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Old Sunday, November 27, 2016
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UNDP’s latest Development Advocate Pakistan report comes at the same time as the launch of its collaboration with the Ministry of Planning, Development and Reforms to design a comprehensive reform agenda on overhauling the Central Superior Services. A welcome effort, the report not only sets the right context for future action by tracing the origins of the service in the 19th century, but also provides an overview of the many reforms undertaken by various governments throughout the country’s history.

The present government’s ambitions as depicted in Vision 2025 — to join the top 25 economies of the world in the next decade — are heartening. Nevertheless, the envisaged institutional reforms vis-à-vis civil service reforms need to be approached with caution.

The evolving role under the modern governance framework has added to the responsibilities of civil servants towards both the state and its people. From revenue collectors and adjudicators, their main role today has moved beyond that of administrators of the state’s affairs to facilitators, providing platforms to citizens for continuous engagement in the dynamic policymaking process of the day.

Bureaucracy has suffered from an imprudent and whimsical approach to reforms in the past.
The above is in contrast to the findings of a perceptions survey conducted in 2007, in which — while admitting failure to perform at global standards — civil servants remain unwilling to address issues facing the service. Their non-readiness, then, needs to be studied carefully in light of the surrounding complexities and nuances before charting the future course of reforms.

As with most of the country’s institutions, bureaucracy has suffered from an imprudent and whimsical approach to reforms in the past. A structure, which played an instrumental role in facilitating the British Raj’s control on the subcontinent’s assets, is suffering from severe capacity and competency issues. This deterioration should have been expected given the ideological shift underscored in the 1949 Pay Commission’s recommendations: “The correct place for our men of genius is in the private enterprise and not in humdrum of public service where character and a desire to serve honestly for a living is more essential than outstanding intellect.”

Although successive reforms further debilitated the service, the most severe blow was yet to come. During his government, Bhutto abrogated the constitutional guarantees provided to civil servants in the Government of India Act, 1935 against wrongful dismissals and other arbitrary action during their terms of service. The ensuing loss further diminished the efficacy of the service as an autonomous branch of the executive. Moreover, other reforms — abolition of service cadres, sanction of lateral entry, rigidity in pay scales — further stunted its performance as meritocracy was relegated to the back seat.

Similarly, the last reforms introduced during the Musharraf era — with the intent to empower local government under the devolution plan — resulted in the abolishment of the deputy commissioner’s office. Without achieving much, the reforms further hampered effective administration, making adjudication and dispute resolution processes unnecessarily cumbersome.

Keeping this historical evolution of the service and the elaborate reforms proposed under the National Commission for Growth Reforms in view, it is important that any new reform scheme developed hereafter should lead to an ideological shift wherein autonomy, meritocracy and accountability become the cornerstones of the civil service.

A positive development in recent years that can help spur along reform efforts has been the changing profile of civil servants. According to statistics furnished by Federal Public Service Commission, the number of candidates appearing for the CSS examinations with professional degrees rose from 22 per cent in 2006 to 46pc in 2013. Similarly, the ratio of allocated candidates holding first division increased from 61pc in 2006 to 77pc in 2013. There has also been an increasing trend among civil servants to pursue graduate and postgraduate degrees from some of the world’s top-ranked universities, equipping the workforce with the necessary skills and education to carry out their duties in an efficient manner.

Although changing demographics bode well for the civil service, these are mainly due to push factors prevailing in the economy. To restore its erstwhile prestige, it is important for government to pursue the pull factors in parallel, especially those related to long overdue pay reforms. Contrary to popular belief, without competitive financial incentives there is little hope of improving Pakistan’s global ranking on the Corruption Perceptions Index (117th out of 175 countries in 2015) since intrinsic motivation cannot replace the economic needs of civil servants in the long run.

Another important reform to be pursued is to equally strengthen all groups and services. Currently, due to perceived differences in prestige associated with certain groups/services, many allocated candidates reappear for the exam to improve their cadre. The rising trend has resulted in important positions remaining vacant, with government having to bear financial and economic losses along with the groups/services suffering brain drain.

Additionally, reforms need to focus on capacity building the careers of budding civil servants. It has been observed over time that, under its various programmes, underqualified government recruited internees/fellows at higher pays yielded little result, not to mention straining scarce resources. For effective training, government may undertake policymaking in collaboration with academia, ensuring a holistic approach to the policymaking process without duplication of resources.

Much like today, civil service reforms in the past also placed great emphasis on governance, accountability, effectiveness and openness without considerable success on the ground. The leading cause of this failure has been that little to no attention was given to alleviate and improve conditions of the civil servants — the real implementers. If Pakistan is to become one of the top economies in the next decade, it is imperative that the steering wheel be in the hands of the most competent and motivated workforce — the key drivers of innovation in any field.

The writer is a civil servant and has worked on civil service reforms in the Establishment Division.

Published in Dawn, November 26th, 2016

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