WHILE the intention behind the endeavour may be lauded, the civil service reform package unveiled by the government the other day has come as a disappointment to many who believed the bureaucracy would be restructured in such a way as to make it more responsive to the ever-changing requirements of the economy and the needs of the citizens. Instead of reducing the discretionary powers of the bureaucrats and making them accountable to the people, the new reforms only appear to address procedural improvements in the rules of business. It does not mean that the proposed changes, which include new criteria for promotion to higher grades, a mechanism for forced retirement of under-performers, induction of provincial service officers into the Pakistan Administrative Services, new rotation policy, etc are not needed. But these are relatively minor issues that could have easily been addressed as part of an umbrella civil service restructuring plan aimed at boosting overall governance by building the capacity of the bureaucracy to deal with the demands of a changing world, as well as improving public service delivery. The ruling party has come to power on the promise of change — it is only comprehensive, wide-ranging reforms that can ensure this. Indeed, the committee, which had been assigned the job almost two years back, could have done much better, given the expectations.
Several studies in the past have pointed to the fact that a dysfunctional and inefficient bureaucracy is seriously undermining the nation’s social and economic progress, and increasing public distrust of the state’s intentions and ability to serve its citizens. Yet only limited progress has been made in the last seven decades to reform the administrative structure inherited from the British colonialists in spite of several attempts by successive governments to do so. Past efforts to remodel the country’s civil service did not make the desired impact because of a lack of knowledge about what needed to be done and politicisation of the bureaucracy. Besides the bureaucracy is seen as resistant to any change that would hurt its powers and perks. The lack of political will to push through civil service reforms is another key reason for the failure of every attempt to introduce meaningful changes. It would not be incorrect to say that like past governments the present administration will also continue to face roadblocks in executing its socioeconomic agenda unless it moves beyond cosmetic bureaucratic reforms.
Published in Dawn, January 24th, 2021