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A purposeless civil service

February 26, 2013

HORSE-RIDING was a mandatory part of the training imparted to ICS officers of the pre-Partition era. The reason was less chivalrous and more practical as horses were a viable mode of transport and administrative officers would need the skill ever so often to visit their jurisdiction.

Horse-riding continues to be part of the training of the officers of the Pakistan Administrative Service, the erstwhile District Management Group, even today. Since horse-riding instils self-confidence and improves physical fitness one can argue that this is something which still has at least some farfetched purpose, unlike the countless practices and policies of our civil services that continue to prevail despite having no purpose at all.

It would not go down very well with many of my juniors, seniors and peers, if I say that the ‘elite’ civil service of Pakistan is in fact the ‘obsolete’ civil service of Pakistan. The morale of the aspirants taking the Central Superior Service (CSS) exam, the gateway to the ‘elite’ civil service of Pakistan, will be badly hit as well and they might end up blaming me for their subsequent failure.

Whatever the reaction, it would not change the fact that from pay scales to promotion criterion, office buildings to office environment, the superiority complex of seniors to the sycophancy of juniors, every single facet of the elite civil service of Pakistan is obsolete.

On a recent trip to Singapore I had the privilege to shadow a young but senior Singaporean bureaucrat. Chee Seng is on a three-year secondment as executive vice-president with a big oil company and will rejoin the government-run Energy Market Authority of Singapore on completion of the period.

Fortunately or unfortunately, Chee Seng invited me to a dinner along with some of his colleagues. The lady sitting on my right having graduated from the London School of Economics on a state scholarship was working in the Ministry of Finance and the young gentleman on my left had graduated from Stanford University and was serving in the Ministry of Trade and Industry. While waiting for dinner to be served, I could not resist the temptation of asking the question that had been rearing its head since the start of my interaction with Chee Seng and his very qualified colleagues. What on earth were they doing in the government sector with such profiles and talent? They were unanimous in stating that it was the place where their talents were put to the greatest use and where they were most appropriately rewarded.

The Singapore civil service is one of the most efficient and least corrupt in the world with some of the highest paid civil servants. This high-wage structure was introduced in the early to mid-1990s and civil service salaries are pegged to those of the private sector.

The Singapore government introduced civil service reforms in the 1990s and a couple of decades down the road these have proven their effectiveness. Public Service for the 21st Century (PS21) was the flagship reform programme. It met two objectives and these are also what we need most to make our obsolete civil service more goal-oriented.

Firstly, civil servants must be motivated into nurturing an attitude of service excellence in meeting the needs of the public with high standards of quality, courtesy and responsiveness. This can be achieved by better perks, ruthless performance audit and breaking the “iron rice bowl” (translation of a Chinese term used to refer to an occupation with guaranteed steady income and benefits).

Office files moving from the desk of one babu to another must be taken over by emails and record registers should be taken over by servers and databases. Many might find it hard to believe that even in this day and age, a single police station anywhere in Pakistan maintains as many as 27 registers related to documentation and still we ask the reason for our police being unable to tackle crime.

Singaporean mandarins are actually very young when compared to Pakistani civil servants who are at a similar level in the hierarchy. Peter Ong, who heads Singapore’s civil service, is 50 years old and has been in senior positions (equivalent to that of a grade 22 secretary in Pakistan) since 2002 when he was merely 40.

On the contrary, in Pakistan a recent change in the promotion criterion of civil servants ensures that an officer must have completed at least three years in BPS 20 to qualify for promotion to BPS 21. To be honest, this would serve no purpose except for blunting the talents of our bureaucrats even further.

Secondly, the Singapore civil service is not closed to hiring talented individuals from outside the service structure. In fact, unlike the case in Pakistan, this practice is not despised by the bureaucrats. Pakistani bureaucrats despise technocrats because the appointment of a technocrat to a bureaucratic position means that the babus are left without their share in the big game.

In Singapore civil service the line differentiating technocrats from bureaucrats has been smudged by transforming bureaucrats into technocrats by providing them with training opportunities and keeping them motivated by a just system of reward and appreciation.

Lastly, as someone once said, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. Need I say more?

The writer is a civil servant.

syedsaadatwrites@gmail.com