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Wednesday, May 22, 2024


The Civil Services in Pakistan have colonial origins. A competent, effective and neutral civil service is the backbone of any country’s governance structure. Countries that do not have an organized civil service system are at a relative disadvantage in executing their programs and policies. Civil service refers to the body of government officials who are employed in civil occupations that are neither political nor judicial.

A well-functioning civil service helps to foster good policymaking, effective service delivery, accountability and responsibility in utilizing public resources which are the characteristics of good governance. The importance of the civil service to governance stems from the service presence throughout the country and its strong binding character, administrative and managerial capacity of the services, effective policy-making and regulation, effective coordination between institutions of governance, leadership at different levels of administration, service delivery at the cutting edge level and provide ‘continuity and change’ to the administration.

The civil service, as the primary arm of government, must keep pace with the changing times in order to meet the aspirations of the people. In this regard, it is pertinent to chronically explore the process of the politicization of Civil Services in Pakistan. This critical topic has been discussed below by encompassing three broad aspects which are important to be mentioned before detail discussion.

The Civil Services in Pakistan have colonial origins. A competent, effective and neutral civil service is the backbone of any country’s governance structure

These are, (a). Politicization is more of a process than a state and the extent of politicization cannot be gauged without invoking social and historical contexts in which politicization has taken place over the decades. It has gradually blurred the thin line for a civil servant in terms of being politically savvy and being politicized.

(b). Pakistan’s checkered progress toward democracy cite bureaucratic intrigues as one of the main factors in derailing democracy from its inception. However, isn’t it unrealistic to expect a colonial bureaucracy with 150 years history of serving the Crown to re-invent itself overnight into a “public service?” Couldn’t there be some alternative and more imaginative strategies to allow a smooth transition from an elite colonial apparatus to a national public service, other than trying to dismantle its entire value structure through purges, financial squeezing and constitutional coups.

(c). What can be the 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?

Politicization, a process than a state

Starting with first perspective that politicization is more of a process than a state, it is imperative to analyze South Asian colonial heritage that had a direct bearing on our political culture as well as its bureaucratic and political institutions. 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, but rather were designed to help legitimize and strengthen the authority of the bureaucratic state.

The power imbalance between the very strong bureaucratic institutions that Pakistan inherited from colonial India and the very weak representative and democratic institutions has been one of the greatest causes of political instability in Pakistan since its independence. From 1947 to 1971 the civilian bureaucracy played the dominant role in Pakistan’s policymaking and as such was insufficiently controlled or influenced by elected politicians.

Read more: Policing Dilemma: Reform or control?

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 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 civil 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.  As the following quote demonstrates, he was particularly vocal in castigating the civil service and blaming it for many of the country’s ills:

“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.”

The process of institutional decay leading to politicization can be traced back to the period in which ZAB was at the helm of affairs. He was bitter about the dominance and arrogance of the Civil Service he experienced during the Ayub Khan period. His disdain for the civil services was reflected in the summary dismissal of 1,300 officers soon after he assumed power as the Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA).

To weaken the CSP cadre, this dismissal was followed by drastic reforms: abolition of the CSP cadre, introduction of the All Pakistan Unified Grades (APUG), removal of the constitutional guarantee of security of employment, etc.  National pay structure was compressed and pigeonholed all the public servants in Grade 1-22 which played havoc with the incentive structure.

It has gradually blurred the thin line for a civil servant in terms of being politically savvy and being politicized

Central to this strategy was the introduction of a policy of “lateral recruitment” as a way to increase political influence over the bureaucracy and to ensure that Bhutto’s policies and programs could be implemented in the face of a self-interested bureaucracy that was resistant to change. The measure promoted by Bhutto that was to have the most far-reaching and damaging consequences for the effectiveness and integrity of the civil service was the 1973 Constitution’s redaction of the protection that had been afforded to the civil service in previous constitutions.

These protections, which were present in the 1956, 1962 and interim 1972 constitutions, included safeguards against the dismissal, reduction in rank or compulsory retirement of public servants. This measure was deliberately designed to undermine the independence of the civil service. Up till then there had been a tradeoff between job security and low compensation on the one hand and an accelerated career path on the other.

Under the new arrangements there was no job security, no assurance of a defined career path, and also low compensation. 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 from his political part became the prevailing ethos.

However, the effects of these drastic reforms had a significant impact on the institutional performance in the 1990s when most of the civil servants belonging to the erstwhile CSP and those groomed by them had retired. Zia relied on the army officers to run the country but he soon learnt 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 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).

Read more: How Pakistani politics, civil society & bureaucracy promote Corruption?

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 1980s onwards gradually declined. When Benazir Bhutto was elected as the first female prime minister, she was struggling to strike an equation between the establishment and her government in furthering her agenda.

To cope with this 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.

This 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 Shareef 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 characters 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 greater resemblance to each other.

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 the Punjab, where flattery and brown-nosing were perfected and converted from an abstract art to a virtual science.

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)

A practical manifestation is the shameless practice adopted by many in the Punjab bureaucracy of slavishly addressing 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, 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 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 this ugly rat race to the best of their abilities, in the process 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 in order 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.

Sub groups were formed in concentric circles, based on caste, biradri and areas of provenance. Toadyism and cronyism in the era was in fact able to out-do traditional nepotism, contributing greatly 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.

Read more: Time to resuscitate the civil services in Pakistan

Her Majesty’s Service

Now taking second perspective into consideration that isn’t it unrealistic to expect a colonial bureaucracy with 150 years history of serving the Crown to re-invent itself overnight into a “public service?”

Following is a passage from Ronald Hunt and John Harrison’s in The District Officer in India:  More than Her Majesty the Queen, her Secretary of State for India, or the Viceroy, it was the three lettered service (ICS) that ruled the sub-continent of India for over a century and a half, down to August 1947.

As regards the role of bureaucracy as one of the factors in derailing democracy in the early years of Pakistan is concerned, there is no denying that some powerful bureaucrats meddled with the political affairs of the country and their intrigues led to the derailing of democracy. However, in this connection one cannot rule out the undesirable and negative role of politicians and military bureaucracy which also contributed to the derailment of democracy in Pakistan.

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. This transformation becomes even more difficult given the fact that except British period in sub-continent patron-client relationship and rent-seeking culture remained rooted in social and politico-administrative fabric of our polity and in post-1947 period it resumed itself as a normal 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 form if not in substance. Specifically, in the case Pakistan, political power in the initial years was fragile because of the very nature of the state carved out of British India. This logically meant that the non-elected arms of the state became dominant players.

Where flattery and brown-nosing were perfected and converted from an abstract art to a virtual science

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/or judicial accountability was minimal. Lack of clear objectives about running of the state from the political leadership enabled the bureaucracy to determine its own 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 the bureaucracy was given 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.

The ICS was renamed 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.

Moreover, 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 or purge in the Bhutto regime. Mandated by peoples’ power, and wary of military rule of Gen. Ayub Khan, which saw a close working relationship between military ruler and civil bureaucracy, Mr. Bhutto brought radical change or purge in the Civil bureaucracy as mentioned earlier.

Read more: The Evolution of Civil Services in Pakistan

President Zia-ul-Haq institutionalized lateral entry of military officers in the Civil bureaucracy. 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 power of the District Management Group. The idea behind empowerment of the local institutions was a good idea 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. Moreover, we would like to argue that it would have been best if our bureaucracy would have been proactively undertaken efforts at transforming itself from an elitist colonial apparatus to a humble and efficient nationalistic public service institution.

But despite its powerful presence in different governments, it did not undertake this exercise for reforming itself. As the present system of service delivery is ineffective and unresponsive to public in general, serious reforms are needed to improve the performance of bureaucracy.

Institutional Quid Pro Quo

Final and most critical perspective 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?

As effective public service has remained a key to the achievement of national economic and social goals across the world, capable and motivated bureaucracy may play an instrumental role in economic growth and overall prosperity in a country. The need for establishment of efficient and effective intuitions like parliament, executive and judiciary for efficient service delivery is greater for 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 the State institutions of Parliament, Executive, Judiciary, Armed Forces and Civil Bureaucracy with a clear marked boundary, not only on paper but in spirit as well, for functioning of each institution. The week and ineffective institution may provide a space to other for encroachment upon its jurisdictional boundaries.

The transition from personalized rule to a state and thence to a public and protected service was complete, at least in form if not in substance.

We have witnessed this in cases of Suo moto actions taken by Supreme Court and setting of Army monitoring Teams, deployment of soldiers for electric meter reading, census, emergency relief operations and so on. Constitution of Pakistan, 1973 defines rights and responsibilities of and creates a balance between all the main institutions of the state which are executive, legislative and judiciary.

Constitution’s preamble states that whereas it is the will of the people of Pakistan to establish an order, wherein the state shall exercise its powers and authority through the chosen representatives of the people. The constitution envisages separation of powers wherein legislative branch is to make laws, executive is to implement laws and formulate policies and judiciary is to adjudicate and interpret the laws.

Effective civil service is characterized by good governance which means sound policy making, efficient service delivery, and accountability and responsibility in public resource utilization. Pakistan’s civil service saw 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 largely motivated 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, and the Ministry of Planning, Development and Reforms is spearheading a process focusing on specialization and professionalism, outcome-based performance evaluation and meritocracy in appointments.

Read more: Are civil services reforms imminent?

Like other countries, past civil service reform in Pakistan emphasized issues concerning salaries, benefits and other financial incentives. There is ample research within and outside Pakistan suggesting that financial incentives do improve performance depending on context.

Judicial oversight refers to the process by which the judiciary examines the legality of any action of a person or authority, public or private, in accordance with 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.

The bureaucracy exercises a huge volume of power to meet the needs and expectations of citizens through administrative and development activities of the government. There are three main formal control organs of the government such as executive, legislature, and judiciary.

The frequent dissolution of the provincial and national governments made it difficult to lay the foundation for a strong parliamentary system. Political and constitutional crises added to the tensions between the Centre and the provinces. Such problems made it possible for the bureaucracy and military to maintain a superior position in the power structure of the country.

A study of military interventions in politics can help to make some general remarks about the causes which allow a professional military to assume an overtly political role. In short, there are multiple causes of military intervention in the political sphere of Pakistan. No single factor can be cited as the sole factor for the militarization of the country. Today, Pakistan stands at the cross-roads of history.

Therefore, all three stake holders should strictly work under their domain as enunciated by the Constitution of Pakistan and other legal dispensation for each of the institution.  The vibrant, politically neutral, efficient and effective bureaucracy may regain its space surrendered to political bosses, judicially active judges and regain the public confidence for solution to day to day problems of common man for which they approach to elected representatives.

And last but not the least democratic process may be allowed to continue and flourish by self-corrections and there should be local governments in its true spirit, they may be formed with appropriate resources for effective service delivery and of course genuine and impartial accountability will be very much desirable.

Saud Bin Ahsen is associated with a Public Policy Think Tank Institute and has done MPA (Master of Public Administration) from Institute of Administrative Sciences (IAS) Punjab University, Lahore. 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 author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.