Civil Services Reform: Pakistan’s Lingering Challenge

There is widespread consensus in Pakistan that the bureaucracy needs reform. However, focusing on the federal level alone and ignoring the requisite changes needed at the provincial and local level will not achieve the necessary socio-economic policy development results.

In January 2021, the current government announced a set of administrative measures packaged as ‘reform‘. These reforms are neither new nor do they effectively serve the imperative of institutional change.

The rotation and management pay scale policies, which include the Civil Service Promotion (BPS-18 to BPS-21) Rules 2019, the Civil Servants (Directory Retirement from Service) Rules, have been in operation for some time.

The new version of Civil Servants (Efficiency and Discipline) Rules might help improve internal accountability, but the larger questions of refashioning the civil service in light of 21st-century requirements remain unaddressed.

The PTI government, not unlike the previous governments, has also established two task forces on civil service reforms; a pay and pension committee and a cabinet committee on institutional reforms.

Dr. Ishrat Hussain is the minister in charge of the reforms mentioned above. He has reintroduced the National Executive Service (NES) concept, which he proposed more than a decade ago. The NES entails forming a new elite cadre with specialized streams to be placed in the federal and provincial secretariats.

Bureaucracy hinders economic growth

Civil service reform has been viewed in Pakistan as a national project with little emphasis on subnational governance. The provinces are managed through administrative structures, rules of business designed in the nineteenth century with incremental changes over the decades.

The local government structures devised in the 1960s and 1980s did not focus on provincial public management. Considering that the provinces have a lead role in public affairs and public policy goals after the 18th amendment to the Constitution, this area requires urgent attention.

There is a widespread consensus in Pakistan that civil service or ‘bureaucracy’ needs reform. Cumbersome bureaucratic processes mar economic growth and job creation. For example, the World Bank surveys of the investment climate and the cost of doing business in Pakistan have consistently shown governance-related factors to be the most important growth constraints.

Similarly, the crisis of public service delivery – as noted by several surveys indicating high levels of dissatisfaction among the public – is substantially related to how civil servants perform and are held accountable and incentivized through antiquated human resource management systems.

Failed attempts to reform the civil service

The history of civil service reform in Pakistan can be broadly divided into two phases. In the 1973-2001 phases, the administration gave importance to reforming the federal government and the higher civil service.

The 1974 reforms carried out by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s administration hit at the very heart of elite civil services as they unified grading structure, abolished various classes among public officials, made promotions a horizontal movement, provided for job evaluation, induction of individuals from the private sector in specialized fields and a Common Training Program (CTP) for all federal services.Later, the Anwar ul Haq Commission Report of 1978-79 assessed 1973 reforms to restore the elite Civil Service of Pakistan’s reputation. Reform efforts were restarted under the elected administrations between 1988-1999, but endemic political instability did not allow for any significant shift at the federal or provincial levels.

In the second phase (2001-09), the Local Government Ordinance of 2001 abolished the authority of the District Management Group (DMG) and the Deputy Commissioner (DC) as the cornerstone of the district administration and state-writ.

DMG resisted the move, but ultimately sweeping changes were brought in. However, the provincial tiers, as before, were once again overlooked in an attempt to reform the administrative structures across the country.

Were the reforms reversed?

The Musharraf government constituted a National Commission on Government Reforms (NCGR), under Dr. Ishrat Husain, which, in 2007, provided comprehensive recommendations for the federal government and useful insights on provincial and district government reform.

By this time, the implementation of the 2001 reforms had been partially reversed. With the 2008 elections and new administrations at the federal and provincial levels, most of the 2001-2 reforms were fully reversed.

The elected Nazims (or Mayors) were fired, and unelected bureaucrats took over local government functions in 2008. The NCGR report was finalized at a time of political transition, and political ownership of the report’s findings and recommendations remained “uncertain.”

The NCGR report was comprehensive and reviewed each Ministry and department’s internal structure and the hierarchical relationships governing the structure, composition, delegation of powers, and HR policies regarding Secretariat and executive agencies.

A key recommendation of NCGR related to improving the business processes is including rules of business, financial, administrative, and established rules and regulations, and flow of work. Resultantly, it advocated the replacement of manual processes by automation, thus ensuring greater transparency. That remains valid even today.

Political leaders and military take control

Civil Service reforms face challenges primarily of political nature. Over the last four decades, political leaders and military to gain control over the powerful administrative structures politicized the civil bureaucracy.

In the 1973 constitution, the safeguards against “dismissal reduction in rank or compulsory retirement of public servants” were removed. This increased the hold of politicians on the civil servants and “destroyed the concept of a neutral and competent civil service”.

It has become increasingly difficult for civil servants to get postings, transfers, or promotions without a political patron’s support. Since the military in Pakistan is the strongest political interest group and institution, it also began systematic militarization of bureaucracy during Gen Zia’s era.

Gen Zia began lateral entry of military officers into the civil service, institutionalized the practice by reserving 10 percent of the vacancies in the civil service for former military officers.

Pakistani rulers (both political leaders and military generals) reap political dividends by providing jobs in the civil service as a means of patronage and, in the process, ensure that their henchmen in civil administration advance their policies.

Civil Services- an unattractive career path

A major challenge for a successful civil service reform is the service’s ability to attract and retain the best and brightest minds for public service. Capable junior officers are not available in many specialized departments.

Today incentives for the younger generation to join civil service have declined, and in general, the private sector provides more attractive career paths. A low salary scale for officer grades is a major hindrance affecting the officers’ recruitment and retention.

Dynamic growth in the telecommunications and banking sector means that today bright young graduates can earn more in the private sector than by joining civil service. The success of reform depends on the continuous political support of key decision-makers and the military.

However, reform initiatives have become hostage to the shifting political priorities. Chronic political instability is a major stumbling block in the way of reform attempts. Political governments focus more on political and financial matters than on spending political capital on mid-long term policy agendas.

Decentering Reform

Attempts at reforming civil service in Pakistan have overlooked second and third tiers of government. Many initiatives have focused on reforms in the federal administration structure with little attention to the provincial and local governments’ complexities where most of the citizenry receives services.

A cohesive and comprehensive strategy is needed that encompasses reforms at all levels, the federal, provincial and local. The goals should be to expand capacity in policy development on major macro-economic and macro-political issues at the federal level.

Therefore, reforms should expand decision-makers capacity on macro-economic, social sector, infrastructure development (Engineering, Transport, Communications, Agriculture resource mobilization).

The emphasis should be on officers between mid to senior because this is where the expertise needs to be retained, built, and rewarded. The next level of reform is provincial, where policy preparation and implementation capacity needs to augment.

The provincial administrations are tasked to ensure security, provide justice to the citizens, besides formulating long-term socio-economic policies. Patronage, politically motivated postings and transfers, and lack of accountability have adversely impacted civil service performance at the provincial level.

Also, there is an urgent need to restructure the Provincial Public Service Commissions. Various studies call for merit-based recruitment at officer and staff levels through a competitive and transparent process. Sadly, the entrance exams are outdated and rarely focus on the technical skills that governments need today.

What needs to be done?

The historical trajectory of reform efforts shows that there is a resistance to change. This is not a unique feature of Pakistan as, in many contexts, powerful and well-established bureaucracies are both averse and fearful of changes.

This is why a ‘start small’ approach focusing more on the knowledge and learning exchanges can help build a constituency for reform. It is only through policy dialogue that demand for reform can be incrementally built. There is a need to re-think the role of the provincial government.

The service delivery improvements sought through various reform programs overlook the critical human resource issues, which are at the heart of government effectiveness.

Within the provincial government, there is a need to foster debate on the government’s size, functions, and HR systems. New ideas and innovations tested in the field could inform the systemic focus of reform efforts. The issues of low-morale and gaps within in-service training adversely impact the performance of civil services.

The civil service’s generalist thrust impedes developing skill sets that correspond with jobs in the government, especially those that require technical expertise. For instance, mid to senior-level officers get posted in agriculture or livestock development departments, and their command over required technical skills are often less than optimal.

To improve governance and accountability, importance should be given to developing organizational and individual level performance indicators to assess outcomes and achievement in meeting output targets.

Short term measures

While the systemic reform may take years and extraordinary consensus on this issue, there are various measures that the current government could initiate in the short term to enhance the effectiveness of civil services at all levels.

The measures include: developing a more open and consultative system for the annual performance review, changing the culture of guaranteed promotions based on seniority and entitlements, and linking them to performance on the job training and skill upgrading.

Furthermore, vacancy-wise promotions could be improved, legislative cover to issues of a transfer before completing prescribed tenure, i.e. three-years need to be introduced and organizational.

Individual-level performance indicators should be developed and enforced to improve governance and accountability. This is also the time to replace Section officers’ role (lowest secretariat management tier) with an institutional arrangement where electronic documentation of the decision-making process needs to be stored.

Inter departments and agencies powers should be delegated to improve complaints management. It would be beneficial to pool the existing human resources and create a district civil service, which is also in line with the current ruling party’s plan, and since it rules three provinces, this should not be difficult to start without a broad, national consensus.

The day-to-day interaction of citizens with the state has to improve to earn citizen trust and state legitimacy. Otherwise, a country of 220 million people shall be trapped in the status quo.

Towards a political strategy to incentivize reform

Other urgent areas of reform pertain to the public sector enterprises that are eating up national resources at the federal level and have become a major source of continued indebtedness.

Another broader reform area is how occupational groups have been arbitrarily designed and breed casteism within the civil services. In particular, technical services such as the IRS or commerce and trade group require urgent restructuring to get outside expertise.

Generalists are an anomaly these days. Finally, the federal establishment division’s extraordinary control needs to give way to decentralized controls and to enable the provincial secretariats to have unified cadres of current federal and provincial civil servants with inter-federation transfer agreements.

However, all of these major reforms cannot be achieved at once. The need to be phased out and might require a ten-year-long plan for transition. Such a longer view requires political consensus between the political parties, central and provincial administrations to avoid reversals.

Also, a parliamentary commission and activation of the Council of Common Interests (CCI) are needed. The work on political consensus, however, should not be limited to federal levels.

Provincial-level parliamentary commissions should work out the subnational requirements and ensure a rudimentary agreement on the medium to longer-term transition plans. Contrary to the conventional patterns, the national and subnational efforts do not require big donor loans or grants.

There are enough in-country expertise and a plethora of reports and suggestions that can be employed, most notably the work done by Dr. Ishrat Hussain’s team. Institutional change requires political stability and broad compacts at the political level.

Furthermore, it requires identifying the champions of change, whereas technocrats and bureaucrats can only advise and guide the change process. There is not much the current government will deliver given the country’s polarization.

However, if the PTI government means business, it would need to re-orient its political strategy of dealing with the opposition, the subnational governments, and letting the parliament contribute and drive the process.

The article originally published in Global Village Space on March 12, 2021.

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