THE country is running on vibes and individual assessment of situations. Matters as trivial as the dilemma of reaching office on time to as grave as whether or not the FIR of an assassination attempt on a national leader should be registered are left at the whim of individuals rather than having a system in place. Such is the lack of collective consciousness that when an officer who cares about punctuality joins as head of a government department, the whole office comes on time and work starts at 9am sharp, but when a laid-back individual joins, the whole office is late by a couple of hours.
This distrust in the system is now so evident that even international investors have expressed it. Recently, investors in the Reko Diq mining project filed a reference in court to seek endorsement of conditions of their agreement with the government of Pakistan to avoid controversies at a later stage, which are often generated at the whim of individuals. The only thing left is perhaps an endorsement from the military establishment, which, given the fact the project is in Balochistan, must already be there, otherwise matters would not have come this far.
The International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes had ruled against Pakistan and awarded $6.5 billion as compensation to the mining firm for cancelling the project initially as a result of the rulings of a hyperactive Supreme Court in 2013. But thanks to the absence of a system, no one held anyone accountable. A country being run on vibes cannot expect anything different in other areas either — from gamely matters on the cricket field to governance affairs in the civil service, everything is running on individual assessment, whims and vibes.
The promotion of around 350 officers from grade 20 and 21 is on hold because the recommendations by the Central Selection Board are under scrutiny by the Prime Minister’s Secretariat as it seems the rules are being defied. To cut a long story short, under the rules, 30 per cent of the overall score will depend on the marks obtained in the departmental promotional exam. However, for various reasons, no exams are being held and the Establishment Division has left the 30pc to the discretion of the CSB — which comprises six federal secretaries, four provincial chief secretaries and two parliamentarians.
There is a need to overhaul the system of promotions.
Since the evaluation mechanism is arbitrary — comprising irrelevant trainings, out-of-place academic exams and obsolete annual confidential reports, that are marked as outstanding for everyone, hence failing to separate wheat from chaff — the discretion in the CSB’s hands is a forgone conclusion.
In the absence of any reliable system of evaluation, there have to be some metrics to make the final choice. The easiest way to do so is to invest some individuals with the authority to make evaluations based on brief interactions during the interview of candidates or on service group loyalties. Further, intelligence reports from security agencies are also considered, which makes the mix even more interesting. Imagine if a certain agency is to prepare an intelligence report of an officer and the same agency comes up with a certain demand like an FIR must not include certain names, how can a police officer dare to do otherwise?
There is a need to overhaul the system. First and foremost, the performance evaluation system should be online so that evaluation reports can neither be changed nor delayed; secondly, they should be transparent, open to the public, so that the stakeholders know their public servants, can see the highlights of their performance over the years, be aware of their assets and be able to check if they are living beyond their means. An advanced form should also allow raising questions and registering complaints against individuals. It is not such a great undertaking for few hundred grade 20 and above officers.
In addition, make the superiors write objective annual confidential reports — good grades in an exam might underline academic prowess, but not necessarily working efficiency. The response, timeliness, punctuality and effectiveness in dealing with official matters cannot be evaluated without setting SMART goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound.
Lastly, for now the Prime Minister Secretariat should not delay these promotions for two reasons. Firstly, there would be some cases where a well-deserved promotion is being delayed, and secondly, no criterion of evaluation is available. All they would be doing is repeating what the CSB has already done — using individual discretion to evaluate officers. Worse, they might end up resorting to political considerations for such evaluation. The way forward is systemic change but that requires political will and administrative authority, neither of which, unfortunately, seems to be available at the moment.
The writer is a former civil servant.
Published in Dawn, November 10th, 2022