Bureaucracy issues

Published September 23, 2021
The writer is a former civil servant.
The writer is a former civil servant.

IF Imran Khan is the car’s steering wheel, the accelerator and brakes are his ministers and the engine is the bureaucracy. Unless the engine is fine-tuned and its rings and pistons in good shape, pushing on the accelerator will only result in throwing out unburnt fuel, and a heated engine and its ultimate seizure. This is what is happening in Pakistan. Pushing the pedal mindlessly without tuning the engine, in fact, with little expertise to do so, will result in confusion, a blame game and poor governance. The solution? Change the chief secretary and IG in the misplaced hope that a new man will fix things.

Unless the government takes time out to dispassionately and maturely see the problems faced by the bureaucracy, things will not change. Don’t listen only to your favourite bureaucrats because most have gotten there by their expertise in telling you only what you want to hear. So while you fret and fume in your office, issue warnings through your ministers and recall the efficient bureaucracy of the 1960s, you’ll never know how the working bureaucracy feels since they have no forum for talking back. They will not quit either because most are from the middle class and have no options to fall back on. Depending on their personality, they will continue to survive through various methods in the hope of better times.

What issues are bothering the bureaucracy?

First is the excessive political interference. I am talking of provincial governments although several of these factors also apply to the federal government. In the previous set-up, Punjab had a strong chief minister, so all political sifarish mainly came through him or his authorised officer. Bureaucracy had to deal with only one power centre. With the advent of weak chief ministers in Punjab and KP, all MNAs/MPAs have been offered to work as ‘chief ministers’ of their own jurisdiction leading to confusion, push and pull for postings and transfers and issues where interests clash.

Many factors are demotivating bureaucrats.

Second, the office of the head of department (chief secretary/IG) has lost its clout with officers, as most postings are done by the chief minister’s or prime minister’s office. Chief secretaries and IGs have stopped backing their team in case of unintended mistakes or short delivery due to unfair conditions, because they themselves feel insecure. In any case, their team has been selected by someone else. It is like a company whose employees know they have to take orders from the owner, not the CEO.

Third, NAB may have recovered Rs800 billion in corruption money, but it has made the bureaucracy more bureaucratic. Decisions previously taken by a sections officer/ assistant commissioner are now taken after months of procrastination and throwing paper around by the federal secretary/chief secretary or the cabinet. Anything requiring the use of discretion allowed by the rules is like a hot potato.

Fourth, the courts seem to have become more aggressive towards bureaucrats. Earlier, the summoning of bureaucrats was not so common. Where it was absolutely essential, most judges would express their disappointment or anger in their chambers rather than in open court. Maintaining the dignity of a bureaucrat is as important for the government’s writ as his own self-respect. Often officers are made to wait outside courtrooms for days as a way to ‘put them in their place’. Their names are called out like common criminals’. This apart from wasting his time demotivates him.

Fifth, the media is a double-edged sword. While it can be a great motivator by highlighting good work done by a government functionary, it mostly sensationalises some real and perceived shortcomings, giving names. Some smart functionaries befri­end the media and receive undue projection while the straightforward ones can be hit by undeserved reporting. This leads to blackmailing and corruption, especially at the district level.

Sixth, the government can set unrealistic targets, eg there is no way provincial or district governments can control rising prices. It is a matter of supply and demand based on the centre’s and provinces’ macro policies, crop failures, taxation policies etc. There is a thin line between accepted trading practices and hoarding. Raiding warehouses can have unintended consequences like we recently saw in the case of sugar where prices continued to rise despite raids. So basing the performance of an officer on unachievable targets apart from distracting him from his core work demotivates and exhausts him.

Lastly, there should be a system of listening to one’s team in a friendly environment where the bureaucrats can give real feedback. They should not be talked to through the press or made to collect in one hall for one-way interaction.

This is the assessment of a person who means well for the government, if for nothing else than for want of a better alternative. The solution to these issues are self-evident.

The writer is a former civil servant.

tasneem.m.noorani@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, September 23rd, 2021

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