Why are public officials transferred so rapidly?

Published: December 1, 2013
The writer served as deputy chairman of the Planning Commission from 2010 to 2013

The writer served as deputy chairman of the Planning Commission from 2010 to 2013

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.

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Reader Comments (11)

  • Tami
    Dec 1, 2013 - 10:58PM

    The top bureaucracy is so corrupt that unless there is thorough cleanup of the system and redoing of their training process, they should never be allowed to have a monopoly of any department, unless they have an impeccable record of integrity. Pakistan’s bureaucracy have become a burden and they hardly serve the people and instead have become a hurdle for the tax payers because of their redcap ism and refusing to clear files unless bribed.Recommend

  • Taimoor
    Dec 1, 2013 - 11:44PM

    Is it just me or the writer has made some contradictory remarks?


  • Nadir
    Dec 2, 2013 - 1:53AM

    On top of this you have all the retired Army officers who then compete with civil servants for jobs in the bureaucracy. The foreign office being a favoured hunting ground.


  • izaz haque
    Dec 2, 2013 - 3:44AM

    right on the money!


  • x
    Dec 2, 2013 - 5:08AM

    It’s just you. Yes, some bureaucracts are corrupt but to be transferred at the whim of politicans, generally more corrupt, is just meanignless and increases inefficiency. The ability to learn, grow and do posiitve work requires time and stability in a certain posts.


  • Parvez Amin
    Dec 2, 2013 - 7:34AM

    One of the world’s finest bureaucracies, the CSP was ruined by politicians by making them subservient to politicians. Withdrawing the changes made in the law to allow this,, I believe is the first step in having a professional organization that works to the Rules of Business without fear or favor. ET do a piece on that.


  • Shahzad
    Dec 2, 2013 - 3:55PM

    The writer should have resigned and cited this as a reason for so resigning Recommend

  • ashar
    Dec 2, 2013 - 8:12PM

    Politicians is the most corrupt lot of Pakistan and there is no doubt about it.Recommend

  • MAA
    Dec 2, 2013 - 10:00PM

    If you know anything about the writer, he NEVER resigns, he hangs in there with his nails, waiting to be reappointed.


  • Raja Islam
    Dec 3, 2013 - 1:07AM

    The solution might be to eliminate CSS cadres. Let departments hire professionals. MBA’s for the Ministry of Finance, Engineers for Ministry of Works, Lawyers for the Law Ministry, etc.

    Doctors working as magistrates and lawyers in agriculture do not make sense.


  • Dec 15, 2013 - 10:55PM

    no doubt Pakistan has a very inefficient system which is the core reason for the failure of the institution, institutional reforms are required.


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