The gravy train

Published October 18, 2023

GOVERNMENT employment in Pakistan is a ticket to the good life, where work is optional, but pay and perks are guaranteed. But as the nation battles a debilitating financial crisis, it is fair to ask if such a model is sustainable for a country that requires a bailout every few years.

A recent study by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics sheds light on the bloated size of our bureaucracy and questions the output of our army of civil servants.

According to the report, titled Lifetime Cost of Public Servants, there are over 1.3m federal government employees, while the total cost of employee salaries and pensions, including military wages, comes to a staggering Rs8tr.

The PIDE report suggests the judiciary enjoys the highest perks, while officers of the Pakistan Administrative Services also receive significant non-monetary benefits. In fact, as the study notes, if perks and allowances are monetised, “the myth of low salaries in the public sector” would be broken.

Considering this huge expenditure, it is only natural to ask what positive impact this legion of bureaucrats has had on the country and its development.

Apart from some notable exceptions, the average Pakistani will tell you that run-ins with the state — whether at the thana, katcheri, or another administrative department — are rarely pleasant.

Perhaps this is because the bureaucracy, a product of the Raj, still operates according to colonial mores, where the rulers are supposed to lord it over the natives.

Certainly, the luxury vehicles, sprawling mansions and lavish lifestyles of many government employees support such assertions. While all civil servants are not parasites, and indeed many do work hard to get the job done, far too many do too little, yet fully enjoy the perks of power.

Perhaps the root of the problem lies in a state that has been turned into an employment exchange, where politicians can reward loyalists with jobs.

To change this scenario, it must be asked if the state is putting the taxpayers’ money to good use. Without reforming our top-heavy bureaucracy, and independently evaluating performance, things will not change. Merit and efficiency should be the core values that drive our bureaucracy, not political links and self-enrichment.

Politicians and elements within the bureaucracy have thwarted numerous attempts at reform, and unless the civil service is brought in line with 21st-century best practices, the state will continue to pour trillions of rupees into a black hole.

As the PIDE report notes, the government’s “job is to create new opportunities and not offering jobs”.

Only the best, brightest and most honest men and women need to be hired and retained, with regular monitoring of their performance, while the colonial-style perks and privileges for state employees, especially at the higher tiers, must be discontinued.

Published in Dawn, October 18th, 2023

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