to get circular railways restarted, or put mayors in their place, the officers have abandoned their responsibility and encourage the public in contested cases to get court orders so that they are not questioned later.

As past experience has shown, it is better not to fiddle with the existing system at all as it will make things worse if the government does not have the gumption to follow the basic rules of public administration.

The writer is a former civil servant.

Published in Dawn, August 18th, 2020