Bureaucrats under fire

Published February 16, 2021

THE Prime Minister’s Office has issued show-cause notices to bureaucrats in Punjab who have been judged as underperforming in their official duties. These have originated from their apparently lacklustre response or inaction towards public complaints registered on the Pakistan Citizen’s Portal. This is aimed at improving service delivery by public officials and ensuring accountability for those who are less responsive in their performance.

The spirit of the action by the Prime Minister’s Office may be justified but the methodology leaves a lot to be desired. There are deep-seated reasons for the bureaucracy’s shoddy performance and the government must take a comprehensive view of this problem instead of superficial steps like issuing show-cause notices.

The reform programme of the bureaucracy has produced little of substance so far. It is common knowledge that the accountability process unleashed on the bureaucracy by NAB has had a debilitating impact on how bureaucrats are now approaching their assignments. Everyone is fearful of the consequences of official actions, and no one is willing to take decisions that can lead to NAB investigations. Recent events have shown that NAB has opened cases against bureaucrats on matters that were once considered routine. Incarceration of officials, including retired bureaucrats, by NAB has sent a wave of fear through officialdom and the bureaucracy is now averse to showing any initiative.

The government needs to address this problem before it can start demanding a higher level of performance from the bureaucracy. In Punjab, the problem is even more acute because the political leadership has not been able to provide the vision and supervision that can channelise the bureaucracy to produce results. An added problem has been the fact that Punjab is perceived to be heavily influenced by Islamabad in its decision-making.

One example of this is that the show-cause letters have emanated from the Prime Minister’s Office instead of the Punjab Chief Minister’s Office. Such a situation has complicated matters for the bureaucracy because they know that while they report to the chief minister, their decision-maker sits in Islamabad. This sends a wrong signal to officialdom, and therefore bureaucrats look towards Islamabad instead of Lahore. Such a mode of governance under the PTI government has not produced the desired results in Punjab.

While it is important that the Prime Minister’s Office also keep a check on the performance of the civil servants, it would be far more advisable for the centre to empower the Punjab government in order for it to get the bureaucrats to perform at the desired level. Governance has to coalesce around defined and identifiable targets that are achieved through focused implementation driven by close supervision. In the present situation, such governance does not seem to be visible in Punjab. The prime minister should focus on the root causes of the bureaucracy’s lack of performance.

Published in Dawn, February 16th, 2021

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