Pakistan is a country with brightest civil servants and weakest governance. These civil servants live in sprawling houses but draw meagre salaries. They take decisions worth billions of rupees but with a slight nod of political masters can turn from mighty bureaucrats into discarded officers on special duty. Scores of armed policemen guard their secretariats and houses, yet they are vulnerable enough to be handcuffed by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) anytime. A weak yet politicised civil service with powerful bureaucrats has long served many vested interests but the result is a country with an abysmal record of service delivery.
Civil service has long evaded any reform efforts, some of it consciously but much of it owing to inertia of inaction and time horizons that are longer than politicians’ appetites. Most of the younger civil servants in fact are much supportive of reforms and are quite willing to be held accountable for their performance in return for tenure security and better salaries.
But if there was ever an opportunity to reform bureaucracy in recent history, the time is now. If there was any political party, whose agenda closely resonated with improving governance, it is the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and if there was one man who could be trusted to do this job, he is Dr Ishrat Hussain.
The Prime Minister in his address to the nation announced a task force to develop blue print for civil service reforms. The 100-day agenda of the PTI mentioned the same, highlighting the need for appointing officers on merit, offering tenure protection and strengthening accountability. The PTI manifesto also promised introducing performance audits, review of compensation package, allowing lateral entry and compulsory retirement after two supersessions.
Dr Ishrat Hussain has been talking about many of these issues repeatedly, first as the head of the National Commission for Government Reform (NCGR) and then as a thought leader. He has been advocating for the introduction of a National Executive Service, transparent merit-based recruitment, decent compensation, tenure security and performance evaluation based on measurable performance. The NCGR even recommended promotions based on both performance and potential, shifting focus from ‘entitlement’ to ‘eligibility’.
These promises and recommendations sum it all but there are three issues that the government must consider.
Firstly, these reforms would take significant time and there could be a risk to lose momentum. The government should, therefore, draw a balance between quick fixes and deeper structural reforms. For instance, the appointment process could be streamlined very quickly by developing a placement portal that should internally advertise all key positions for competitive and transparent appointments. Departmental heads should sign performance contracts with clear targets. The performance audit regime under the Auditor General of Pakistan should be strengthened and the reports should be made public.
Secondly, it is important not to demoralise the civil service as a whole. Allowing lateral entry and compulsory retirements are good ideas but at the same time civil servants should also be allowed to take sabbaticals and work in the private sector to gain experience. Even more importantly, the issue of decent compensation should take priority.
Lastly, the task force should be focused more on implementation and less on re-opening debates on which significant clarity exists. Many such committees have failed in the past because of deliberation without action and aiming for a consensus-based approach. Any meaningful change is bound to have adverse consequences for a few.
Furthermore, a task force can only work well, if supported by a capable secretariat, which can quickly commission research and place findings before the task force for decisions only.
Recruiting and retaining talent will be critical for the new government. Civil service reform is an important piece of this puzzle and the sooner the new government cracks it the better it will be at delivering on its election promises.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 21st, 2018.