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Old Wednesday, April 13, 2011
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Default Lopsided efforts at reform: By Syed Rizwan Mahboob

DAWN:Lopsided efforts at reform
By Syed Rizwan Mahboob

FEW public policy concepts in Pakistan’s history would match the untiring resilience or monotonous recurrence of the idea of civil service reforms.
It has been one of the subjects on successive national reform menus which were presented in this country from time to time. But the more one has tried to do something about it, the more it has tended to remain unchanged.

In all fairness, the chequered history of civil service reforms appears to be more a case of misplaced promise than of misdirected resolve. The proverbial steel frame of the colonial Raj has continued to evoke mixed emotions of envy and hate for a considerable span of time even after independence. One of the unintended outcomes of this phenomenon appears to be the perception of disproportionate ascendancy attributed to the civil services every now and then.

With the benefit of hindsight and at least for the initial decades after independence, civil servants ought to be held at least partly responsible for such stereotyping.At one end, reinforcing colonial perceptions about the centrality of the civil service was something of a disservice in the context of an independent and democratic nation-state. On the other, such perceptions proved instrumental in alienating large sections of society from the institutions of civil service in Pakistan.

The combined impact of the colonial hangover and demonisation of the very institution of bureaucracy has proved to be extremely perilous for the design, direction and processes of civil service reforms. Rather than addressing the root causes of inefficiencies or the under-performance witnessed in this sector, symbolic villains have been targeted during reform attempts, wasting precious energy, resources and time. No wonder, each successive effort to reform the civil services has only served to exacerbate the existing crises and challenges.

Missing the wood for the trees cannot be more aptly exemplified than in the history of civil service reforms in Pakistan. Celebrating the exit of the Civil Services of Pakistan (CSP) or consigning the district magistrate to history’s dustbin must have come as great lessons in the extinction of a species or the principles of Darwinian evolution to all concerned.

Less dramatic, though of greater benefit to ordinary citizens, would have been the persistent pursuit of strategies for transforming the public service delivery regime.

Abolishing the outdated district administration set-up a decade ago would have produced a far more positive impact had it been followed by the establishment of a dedicated district cadre as envisaged under LGO 2001 for improved municipal service delivery.

Replacing the archaic Police Act 1861 with a futuristic Police Order 2002 could have done wonders if institutional reform provisions promoting functional specialisation, public oversight and political insulation had also been taken to their logical conclusion. Unfortunately, only nine years down the road, one would need to announce hefty rewards for encouraging ordinary citizens to even locate the public safety commissions in most districts .

There is little doubt that enhancing organisational efficiencies or improving institutional cultures on a long-term basis are tedious processes. Organisations need to go through the rigours of defining vision, translating vision into objectives and then developing and meticulously pursuing strategies to translate objectives into actions. If benchmarks by way of citizen satisfaction and palpable improvement in the quality of service delivery are also to be satisfied, we are indeed talking of a tall (albeit noble) order.

With the benefit of hindsight, the origin or the very genesis of the civil service reform menu from time to time appears to be the first stumbling block. Flashy and state-of-the-art ‘commissions’, ‘bureaus’ and ‘think tanks’ would typically herald the advent of ever-new paradigm shifts in governance or civil service reforms.

Each successive reform engine appeared to have been motivated by a penchant for capturing the fancy of a political or international audience through coining up evernewer notions in governance and civil service reforms.

Given the typically transient nature of these reform powerhouses and an inherent disconnect with ordinary citizens or government functionaries, it is no wonder that many of these recommendations were hardly geared towards achieving long-term improvements in the performance of government institutions.

Placing greater emphasis on addressing the issues of cadres, promotion quotas, vertical mobility and salary ratio nalisations were perhaps largely relevant for only a few thousand members of what is termed as the crux of the federal civil services in Pakistan.

Unfortunately, little came from these reform gurus in the shape of structured recommendations for enhancing the performance of hundreds of thousands of other public servants working in, say, education, agriculture, the municipal services, health, livestock and other sectors.

Worse were the instances when the civil service or governance reform think tanks recommended ‘doubling’ or ‘tripling’ salaries, while cruelly disregarding the resource challenges faced by the government exchequer. Somewhat related yet potentially more damaging was the pattern of putting in place dedicated reform management units where lucky civil servants would work in a rarified environment, receiving market-driven remuneration packages.

Without denying the rationale behind salary raises or market-driven reform units, innovative and equitable systems of monetarily rewarding better performance could still have been evolved to the mutual benefit of the government and ordinary civil servants for greater ownership.

Linking civil service reforms with service delivery reforms is perhaps the best way to rejuvenate governance institutions for enhanced citizen satisfaction. The centre of the universe in civil service reforms has to be the citizen rather than the interests of one or the other service group or cadre. ¦ The writer is an expert on governance.

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