THE new Civil Servants (Efficiency & Discipline) Rules, 2020, recently approved by Prime Minister Imran Khan, are a significant improvement over the existing ones as they provide for a more transparent process of internal accountability of the civil bureaucracy within a certain timeframe. One can assume that the new rules would ensure that delinquent bureaucrats will not get away with misconduct or unscrupulous actions of any kind if found guilty after an internal inquiry, and that they are penalised in proportion to their guilt. The new rules give the civil servants a fair opportunity to be heard and prove their innocence though it remains unclear if a bureaucrat would be allowed to keep his/ her job during investigation. The effective, transparent and fair application of these rules and the timely resolution of cases should limit the space for anti-corruption agencies that are often accused of building unfounded cases against government servants and of harassing them. This would address a major complaint of the bureaucracy and allow it to work with peace of mind.
The rules have been designed under the government’s policy of institutional reforms to improve the performance of bureaucracy and state institutions. The idea behind the current reform effort — as with several similar exercises over the last six decades or more — is to make bureaucracy more effective in service delivery. It is commonly perceived that politicisation and corruption in the civil service has seriously undermined the country’s socioeconomic progress at the cost of public service delivery and damaged the credibility of the state and its institutions. Sadly, past efforts to restructure the civil service fell apart mainly because of ineffective strategies and inadequate homework to push through the reforms. Political governments and military regimes in the country have designed reforms to suit their own short-term agendas and exert greater control over civil servants rather than make the latter more responsive to public needs through effective governance.
More importantly, all past efforts to reform the civil service have focused on reorganising the bureaucracy without dismantling its old colonial structure, which has mostly served the country’s political and military elite. The present attempt does not appear to be any different. Although the institutional reforms committee headed by the prime minister’s adviser, Dr Ishrat Husain, has suggested a raft of measures including directory retirement rules, performance contracts, new promotion criteria, etc in the last few months, these may not see an overall turnaround unless bureaucratic institutions are rolled over upside down in a complete revamp. That will depend on the government’s intentions to deliver on its promise and devolve administrative, political and other powers to the grassroots. Without true decentralisation of powers, it would be naïve to expect the bureaucracy to be prepared to serve the people with sincerity and respond efficiently to their needs.
Published in Dawn, December 6th, 2020