Civil service reforms — cosmetic rather than substantial

Published January 25, 2021
The long-awaited civil service ‘reforms’ announced by the government last week mostly seek to address operational issues.
The long-awaited civil service ‘reforms’ announced by the government last week mostly seek to address operational issues.

The long-awaited civil service ‘reforms’ announced by the government last week mostly seek to address operational issues by changing the existing rules of business or drawing up new ones where needed for removal of procedural confusions.

Implementation of these measures is likely to streamline the process involving promotions of civil servants to higher grades by categorically defining the appointing authority, and laying down clear-cut evaluation criteria. New rules have also been drawn up to cut the ‘deadwood’ in the bureaucracy through forced retirement of delinquent officers besides putting in place a mechanism for conducting disciplinary inquiries against the civil servants transparently within a given timeframe. The MP (management professions) Scale policy has also been revised, detailing the changes related to the employees of the management professions in the civil services.

‘In my view, Dr Ishrat Hussain does not have a clue about the civil service reforms at all. He is just trying to save his job’

Furthermore, the new rotation policy bars an officer from Pakistan Administrative Service (PAS) and Pakistan Police Service from getting promoted to BPS-21 if he continues to work in one province and does not serve in the Centre or other provinces. No officer will now be allowed to stay in one province for more than 10 years.

The most important ‘reform’ announced so far pertains to the ‘rationalisation of the cadre strength’ through the reduction in the strength of the PAS to make more room for officers from other services to get a chance of enhancing their strength. This will allow provincial service officers to be inducted in the PAS, improving the promotion prospects of other groups.

However, few believe these reforms will bring any substantive change in the way bureaucracy works in this country even if the changes brought about were needed to deal with the operational issues facing the civil servants as well as update certain procedures and processes. In the words of a former PAS officer, who now works as a consultant, the so-called civil service reforms are unlikely to address the deep-rooted issues of poor governance or help improve the delivery of public service.

“I do not think these will create any impact on the life of the citizens,” he remarked. Terming them ‘Babu Reforms’ designed by the establishment division, he said the bureaucracy had taken Dr Ishrat Hussain, the advisor to the prime minister who heads the task force on the institutional reforms, for a ride. “In my view, Dr Ishrat Hussain does not have a clue about the civil service reforms at all. He is just trying to save his job.”

This is not the first attempt by a government — political or military — to reform the civil bureaucracy and make it more responsive to the needs of people. Numerous attempts have been made to restructure it as an efficient institution to improve governance and delivery of social services to the citizens. The so-called reforms unveiled last week by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) administration are indicative of the ‘strong resistance to the attempt from within the bureaucracy’.

Some argue that most attempts to reform the civil services targeted to make the civil servants subservient to the demands and needs of political and military regimes rather than strengthening governance. “Every reform effort in the past has left bureaucracy more politicised and dysfunctional. If [Zulfikar Ali] Bhutto’s used his reforms to increase the control of politicians over the bureaucracy, then Gen Ziaul Haq regime ensured its militarisation through induction of military officers in the district management group and police,” argued a former federal secretary, who retired from the service back in mid-2010s, on the condition of anonymity.

A follow-up report in this newspaper quoted retired bureaucrats as having likened the newly introduced reforms in the civil service with old wine in a new bottle, saying most of the key measures announced to stop promotions and take punitive actions against delinquent civil servants were part of the laws introduced by former military dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf.

Dr Ishrat Hussain says “the reforms of Gen Musharraf’s era were introduced through an ordinance or notified through the Establishment Division like a routine business and parts of them were later struck down by courts. This time the changes conform with the Civil Service Act and other related laws. We made a mistake at the time that we waited for a year to introduce the reforms; however, by the time we finalised the reforms package, the Musharraf government was already on its way out,” he said.

The failures of the bureaucracy impact the poor and the vulnerable groups of the population the most by undermining efforts to provide services such as education, healthcare, drinking water and so on. Hence, it is crucial to make the bureaucrats accountable to both the people and the political leadership of the country through serious reforms — and not cosmetic changes — for effective governance and efficient delivery of the quality public services.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 25th, 2021

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