The musical chairs of NES

What is the problem that the proposed NES is expected to solve?

Hasaan Khawar July 20, 2020
The writer is a public policy expert and an honorary Fellow of Consortium for Development Policy Research. He tweets @hasaankhawar

After more than a decade, the concept of National Executive Service (NES) is back, without much change. Here is the proposal in a nutshell. A new elite service will be created, with four specialised streams, starting from grade 19 to man key posts in both the federal and provincial secretariats. The induction will be on a competitive basis, but only for public sector employees. People from the private sector will not be allowed to compete, with the exception of a few earmarked positions in “technical ministries”, that too “where the requisite qualified and experienced individuals are not available”.

What is the problem that the proposed NES is expected to solve?

According to the proposal, the purpose of NES is to deploy the best talent in policy making positions, ensuring “responsiveness to the complex problems faced by the public” and bringing in people who possess the skills to effectively manage “the future knowledge-based economy”.

However, before the public can worry about the “complex problems”, there are more basic issues to be resolved. The public education system is failing, health facilities operate at subpar, citizens don’t feel safe interacting with the police, about two out of every five children are stunted and Pakistan ranks third worst globally on the gender gap index. It is naïve to expect that NES will fix any of these problems, which are much deep-rooted, linked with local government system, resource allocation and much more.

Apart from citizens’ woes, at the other end of the spectrum, are the politicians and political bosses, who are often seen complaining that they do not get due support from bureaucracy. This is a legitimate concern. But this ‘non-cooperation’ is rooted in misaligned incentives and lopsided accountability. Shuffling the deck once in the name of NES might change individual faces but nothing more.

Moreover, it is interesting to see the faith that the authors of this proposal have in the public sector. They believe that the right mix of skills to manage the “future knowledge-based economy” exists somewhere in the government outside the core civil service but not in the entire private sector. One wonders though that what has stopped the government so far to deploy this hidden talent through deputations.

The only problem that the NES could have solved was the complacency of bureaucrats, who pass one exam, which ascertains their entire career trajectory with reasonable certainty. If an officer from Pakistan Administrative Service has enough years of service available and doesn’t really screw it up, he is guaranteed to reach grade 22. But the proposal fails on this count as well. The NES would have kept the civil servants on their toes, only if it didn’t promise to create new positions in senior grades to protect the promotion prospects of those who cannot make it to the NES. This keeps everyone happy, at the cost of taxpayers’ money.

The only way to address civil service complacency is to have a pyramid structure. Have more positions in lower grades and fewer on the top. The process will itself filter out those who cannot compete.

In addition, the right talent from outside the government should be recruited through MP scales to infuse fresh thinking. But the induction from the private sector should not be one-way. If private sector individuals are allowed to compete for civil service positions, the civil servants should also be allowed to go on sabbaticals to gain diverse experience.

The NES proposal in its present form is like a musical chairs game, but with the exact number of chairs as the players. Everyone in the game wins but changes seats. We must therefore introspect if the NES is about genuinely solving a real problem or merely about importing a solution.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 21st, 2020.

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