Reforming, and Empowering, Bureaucracy (Editorial March 2018)

Reforming, and Empowering, Bureaucracy (Editorial March 2018)

“The services are the backbone of the state. Governments are formed. Governments are defeated. Prime Ministers come and go, ministers come and go, but you stay on. Therefore, there is a very great responsibility placed on your shoulders. You should have no hand in supporting this political party or that political party, this political leader or that political leader. This is not your business.”
– Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s address to the civil servants (Peshawar, April 1948)

Once upon a time there was a Civil Service of Pakistan. It was a family of great visionaries whose names make a very long list. They performed for the development of their country with full zeal. But, then happened what is an apt illustration of the third phase of Ibn Khaldun’s theory of rise and fall of nations which suggests that as wealth and power grow, a slow but sure weakness begins to creep into the hearts of the citizenry – read bureaucracy. Hence, the service that once was a strong citadel, gradually degenerated and is now facing its decay. The integrity and professionalism that were once the hallmark of the Civil Services of Pakistan, now seem a thing of the bygone days. But, “The ruins,” as renowned British-Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid puts, “proclaim the building was beautiful.”

The immortal words of the Father of the Nation, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, quoted in the beginning of this piece, succinctly describe what the civil servants are to the state of Pakistan. They are the spinal cord of the body called the ‘executive’ pillar of the state; they are the strongest arm of the state that turns the prospects of our nation’s development and growth into tangible realities with their professionalism and strict adherence to merit in the discharge of their duties. But, unfortunately, barring a few martinets and persons of high integrity, most bureaucrats of higher ranks have become henchmen of the political elite rather than being the true guardians of law.

However, that madness is not without a method – and some cogent reasons.

As regards the ‘method’, it is apposite that we first have a look at the history of civil service in Pakistan. Literature on the history of bureaucracy in Pakistan suggests that after the inception of the country, the civil service worked relatively effectively and contributed a lot in making pragmatic policies for the development of the nascent state. But, the vigour lasted for only a few years and during the decade of 1960s, civil servants began receiving rewards for their willingness to collude with politicians, notables and the military – and punishments otherwise. An officer who dared to resist pressure from the powers that be would be transferred and posted to most ungovernable areas of the country so as to teach him/her a lesson – the vice is still rampant and many highly-capable officers have been sidelined or given insignificant roles. On the other hand, some ‘yes boss’ type officers are posted on lucrative posts where they have abounding opportunities to mint money and extract unfair benefits. Such people get promoted but the ones who refuse to yield are made to face inquiries and investigations, a reason strong enough to defer – practically refuse – their promotions.

Then, why a ‘practical’ sort of person would opt for going by the book and resisting the mighty ruling elite? Seems an implausible idea, doesn’t it?

It must be understood that there is a symbiotic relationship between the government and the civil service: if the civil servant kowtows to the politician in order to survive, he becomes a partner in crime; if the politician uses the civil service for political or personal gains, he fails democracy, and the country.

But, as mentioned earlier, there are also some cogent reasons for the civil servants to stooge the political elite. First of all, there is no blinking at the fact that each year only 200-300 people are chosen from amongst thousands of aspirants – the crème la crème of the country – for induction into the Civil Services of Pakistan. But, the salaries paid to them are far below those of their fellows who enter the national and international job market, or those employed with the companies functioning under the Punjab government, where they are pocketing whopping remunerations. Why an officer who hardly makes both ends meet through legitimate sources, will not resort to corrupt practices, especially in the cases where such an officer may have strong backing of the ruling class?

The widely-held opinion that army and judiciary are the only ‘working’ institutions in the country is because the overwhelming influence and undue political transgression have left the civil service defanged and impuissant. Officers have no option but to work at the ‘pleasure’ of their political masters. Moreover, they neither have the security of tenure nor operational autonomy. Unless the government offers civil servants the space they deserve and a greater role in managing their own affairs, it will be like living in a fool’s paradise to expect the best from them.

So, on the basis of the assertions made above, putting a robust system of performance management in place is the only panacea. In such a system, civil servants should be assigned specific goals and rewarded or penalized on the basis of results. Civil servants must also know that if they want to be respected, they will have to respect the people they are expected to serve.

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