Reforming the civil service – by Fahad Rafique Dogar

The writer has a doctorate degree from Carnegie Mellon University. He tweets @fahadrdogar

The new federal government recently presented its first budget. In response, it got its first serious flak from the opposition, media, as well as the general public. If the budget reaction is any indicator, this government is in for a tough time. It doesn’t have much time to start delivering on its promises, none of which can be fulfilled without fixing the backbone of our government — the civil service (also known as the bureaucracy).

We all know how powerful Pakistan’s bureaucracy is. This has its roots in our history, specifically our pre-independence days, when the British ruled the country through a powerful bureaucracy. Today, the biggest problem is the politicisation of our bureaucracy. This gloomy picture desperately calls for wide ranging reforms in our civil service. While almost every aspect of it needs improvement, three areas that need the most attention are: a) induction, b) postings and transfers, and c) powers and responsibilities.

Attracting the best talent is critical for the success of civil service. In the context of bureaucracy, the definition of talent should not just be limited to intelligence or knowledge, but must also include leadership qualities, analytical skills, as well as the desire to serve the public. To attract such talent, we need to first make government jobs more financially attractive. Salaries of government officers should be made comparable with that of the private sector. To make this practically feasible, we need to monetise perks, which will not only help in raising salaries but will also result in equitable treatment of all officers.

To attract the best talent, we also need to revamp the induction test — the CSS exam, which should focus more on testing one’s problem-solving skills and leadership qualities as opposed to rote learning or testing detailed knowledge of many subjects as it does now. Moreover, in its current format, the CSS exam is highly biased towards those from the English medium background. Most subjects require writing essays in English — for many, this becomes a test of their language skills rather than a test of knowledge or analytical skills. We should try to devise a mechanism to facilitate those candidates whose English may be weak, but are highly talented otherwise.

The second major issue relates to postings, transfers and promotions of civil servants. The first step in this regard should be to remove the discretionary powers of individuals, including the prime minister, in these service matters. Instead, committees comprising men and women of integrity, should handle all appointments, transfers and promotions. Finally, all these service-related decisions should be challengeable at an appropriate judicial forum (e.g., service tribunals).

Perhaps, the most controversial reform relates to revisiting the powers and responsibilities of the bureaucracy. While an all-powerful bureaucracy makes a lot of sense for a colony ruled by an invader, it makes little sense for a democratic country. In a democracy, elected representatives make the policy decisions in line with the wishes of the people. They have the responsibility and hence should have the powers, too. As a nation that wants to strengthen democracy, Pakistan needs to adopt the same model. Bureaucracy should help them in making decisions and executing these decisions with diligence and honesty.

The above suggestions only focus on critical issues. Many other useful recommendations are found in various reports on civil service reforms, most recently by a committee led by Dr Ishrat Hussain. The missing link so far has been the will to implement these recommendations. The bureaucracy will prefer the status quo and will never implement these changes. It is high time the political leadership takes the bull by the horns and takes charge of reforming the bureaucracy. After all, the buck stops with them

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