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Pakistan’s prime need a real bureaucracy

January 09, 2013

Photo Courtesy: Creative Commons
Photo Courtesy: Creative Commons

‘Aren’t bureaucrats the source of our national failures,’ we ask? Their corruption, nepotism and customary incompetence have often been a scourge on Pakistan. Yet, the question is why the Pakistani bureaucracy is so ill-organised? The paradox is that if the state has to provide services, administer justice, maintain law and order and bring about prosperity, and if it has to be effective, it has to have a good bureaucracy.

A country of 180 million people cannot be managed as a tribe on the basis of personal dealings and Jirga morality. It needs rules–based and impersonal decision-making, which is the hallmark of a real bureaucracy. To rebuild Pakistan, the first priority should be to restructure the bureaucracy, because that is the ‘machine’ that maintains law and order, implements public policies and produces services.

Pakistan’s civil services worked relatively effectively until the 1960s. The British legacy of requiring public servants to resist social pressures and act according to rules lasted a few years after 1947. But our clannish proclivities could not bear the relative neutrality and inapproachability of civil servants. Steadily, the walls between the public and private interests were breached. Thus began the rot of public services, which continues unabated.

Public servants began to be rewarded and punished for their willingness to collude with politicians, notables and the military. The deadly blow to the bureaucracy’s professionalism and integrity was given by the Prime Minister Bhutto, who removed the constitutional security of tenure for civil servants. After that the authority to post, transfer or retire began to be used to beat public officials into submission. What he began was completed by the president Zia ul-Haq and Prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto.

President Musharraf packed civil services with military officers at the top, and politicised local administration from the bottom. The erosion of professionalism in public services has further accelerated in this round of the PPP’s rule. Provincial administrations, though weak to begin with, have gone down the same path. Politicians and the military have demoralised the bureaucracy, turning it into a collection of self-serving individuals, instead of an institution based on rules, the hierarchy of authority, accountability and professional ethics.

Not that political rulers should have no part in public administration. They lay down the laws, define objectives and decide strategic policies. Yet, transforming laws and policies into actions is the job of professional bureaucracy, to be carried in transparent and accountable ways. Bureaucracy can be effective only if it has the assurance of protection from the vindictive actions of rulers.

Recently, the Supreme Court has started taking notice of the ministerial nepotism and arbitrariness in the appointments and promotions of officials. It is a good start to restore public officials’ rights. This initiative should be followed by a bill to enact the security of tenure and containment of the discretionary powers of rulers for appointments, transfers and promotions of public officials. The reconstruction of Pakistan’s bureaucracies has to begin with restoring the rule of rules in public services and ensuring security of tenure with accountability.

Pakistan’s bureaucracies are plagued by many ills other than insecurity and loss of professionalism. There is a wide-ranging confusion about the standards of right and wrong. This confusion arises from the mores of corruption and nepotism, but it has been compounded by the clannish loyalties, notions of piety and narratives of Islamic religiosity, which provide justifications for disregarding institutional ethics.

Pakistan’s bureaucracy needs new codes of ethics for public responsibilities. A wide ranging exercise should be undertaken to formulate detailed codes of conduct for various services. A new moral order of public service has to be framed and enacted.

Apart from changing the behaviourial norms of the bureaucracy, its structure and processes need a major overhaul. All steps in the public decision-making processes, from record keeping, information gathering, noting and drafting to the decision criteria and performance evaluation of officials have ossified.

To witness how a Pakistani agency becomes dysfunctional, a new book by an American anthropologist is a must read. It shows how the administrative procedures of Islamabad’s Capital Development Authority breed the failure of its policies and induce corruption. It is a peep inside the Pakistani bureaucracy. (Matthew S. Hull, ‘Government of Paper’, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012). To reconstruct bureaucracies, extensive and sustained efforts, spread over years, have to be made to rewrite rulebooks, redefine rules and reorganise responsibilities. A task that does not need large resources or foreign aid but imagination, knowledge and commitment.

Finally, administrative reconstruction cannot be sustained without the transparency of decision-making and enactment of citizens’ right to information and answerability. Exposure of public agencies to the citizens’ scrutiny and the media’s gaze will make them efficient and reduce the scope of corruption.

This is the moment to bring administrative reforms to the top of the election agenda. National elections are upon us. Political parties are making loud promises of bringing peace, establishing law and order, creating jobs, ending load-shedding and controlling corruption. If they are sincere in these promises, they would have to realise that public agencies are the instruments for carrying out their programmes. Civil society and the media should mount a strong campaign to make administrative reforms as the top priority for the platforms of political parties.


Mohammad A. Qadeer is the author of the book, ‘Pakistan- social and cultural transformations of a Muslim nation’. He can be reached at


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.