News Analysis |
The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, addressed civil servants in civil service academy on Friday, the 14th of September. He promised to reform the civil service and admitted that he understood the problems faced by civil servants. There had been reports over the past week or so that once the postings and transfers of senior civil servants at key posts are completed, the PM would address civil servants of Pakistan.
These officers are usually well educated and trained in public administration, developmental policy, and economics to some extent. They are chosen via rigorous competitive examination. They often hold public offices that affect the masses at large. E.g health, education, law, and order etc. Their job is to assist the government in policy making and implementation impartially.
Dr. Ishrat Hussain notes in his report that officers from grade 17 till 22 are ‘grossly underpaid’ as compared with their competitors in the private or corporate sector. We thus have a situation where bureaucrats are sitting in powerful positions but meager salaries.
Civil service reform was one of the points outlined in the augural address of the Prime Minister. To this end, a committee has been formed comprising of 19 members with Dr. Ishrat Hussain as the chairman. Dr. Hussain is the advisor to the Prime Minister for institutional reform and austerity. The fact that the PM took up the issue of reforming the civil service in the first few days of office shows that there is some political will to implement said reforms.
The standard of Pakistan’s civil service is widely seen to be declining in recent decades. From the way civil servants are selected to incentive structures throughout their career, there is a dire need for reforms. Prior to the 1973 constitution, civil servants were constitutionally protected as far as their tenure in a particular office was concerned. This meant that political interference was a non-issue. In total, there have been 38 initiatives that have been taken to reform the civil service throughout the country’s history.
Major reforms in the civil service were introduced in 1973 with the Civil Servants Act 1973. Afterward, the incentives for civil servants who wanted lucrative posts were changed altogether. Instead of their seniors who provided a certain measure of accountability, they now had to be in the good books of either the ruling politicians or the military ruler.
This opened the door for political interference in the bureaucracy of Pakistan, something to which virtually all civil servants object to. The PM mentioned in his address that political interference was the prime reason for the decline of the civil service. And he promised to isolate bureaucrats from all kinds of political pressure.
Another major issue faced by civil servants is low salaries compared with the corporate sector. Dr. Ishrat Hussain notes in his report that officers from grade 17 till 22 are ‘grossly underpaid’ as compared with their competitors in the private or corporate sector. We thus have a situation where bureaucrats are sitting in powerful positions but meager salaries. This leads to two possibilities; either induced corruption or the officer begins a part-time job to make ends meet.
There is a political will to take up these reforms seriously. One hopes the PM will also bridge the commitment gap that so often follows grandiose political promises of reform.
Someone who is trained for policy implementation shouldn’t have to rely on part-time jobs to make ends. This is likely to divert attention and resources away from what the government has spent taxpayer money training him or her for. The Federal Public Service Commission has also noted that later in their careers, many civil servants opt to work for Multi-National Companies who offer more attractive packages.
Talent goes out of the civil service in this manner. The Prime Minister said in his address that salaries of civil servants would be increased significantly. However, he also mentioned that officers will have to be ‘patient’ for two years before institutional reforms and accountability processes can be instituted. Dr. Ishrat Hussain’s report also recommends promotion based on performance, instead of the length of service. Presently, an officer is more or less guaranteed to get promoted to senior grades as long there’s no significant absence from duty.
This removes any incentive to improve day to day performance. Without such incentives, it is likely that a young officer who may have been highly motivated otherwise early on his or her career loses that spark after entering the service. The PM may already have a solution to this. In his first address to the nation, he mentioned that those government departments which meet their targets to provide services to the public will get bonus grants while those that fail to do so will be penalized. While addressing civil servants today, he said that he is only interested in the performance of civil servants.
Perhaps the most serious impediment to efficient service delivery is patronage-based political interference in the duties of civil servants. Politicians are expected by their constituents to rightly or wrongfully resolve local issues. If the civil servant refuses to comply, he or she risks being transferred or even suspended. The PM promised security of tenure of civil servants. He said it doesn’t matter which party the officer may be affiliated with at an individual level, as long as he or she did their duty, they would be accorded with complete respect. Rapid transfer of officers from one office to the next was a major cause of governance failure, the PM said.
There is justifiably a sense of optimism among the bureaucracy after the Prime Minister’s address. He seems to have correctly identified many of the issues faced by civil servants in the discharge of their duties. The 19 members committee on civil service reform has 13 serving or retired civil servants in it. There is a political will to take up these reforms seriously. One hopes the PM will also bridge the commitment gap that so often follows grandiose political promises of reform.