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“Instead of an overhaul, we must go for piecemeal changes”

Interview with Dr Sameen Mohsin Ali on civil service reforms

“Instead of an overhaul, we must go for piecemeal changes”
Photo credit Nausherwan Nadeem

Dr Sameen Mohsin Ali is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). She completed her Ph.D in politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London this year. Her doctoral research focuses on the politicisation of bureaucracy in Pakistan and explores how bureaucratic appointments by both politicians and bureaucrats serve to achieve particular outcomes. TNS talks to her on the current state of civil services in Pakistan and why there is need for reform. Excerpts follow:

The News on Sunday: What are the chronic issues that plague the civil service of Pakistan?

Sameen Mohsin Ali: There are multiple issues but I think, as do many others, that the main problem with our bureaucracy is that it is not designed to meet the needs of the citizens. This has led to a situation where governance and service delivery are not priority areas for many bureaucrats.

The elite services like the Pakistan Administrative Services (PAS), the Police Service of Pakistan (PSP) and others consider themselves to be better than others, a feeling reinforced by the training they get at their academies. Generally, they are not inclined toward working with citizens to address their problems. That is why the people, who are potential voters as well, go to politicians to get their problems resolved through these very bureaucrats. They access them through these politicians because they do not feel comfortable going directly to bureaucratic offices. The response of the same bureaucrats is totally different when these people are referred to them by the politicians. The politicians cannot afford to estrange their voters who bring them to power again and again and neither the bureaucrats can refuse the politicians whose patronage they need throughout their professional careers.

Secondly, I would say the bureaucracy has its own set of problems as well. The bureaucrats want to protect their interests that include career stability, progression, perks and privileges, support staff at their disposal, housing, etc. To achieve these ends, they align themselves with politicians and try to become their ‘blue-eyed’ lot. A relevant and recent example here is that of the bureaucrats who won backing of former chief minister Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, and former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and got important postings. Such loyal bureaucrats are always ready to firefight for their patrons and are given tough tasks to be completed within very strict deadlines. They are given freedom to take major decisions and even bypass procedures to get things done within short times. The officers who do not enjoy similar patronage have to wait endlessly for good postings, remain Officers on Special Duty (OSDs) for indefinite periods or face other obstacles in their career path.

TNS: You have pointed out that bureaucracy is highly politicised. How exactly does this compromise the interests of the citizens and discourage honest bureaucrats?

SMA: Through the interviews of bureaucrats I conducted for my PhD thesis, I have learnt that frequent appointments on different posts and transfers are the most powerful tools used by politicians to keep a tab on bureaucracy. Recruitments and promotions are also important but these are not always under the control of politicians. But when it comes to postings, the elite services as well as the middle and lower level bureaucracy comprising patwaris, naib tehsildars, deputy directors, Executive District Officers (EDOs) and others have to depend on their political patrons. Representatives of the lower level bureaucracy regularly visit the deras of local politicians and spend time there in order to get their blessings, a practice common across the country.

For this very reason when there is a change in government, the ‘blue-eyed’ officers of the outgoing government often take leave from service, join some international development organisation on deputation or go on ex-country study leave. They know they will be the first ones to be replaced by the team brought in by the new government. In fact, such officers get so close to certain politicians that the rival politicians consider them more in their opponents’ personal service than that of the government of Pakistan and, hence, victimize them. So, the prospects of growth for these bureaucrats lie in their patronage by politicians and not their commitment to the interest of citizens. The once Performance Evaluation Report (PER), previously called the Annual Confidential Report (ACR) is there to gauge one’s performance but this is tricky because more weightage is given to one’s obedience to seniors than performance.

Due to these issues, the less connected bureaucrats, especially junior bureaucrats, are demoralised and many of them are left to rot in the same grades for ages. There is shortage of posts because quite often retired bureaucrats are rehired on contract and officers from one department are deputed in the other on deputation for long periods. The practice of giving additional charges to one person is also quite common. This reduces openings for the officers whose promotion is due. As a result, bureaucrats have little incentive to serve the citizens.

TNS: There have been attempts to introduce reforms in civil services with the aim to make them independent, people-friendly and service-oriented. Did these make any difference?

SMA: Yes, there have been attempts but most of the time they have stalled at the planning stage and few of them have been targeted at making the bureaucracy people-friendly. The superior bureaucracy is wary of reforms that it thinks might reduce its powers, influence or share in posts in the centre and the provinces. The most active in such cases is the PAS that needs reform but officers belonging to this service strongly believe they are the best qualified to head any department whatsoever. There is a point of view that PAS officers are generalists who we have promoted for too long and that they should, therefore, be replaced by specialists and professionals on top positions. The argument given by PAS officers is that theirs is an administrative job and by virtue of their administrative abilities they can be posted to any department, but the fact is that this can involve decisions on highly technical and complex issues of the departments they are heading.

But this does not mean there is no improvement at all. Proper systems for recruitment on merit and monitoring have been put in place at lower levels. For example, the process for recruitment of teachers has been made transparent and merit-based. But at the same time, we have seen the chief minister issuing special directives to bypass the same processes, but in selective cases.

One can say the internal rifts of the civil service have also affected the agenda of reform negatively. To give you an idea, I would argue that the proposal to introduce lateral entry in civil services will be opposed strongly by the officers of the provincial service. These officers already blame the PAS officers for usurping their posts in the province and do not want another group to do the same.

TNS: In this scenario, how do you think the desired changes can be introduced in the civil service?

SMA: I think instead of going for an overhaul at a huge scale with too ambitious targets in sight, we must go for piecemeal changes at a smaller level with a focus on the implementation of reform. It is a good approach to identify the inefficiencies of different departments through fact-finding exercises and by getting input of citizens, politicians and officers at different levels. The performance of these departments can be gauged through certain indicators introduced for this purpose. Strong monitoring systems supported by Information Communication Technology (ICT) is a good start for making data available — and the government should consider making data more accessible to researchers and citizens under the Right to Information law — but it is not a solution to the problems of governance in Pakistan.

At the same time, the recruitment and training processes should be improved with the aim of enabling civil servants to specialise in particular fields and to use data and current research to design and implement policy, and serve the citizen.

Read also: The voices within

TNS: The PTI government boasts of improving civil services in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) during its last tenure. Do you think there was a tangible change and can the task force formed for this purpose be able to deliver?

SMA: Yes, there has been some improvement in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s civil services, particularly the police. However, in introducing a merit-based policy, the PTI government has and will run into the same problems that the PML-N did in Punjab — while reforms can be initiated, the real test is in their consistent, sustainable implementation. Meanwhile, the task force constituted for reforms will have to contend with the problems outlined above — internal rifts in the civil service and elite cadres of the bureaucracy who have little incentive to reform a system that works for them.

Shahzada Irfan Ahmed

shahzada irfan
The author is a staff reporter and can be reached at [email protected]

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