In Pakistan, civil servants face complex challenges for which they were never prepared. I personally know of three cases, where government officials were removed unceremoniously from their positions on charges of procurement irregularities and inquiries were initiated against them. Interestingly, these were not necessarily cases of corruption but perhaps errors of judgment.
The political leadership is placing competing demands on government officials. They are expected to undertake complex projects and procurements, use EPC contractors, quickly mobilise technical resources, review complex financial proposals and envision use of technology to improve service delivery, and in parallel respond to reputational threats and undue litigation. A few who have mastered these skills are ahead in the game, while others are falling behind.
The National School of Public Policy (NSPP) is responsible for civil service training and generic promotion-linked trainings for officials in grades 18 to 20. However, the institution has failed to evolve and respond to emergent changes. Although there were some structural reforms in training in the last decade, these made the process more cumbersome without adding any significant value to learning. The opportunity costs are exceedingly large whereby projects, policies and routine business suffer, while senior officials are unavailable for months.
It is common to hear mid-career and senior civil servants complain that whatever they study in these courses have little relevance to what is expected of them in their jobs. With generic cookie-cutter modules, there is no room to opt for tailored courses. According to some, the only value derived through weeks of toil is some time off from the draining work routine or an opportunity to network with colleagues.
Despite clear recommendations of national commission for government reforms, till date there are no arrangements for training-needs assessment of civil servants, and absolutely no linkage between skills gaps and training provided. So far, no impact assessment has been carried out for training delivered, no benchmarking with other countries has ever been done for NSPP and there is no publicly available data about the quality of civil service.
Over the years, this outdated model has not only resulted in a severe gap between requisite skills and capability of government officials but also between civil service training curricula in Pakistan and elsewhere. Within the realm of information and data management for instance, the three tiers of in-service training at NSPP cover topics like basic computer literacy, Microsoft office management and occasional lectures from practitioners. Countries like Singapore and the UK, on the other hand, are teaching how to use data to improve service delivery, data visualisation, big data analytics and managing freedom of information. Singapore’s Civil Service College offers 26 courses, only within the area of data analytics, including nine classroom courses, 15 e-learning modules and two blended learning courses.
Within public finance and accountability, the courses for senior management in Singapore focus on evaluating methodologies for the public sector and construction procurement, while in the UK they are taught ‘public accountability for new accounting officers’ and ‘effective contract management’. In Pakistan, within the same domain, we teach grade 20 civil servants ‘study of economics and finance for socioeconomic development and political stability’, who have little say in policymaking, perhaps with the exception of a few provincial secretaries, and are more concerned with mundane realties of project management and finance, budgeting and procurement.
It is no wonder that Pakistan’s position on ‘government effectiveness’ on Worldwide Governance Indicators has been sliding down, from a percentile rank of 40 in 2005 to merely 27 in 2015. In comparison, India has improved from 55 to 56 percentile during the same time.
There is a need to rethink the civil service training regime, making it relevant to the present day capacity needs of civil servants. NSPP also needs some serious introspection on how it can redefine itself to remain relevant and create value.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 16th, 2017.