Democracy is more than mere elections. Our elected leaders have to be kept in check. They have no divine right to power. One such check is an independent, professional, honourable and reasonably satiated civil service. While there are many items that go into making such a civil service and Ishrat Husain’s report is a step in that direction, here I want to focus only on one item — the prime minister’s (PM) power to transfer and appoint everyone in the system. This is archaic and inefficient, and it must be done away with.
During my three-year tenure as deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, five of my secretaries were changed by the PM without the courtesy of consultation with me. Similarly, I saw five new secretaries of finance and the finance minister had no say in the matter. While the power sector was in a mess, we saw about five secretaries change again, with not a care or a thought. And none of them was a professional.
At one point, when I raised this matter with some senior secretaries, the arrogant answer I got was that the PM should have this prerogative — to change whoever he likes. When I pointed out that Barack Obama and David Cameron do not act in such a way and in fact, most civilised countries do not give their PMs this discretion, they looked stunned. This thinking must change; the PM should not have this arbitrary authority.
The wooden boards in most offices show names of officials who served in those offices, as well as the dates of their tenure. Most officials are lucky if they remain in a position for more than a year. Secretaries are rotated out almost on a yearly basis, customs officials are lucky if they last a few months and the director cooperatives board is moved so rapidly that he probably remains in a daze.
Why do we have such quick transfers? The explanation is a combination of the following four factors: 1) Each of these offices confers a certain power and privilege and in some cases, even possibly certain pecuniary advantages. Quick transfers may be an egalitarian method of sharing these advantages; 2) Longer tenures could make the officer more entrenched, increasing corruption and power gains, and possibly, even making it difficult to remove him/her. Quick transfers would prevent anyone from becoming too powerful; 3) Longer tenures could also create a sense of pride in the job, leading the officers to improve the situation to the detriment of those that follow. Quick transfers would, therefore, keep the rent-seeking equilibrium stable. 4) There is a stable group around any leadership that is strengthened by these quick transfers. Key secretaries, such as the principal secretary and the finance secretary, are relatively more stable. Their role is obviously strengthened by these quick transfers.
Do these quick transfers affect efficiency of the department? No, because in every job, there is a learning content. Management specialists say that a person takes a few months to a year to learn the job. Every job also has a creative content in that the incumbent can, once having learnt the job, develop better methods of doing the job. Learning by doing in a job and innovation through such learning often results in productivity improvements and reforms. If both these internationally-proven facts also apply to Pakistan, then certainly these quick transfers are detrimental to efficiency.
Transfers are a colonial legacy. Nowhere in the advanced countries do you have the concept of transfers. Most civil services do not have common cadres. Each department employs, trains and manages its own staff. No transfers are forced on any official to arbitrarily move either location or department. As a result, employees are happier and specialise in their respective areas.
Civilised countries have a better approach to transferring and appointing bureaucrats without making them totally hostage to politicians. We must learn from them.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 2nd, 2013.