| Welcome to Global Village Space

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Politicization of Civil Services in Pakistan

A policy expert reviews the process of the politicization of Civil Services in Pakistan since 1947 from Her Majesty’s service to service of the “Khadim-e-Aala” and “Quaid-e-Mohtaram.” He sets out the importance of each arm of the state playing its role and gives a brief overview of Dr. Ishrat’s Hussain’s proposed reforms.

A well-functioning civil service helps to foster sound policymaking and regulation, effective coordination between institutions of governance as well as service delivery, accountability, and responsibility in utilizing public resources, which are the characteristics of good governance. The civil service, as the primary arm of government, must keep pace with the changing times to meet the aspirations of the people.

In this regard, it is pertinent to explore the process of the politicization of Civil Services in Pakistan from 1947, when they emerged out of colonial British India. The politicization has been a process set out in a social & historical context in which it has taken place over the decades. The results being a gradual blurring of the thin line for a civil servant from being politically savvy to being politicized.

Given Pakistan’s checkered progress toward democracy, bureaucratic intrigues have often been cited as one of the main factors in derailing democracy from its inception. This has led to dismantling its entire value structure through purges, financial squeezing, and constitutional coups.

Ultimately, we need to see what can be the parameters for a new institutional quid pro quo between the civil service and other institutions of the state that can take Pakistan’s democratic process forward by providing good governance.

Politicization: A process rather than a state

During the 19th and 20th centuries, colonial administrators developed powerful and highly centralized bureaucratic institutions, administered by the famed Indian Civil Service (ICS), to rule the empire. While representative institutions were gradually introduced into colonial India, the role of these elected bodies was to serve as advisory rather than policymaking bodies and to deal with local administrative matters rather than substantive issues.

They were never intended to be democratic institutions that transferred power to elected representatives instead were designed to help legitimize and strengthen the authority of the bureaucratic state. Since its independence, the power imbalance between the powerful bureaucratic institutions, that Pakistan inherited from colonial British India, and the very weak representative and democratic institutions, has been one of the underlying causes of political instability in Pakistan.

From 1947 to 1971, the civilian bureaucracy played the dominant role in Pakistan’s policymaking, and it was insufficiently controlled or influenced by elected politicians. During this period, there was limited scope for interference from politicians as the bureaucracy, particularly the elite Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP), maintained control over the selection, training, and posting of its members and was, therefore, able to retain its institutional autonomy.

The last ten years have seen severe violations of the thin line distinguishing between cooperation as required and slavish obsequious for extraordinary personal gain – especially so in Punjab, where flattery and brown-nosing were perfected and converted from abstract art to a virtual science

The student demonstrations and political unrest that led to the collapse of General Ayub Khan’s regime in 1969, followed by the bloody civil war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, seriously undermined the political strength and legitimacy of both the civilian and military bureaucracies. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) exploited this weakness after coming to power in 1971 and set out to redress the power imbalance between the elected and unelected institutions of the state.

“No institution in the country has so lowered the quality of our national life as to what is called Naukarshahi [bureaucratic rule]. It has done so by imposing a caste system on our society. It has created a class of self-styled ‘Brahmins’ or mandarins, unrivalled in its snobbery and arrogance, insulated from life of the people and incapable of identifying itself with them,” Bhutto declared.

It was ironical that ZAB wanted the executive branch to become powerful to execute his agenda, but he took steps to weaken their capacity and motivation. The rapid politicization of the civil service quickly followed. Complete subservience to ministers became the prevailing ethos. However, the effects of these drastic reforms had a significant impact on the institutional performance by the 1990s when most of the civil servants belonging to the erstwhile CSP and those groomed by them had retired.

Read more: Police Service: Challenges & Reforms

Zia relied on the army officers to run the country. However, he soon learned that running the civilian government was having pernicious effects on the armed forces and that the conduct and behavior of the incumbents in office was no different from that of the civilians they had replaced. He, therefore, appointed a top civil servant Ghulam Ishaq Khan as the finance minister who was the de-facto head of the civil administration.

Highly and widely respected for his integrity, competence, and hard work, he was able to insulate the civil service for the time being from external pressures and influence.The erosion of the quality of recruits into the civil services began gradually since the 1973 reforms but became conspicuous by the late eighties (80s) and early nineties (90s).

The civil service ceased to be the preferred choice for the best and the brightest young men and women in Pakistan after the enactment of the 1973 reforms with the result that the quality of intakes and quality of governance, especially from the 1980s onwards, gradually declined. When Benazir Bhutto was elected as the first female prime minister, she struggled to strike an equation between the establishment and her government in furthering her agenda.

To cope up with the situation, pliant or loyal officers were brought in to occupy top positions as secretaries of the ministries and heads of key institutions. Appointments, postings, and transfers were made by and large by the consideration of getting ‘our man’ in place who would do ‘our bidding’. These beneficiaries were not only happy to oblige the political leaders but were also able to enrich themselves and their families and friends in the bargain.

Objectivity, neutrality, and impartiality were all comprised. The unfortunate tradition of replacing all the previous incumbents of top positions in the executive branch of the federal and provincial governments by loyalists got further entrenched in the terms in which Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif alternated in power (1993-99). The politicization of the civil services was openly encouraged by them, and allegiance to the political party was the principal consideration for key appointments and perks.

Since 1999, the decline of the civil service (state apparatus) accelerated by the Musharraf’s local body reforms with significant politicization of the administration under the Nazims. The Pakistani elite (senior members of bureaucracy and political leaders) have so far failed to demonstrate the ability or the will to rise above its own character thereby condemning the country to a condition of poor governance emanating rampant rent-seeking, nepotism, cronyism and parochialism in which the pre-British and post-colonial present and future bear ever more considerable resemblance to each other.

Read more: Pakistan’s spymaster meets Imran Khan to discuss matters of national security

Where does the genuinely needed cooperation between the politician and the bureaucrat end and politicization begin is, therefore, a judgment call that cannot be handled without taking into account the system of governance and the values of a particular society. The last ten years have seen severe violations of the thin line distinguishing between cooperation as required and slavish obsequious for extraordinary personal gain – especially so in Punjab, where flattery and brown-nosing were perfected and converted from abstract art to a virtual science.

A practical manifestation of the shameless practice was evident when many in the Punjab bureaucracy slavishly addressed the former Punjab Chief Minister by sycophantic titles such as “Khadim-e-Aala” and “Quaid-e-Mohtaram” when a simple ‘Sir’ should have sufficed. Extraordinary benefits were increasingly bestowed on the select few, to the exclusion of the majority, thereby creating structural dissonance in the fabric of officialdom.

Through shoulder promotions, a grant of additional responsibilities, and special salaries, the signal was sent out that progress, power, and prosperity was reserved for those who would seek and win the approval of the top political boss. Bureaucrats, already bereft of any institutional mechanism to ensure merit-based appointments and promotions, were lured into competing in the ugly rat race to the best of their abilities.

Pakistan Politicized Civil ServicesIn the process of creating a cult around the person of the Chief Minister and also fueling his eccentric habits and mannerisms, the overall atmosphere changed from being rule-based, sober, and pragmatic into a form of a farcical circus, with individuals falling over their feet to please and curry favor.

A culture of a Mughal Darbar resulted in ill-thought-out multibillion-dollar schemes being green-lighted and pursued with immense gusto at the expense of much-needed investment in health, education, and other social services. Subgroups were formed in concentric circles, based on caste, Biradri, and areas of provenance. Toadyism and cronyism in the era were, in fact, able to out-do traditional nepotism, contributing significantly to heartburning, dysfunction, and the massacre of merit.

A premium was placed on blind, unquestioning obedience, with the culture of questioning and voicing an alternate opinion gradually punished and ultimately phased out. The net effect was to reduce the stature and credibility of civil servants and to expose them to even more ridicule, damaging institutional credibility and culminating in the revulsion for the class that is now visible for all to see.

Her Majesty’s Service

It is indeed unrealistic to expect an elitist colonial bureaucracy to shed its 150 years old colonial trappings in no time and transform itself into a model public service institution with the primary objective of service delivery to its countrymen. The transformation becomes even more difficult given the fact that except the British period in the sub-continent, patron-client relationship and rent-seeking culture remained rooted in the social and politico-administrative fabric of our polity.

In the post-1947 period, it resumed itself as a usual way of life. Thus, apart from honorable exceptions, the bureaucracy immersed into this patron-client relationship and it did not make any significant attempts in re-modeling itself as an efficient service delivery apparatus. Regardless of its imperial character, by the time the British departed in 1947, India and Pakistan inherited one of the most developed civil service systems in the world.

The transition from personalized rule to a state and thence to a public and protected service was complete, at least in the form, if not in substance. Specifically, in the case of Pakistan, political power in the initial years was fragile because of the very nature of the state carved out of British India. It logically meant that the non-elected arms of the state became dominant players.

A premium was placed on blind, unquestioning obedience, with the culture of questioning and voicing an alternate opinion gradually punished and ultimately phased out

Political instability in the 1947-58 decade further contributed to the ascendancy of the bureaucracy vis-à-vis the politicians. In terms of the criteria mentioned above, the bureaucratic structure was centralized, it was insulated, there was some level of internal accountability, but political and judicial accountability was minimal. Lack of clear objectives about the running of the state from the political leadership enabled the bureaucracy to determine its agenda.

Given its imperial training and ethos, its mode of administration remained colonial – at least so far as political representation was concerned. The centralization of bureaucracy was given a further boost by the centralization of the political structure itself in the mid-1950s through the institution of the One Unit. The upper echelons of the service remained virtually unchanged.

Read more: Time to resuscitate the civil services in Pakistan

The ICS was renamed as the Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP), and the functional character of the Pakistan Civil Service was also inherited without any alteration from the All India Civil Service. The bureaucracy was able to insulate itself from political interference by acquiring constitutional protection in the 1962 constitution. Also, the Basic Democracies system (thence BD) was structured to enhance bureaucrat powers at the local level over and above the politician.

With a centralized bureaucratic structure in place, this allowed the bureaucracy to manipulate the political process at the local level. It is in this socio-political background that the civil bureaucracy of Pakistan underwent radical change in the Bhutto regime. President Zia-ul-Haq institutionalized lateral entry of military officers in the civil bureaucracy.

Pakistan Politicized Civil Services

Former President Musharraf also radically overhauled the civil bureaucracy by devolving power at the district level and creating the institution of Nazim. The Devolution Plan diluted the power of the District Management Group. The idea behind the empowerment of the local institutions was good, but the district and local governments could not produce the desired results.

Various radical bureaucratic reforms could have been successful if they had been carried out by taking bureaucracy on board and thus ensuring its input in the reform process. As the present system of service delivery is ineffective and unresponsive to the public in general, serious reforms are needed to improve the performance of bureaucracy.

Institutional Quid Pro Quo

The concluding parts of the article deals with the issue of parameters for a new institutional quid pro quo between the civil service and other institutions of the state, which can take Pakistan’s democratic process forward by providing good governance. An effective public service is a key to the achievement of national, economic, and social goals across the world; capable and motivated bureaucracy plays an instrumental role in economic growth and overall prosperity in a country.

The need is probably far more significant in developing countries that face issues of bad governance, culminating into poverty, inequality, hunger, limited access to quality education and health services, lack of clean drinking water and sanitation facilities. The smooth functioning of democracy and increasing demand for service delivery coupled with accountability call for quid pro quo among Parliament, Executive, Judiciary, Armed Forces and Civil Bureaucracy with a clearly marked boundary, not only on paper but in spirit as well, for the functioning of each institution.

The weak and ineffective institution may provide a space to others for encroachment upon its jurisdictional boundaries. We have witnessed this in cases of suo motu actions taken by the Supreme Court under the guise of judicial oversight; and setting of army monitoring teams, deployment of soldiers for electric meter reading, census, and emergency relief operations, among other things.

Pakistan’s civil service has seen 38 major reform initiatives between the years 1947 and 2016, and these practices have not been as successful as they could have been. The reforms were motivated mainly by short-term priorities and failed to address critical issues of accountability, meritocracy, capacity, and competency

Judicial oversight refers to the process by which the judiciary examines the legality of any action of a person or authority, public or private, under the provisions of the Constitution or any law of a country. Thus, judicial oversight of bureaucracy refers to procedures and mechanisms of the judiciary by which the functions of bureaucracy are scrutinized and tested based on evidence for its validity or legitimacy as bureaucracy exercises a considerable volume of power to meet the needs and expectations of citizens through administrative and development activities.

The frequent dissolution of the provincial and national governments has made it difficult to lay the foundation for a substantial parliamentary and administrative paradigm. Political and administrative crises chronically added to the tensions between the Centre and the provinces. Pakistan’s civil service has seen 38 major reform initiatives between the years 1947 and 2016, and these practices have not been as successful as they could have been.

The reforms were motivated mainly by short-term priorities and failed to address critical issues of accountability, meritocracy, capacity, and competency. The Pakistan Vision 2025 also prioritizes civil service reform as a key objective. In this regard, PM Imran Khan has formed an advisory group for Institutional Reforms & Austerity, and it is led by Dr. Ishrat Hussain, career bureaucrat, public policy expert, and former Governor of SBP.

He has proposed in his seminal work, ‘Governing the ungovernable’, that civil services should be organized at four tiers, i.e. (i) All Pakistan Services; (ii) Federal Services; (iii) Provincial Services; (iv) District Services. All Pakistan Services should consist of the National Executive Service, the Pakistan Administrative Service, and the Police Service of Pakistan.

Pakistan Politicized Civil Services
Ahad Cheema, considered previous Cheif Minister’s blue-eyed boy.

The Federal Services will comprise the Pakistan Foreign Service, Pakistan Audit and Accounts Service, Pakistan Taxation Service, and Pakistan Technical Services with sub cadres. The Provincial Services will include the Provincial Executive Service, the Provincial Management Service, the Provincial Technical Services, and the Provincial Judicial Service. In the current advisory role, Dr. Hussain, along with his team, is focusing on six broad domains of civil service reforms.

Starting with an integrated value-chain approach of human resources, the advisory group is looking at how they can enhance the quality of human resources in the whole government. This value chain starts with recruitment induction, and then it goes to training, performance management, career progression & promotion policy, compensation, and benefits, and eventually, retirement.

One of the main weaknesses of the present system is that once you have entered the civil service at a young age, there is no compulsion to upgrade your skills or knowledge. Career advancement is divorced from skill and knowledge acquisition and application. The advisory group has also proposed to change ‘performance management,’ according to which system of ‘Annual Confidential Report’ that provides no substantive evidence of performance on the job or future potential, will be replaced with an objectives-based and KPI-driven evaluation.

Read more: The Evolution of Civil Services in Pakistan

It will also allow a subordinate to discuss with his senior officer; both of them will sign the KPIs that are to be achieved during the year. The officer’s training outcomes and placement in the promotion ladder will be determined by his performance. So, there is an incentive for the officer to work hard because if he wants to get promoted to the next grade.

All these vital steps orbit around the continuity of this process beyond the current government regime. Taking such ambitious yet indispensable reforms initiative into consideration, it clearly deems that the government has to change the Civil Service Act and Civil Servants Disciplinary Rules. But for the time being, the government does not have the required majority in the Senate.

So, treasury benches will likely do it through rules and regulations, which is under the cabinet’s ambit. The vibrant, politically neutral, efficient, and effective bureaucracy may regain its space surrendered to political bosses, judicially-active judges, and restore the public confidence for a solution to day-to-day problems of the common man for which they approach the elected representatives.

Saud Bin Ahsen works at a public policy think tank institute. He is interested in Comparative Public Administration, Post-Colonial Literature, and South Asian Politics. He can be reached at saudzafar5@gmail.com.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.