From being the state itself, to being the steel frame of the British Raj, to being powerful functionaries of the newly independent state, to being the development administrators, to being blunt tools in the hands of military and political masters, to being underlings and camp-followers, and unfortunately some even becoming business partners of lustful political regimes, the decline in the integrity and the performance of Pakistan’s civil service is palpable.
Whether it is maintaining the law and order, generating revenue, running trains on time, managing schools and hospitals, collecting municipal waste, conducting vote count, or maintaining fiscal discipline, the output of the state functionaries is hardly a civil or a true service.
The Age of Robber Barons
In the pre-Raj days, entry in the East India Company service was chiefly patronage-based. The very function of the Company-era administrators was the extraction of local resources of the sub-continent and shipping them off to mother-metropolis in London. There were no codified laws to regulate the interaction of the state functionaries with the local population.
It was an era of unregulated discretion and governance through force and personality. The interaction thus depended on the personal character, knowledge, and sense of fair play of the individual administrator. A few officers were indeed honest and fair, while most were nothing short of being outright scoundrels and robber barons.
As the East India Company tightened its grip and extended its control in the sub-continent, it did attempt to train and discipline its officials to be fair in their dealings with the locals. This fair play was a necessity for maintaining stability which in turn was essential for optimal revenue collection. Previously revenue collection in most cases was farmed out to officers who worked as contractors for the Company.
A few officers were indeed honest and fair, while most were nothing short of being outright scoundrels and robber barons.
Recruitment practices also started to change during the later Company-era. The Company-era officers were recruited at a very young age and then sent to the Haileybury College to imbibe them with the knowledge and character deemed essential for their future governance roles.
In the Presidency coastal towns, there were multiple men-on-the-spot: judges, municipal functionaries, policemen, railwaymen, district administrators. Most of the time these multiple officers functioned independently without much coordination and harmony: a judge may even summon other district officers.
The Age of Steel Frame
Then came the Raj in 1857 followed by the codification of laws. The Raj even at its peak lived in continuous fear of the local population. Hence the management of law and order trumped all other state functions. The civil servants at that time were evaluated for their role in revenue collection and policing.
The development goals of the state and evolution of judicial functions were always subordinated to the prime goal of maintaining law and order. The Raj officials were bound by lengthy legal codes and detailed regulatory manuals that were aimed at reducing discretion and increasing discipline.
The entire edifice was built on the principle of subsidiarity under which matters were required to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. One critical example of subsidiarity as enshrined in Section 551 of the Criminal Procedure Code. It stated that all powers conferred on the officer in charge of a police station (the much-reviled SHO) could be exercised by all his superiors, even up to the level of the Inspector General of the Province.
In other words, no police officer had any additional power that the SHO already did not have under the lengthy code. Hence, the junior-most officer has delegated all these powers and he was expected to resolve matters at that local level. Once the Raj extended its geographical limits, the old multi-functionary model was changed to more centralized control and more harmonious functioning.
The judge, the railwayman, the irrigation official, all could remain in the district if so required by the Raj, but all had to report to one district functionary: the deputy commissioner.
The deputy commissioner in fact epitomized in himself all three branches of the state: the ‘legislative’ under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code whereby he could frame a law for a limited period of time in order to maintain order; the ‘judicial’ when he functioned as the magistrate of the district as well as the revenue collector deciding cases; and the ‘executive’ representing the Raj in the district.
This was again in line with the principles of subsidiarity on which the entire system was built: the man on the spot was to be all-powerful. Even for the British imperial history, it was indeed an astonishing fact that the Raj was administered by a mere 1000 or so civil servants when in 1901 the total population of the sub-continent was about 300 million (equal to today’s US population).
These competition-wallahs or the heaven-born; were selected in London through a merit-based system of rigorous examination introduced in 1850s, had the highest educational qualifications, mostly belonged to the middle class, were bound in their conduct by codes and laws that were perhaps one of the longest ones in the world, and answerable only to the Governors and the Viceroy, ultimately became the steel frame of the Raj.
The term was first used by Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, in 1922 during his speech in the House of Commons: ‘If you take that steel-frame out of the fabric, it will collapse. Granted that as compared to the actual needs, these projects were much smaller in scope, and granted also that these were always designed for some imperial purpose, but these projects did have significant positive economic contributions.
This was again in line with the principles of subsidiarity on which the entire system was built: the man on the spot was to be all-powerful.
The civil servants working on these projects were skilled and dedicated people. Furthermore, some officers also left behind a legacy of value-creation through setting up colleges and hospitals in association with local philanthropists. There is no cavil with the fact that the entire system was based on meritocracy, run honestly by people of exceptional intellectual capacity.
The Age of Mandarins
In 1947, the Indian sub-continent took the global leader in securing the end of the Raj. Starting from 1800, and more so during 1857 and 1947, as compared to the political and legislative branches of the state, the executive was over-developed. Potent political institutions could not be allowed to emerge during the Raj.
The division of power between three branches of the state was thus totally tilted in favor of the executive. The new state in 1947 was in the hands of these over-developed civil servants and weak, or virtually non-existing, political institutions. Evidently, these civil servants decided to continue with the Raj-era legal codes and regulatory manuals that created the steel-frame.
That is why in Pakistan the first decade post-1947 saw civil servants becoming Prime Minister, Governor-General and President. Most of these after retirement lived a life with meager resources, none accusing them of lining their own pockets while in power. All efforts were made by them to protect the turf of the civil service and to scuttle competition from the emerging political institutions.
Proper division of power between the executive and the legislature could not be devised despite the 1956 Constitution. Within a decade after 1947, the façade of the pursuit of democratic institutions was brushed away and the military and the civil service joined hands in 1958. Thereafter, the true inheritors of the Raj, the civil and the military bureaucracy (the over-developed executive), were fully in the saddle.
They worked in tandem to usher in controlled democracies under the self-elevated Field Marshal. The Field Marshal was totally enamored with the genius of the civil service. He kept assigning various new tasks and functions to these officers, making them chairmen of banks, authorities, corporations, and even appointing them to the high courts and the supreme court.
The rule-bound bureaucracy, which post-1958 had been transformed into development and economic administrators, began its journey towards vulnerable subordination to the political leadership.
The new development managers-cum-civil servants were deputed to build dams and canals, divert rivers, construct barrages and powerhouses, plan and bring the green revolution to the farms. The much-trumpeted decade of development of 1958-1968 was the product of this civil service, most of whom were people of high intellectual capacity and immaculate honesty, some of whom even dreamed of laying foundations of a true welfare state in Pakistan.
The Age of Politics
This golden decade of mandarins was followed by the emergence of charisma and populism. Against all civil service predictions and analysis, the people became so fascinated with the first populist leader, that in the end he had to be handed over power in the left-over and ash-covered Pakistan.
Thereafter began in all earnest the process of dismantling the steel frame. Hundreds of civil servants were summarily dismissed. The tenure and condition of services of the civil service officers, which were given special protection by Section 240 of The India Act 1935 (and later carried forward in 1956 and 1962 Constitutions), were done away with.
By design, this left the civil servant more vulnerable to the whims of the changing rulers. The organized bureaucracy was defeated by the charismatic populist. The sun began to set on the golden age of the mandarins. The rule-bound bureaucracy, which post-1958 had been transformed into development and economic administrators, began its journey towards vulnerable subordination to the political leadership.
The old division of power between the executive and the legislature swung the other way instead of finding a proper equilibrium: the executive became subordinate to the populist political leadership. The new political elite did, however, need the civil service to run nationalized industries but its main objective remained to convert the independent and impartial implementer of laws into a mere tool which could be used against its political opponents.
Those civil servants who performed well the role of being such potent tools were given preference to those who tried to adhere to rules and regulations. The now vulnerable and enfeebled civil service was deputed to plan the re-election of the charismatic leader in 1977. As it turned out the plan miserably backfired and triggered a nation-wide protest movement.
A naked and bold attempt was made to extend this re-tooling exercise even to the military officers by ordering them to conduct operations in the streets against those protestors, which back-fired. In the end this re-tooling of the civil service cost the populist leader dearly. In 1978 one of such re-tooled civil servants, in cahoots with military leadership, became an approver against the same populist leader.
The price paid for this re-tooling proved to be drastic for the leader who for short-term and selfish gains had caused enormous and irreversible damage to the institution of the civil service. Had this exuberant enthusiasm to use the civil servants as mere tools to pursue personal agendas been eschewed, and had the objective been to govern purely under the laws, the drastic fate may not have befallen the populist leader in 1979.
Thus, began the journey towards decline in governance, where the vulnerable civil servant began to dance to the tunes of the changing masters.
The Age of Vulnerability
Once the populist leader had been sent six feet under, the civil servants became the underlining of the new military leadership. The new military master (1977-1988) used this tool to inflict maximum pain and suffering on his political opposition. This dark era witnessed civil servants completely subjugated to the whims of the dictator.
Gone were the days of lengthy codes and detailed regulatory manuals as the new master always contrived re-writing those as he deemed fit. The vulnerable civil servants were left in no position to raise any voice against the continued subversions and mutation of the laws and regulations.
The price paid for this re-tooling proved to be drastic for the leader who for short-term and selfish gains had caused enormous and irreversible damage to the institution of the civil service.
One major contributor to this underlying status was the drastic decline in the compensation paid to the civil servants. Compensation became completely incongruous with their responsibilities and with the financial and economic conditions, thus generating incentivizes for off-the-books corrupt practices. It was not linked to performance but to seniority.
The compression ratios between the junior and the senior grades also started to decline from 1:100 to 1:10, thus creating further incentives against performance. The laws protecting the tenures of civil servants had already been thrown out of the window. Hundreds of civil servants were arbitrarily removed leaving them more vulnerable to the dictatorial onslaught.
They became cronies and partners in the social and political re-engineering that was mandated by the dictator through the earlier tried and tested model of controlled democracy. The development administrator role was also subordinated as the first war on terror took all the resources leaving peanuts for the economic and development activities.
The civil service was back to the days of maintaining law and order: all the additional functions that had been assigned post-1947 were slowly minimized or handed over to serving or retired military officers directly. The goal of a true welfare state, governed under laws, administered through honest, dedicated and capable civil servants started to fade away.
The Age of Camps
The post-1988 political elite had seen how the civil servants were used against them by the erstwhile dictator. The next step in this downhill journey was taken during 1988-1999 when the civil servants started to align themselves with the newly emerged political elite. This alignment quickly descended into the abyss of personal, dynastic and clan commitment.
Such loyalty led to the creation of a pool of camp-follower civil servants who were willing collaborators. Such camp-followers were brazenly ready to use the legal provisions aimed at empowering them to serve a public purpose for buttressing their preferred political parties. Instead of neutral functionaries of the state, they were ready to be partisans and selective in the implementation of laws, award of contracts, and recruitments to sought after jobs.
Each political personality, dynasty, and clan started to sponsor and support its favored camp of civil servants. The price for entering in a particular political camp and for climbing up the totem pole was to excel in finding ways and means to protect and support the personal and political interests of the preferred political master.
The tasks assigned to the civil servants ranged from approval and speedy implementation of dubious and shoddy development schemes in particular constituencies, managing vote count during elections, and outright abduction, torture and even elimination of political opponents.
There was no hiding from the camps as no-man’s-land was not available: any ambitious civil servant who wanted to climb up the totem pole had to kiss the ring of allegiance. After this the veneer of rule-based bureaucracy gave way to personalized (personal to the ruler or the dynasty or the clan) administration. Such political commitment is the complete negation of the concept of impartial and neutral rule-based functionaries of the state and the root-cause of mal-governance.
It also further incentivized civil servants to seek refuge in preferred political camps as a form of insurance against harassment by the accountability process.
One major contributor to this process of withering away of the rule-based bureaucracy was the creeping distortion between policy and operation. Policymaking, which is the proper domain of the political institutions, was slowly extended to include operations. The politicians wanted to award the contract and recruit their own constituents.
Old rules empowering senior civil servants to decide postings, transfers, promotions, housing, and disciplinary proceedings of their subordinates were changed. Most of the critical administrative powers were slowly usurped by the policymakers themselves.
Once this distinction between policy and operation was distorted, political bosses used their newly acquired administrative powers to favor those civil servants who were ready to support their particular dynasty or personality and to openly penalize those who were not ready to toe their line.
The Age of De-Construction
This vertical loss of power was followed post-1999 by the horizontal loss of authority. The new commando-cum-generalissimo went about devising and implementing the national reconstruction plan to decimate whatever was left of the civil service. This was clubbed with the new ‘removal from service’ laws and the national accountability regime under which whatever protections were available to the civil servants were done away with, leaving the civil servants by design even more vulnerable than before.
The so-called accountability process created a new potent tool for smothering political opponents and for making civil servants weaker and thus compliant. It was the worst possible horizontal intrusion in the turf of the civil service. Arrest, detention without bail, and trials lasting decades resulted in civil servants further abdicating whatever decision-making powers they were left with.
It led to the further collapse of the efficiency and decision-making in the civil service. It also further incentivized civil servants to seek refuge in preferred political camps as a form of insurance against harassment by the accountability process.
This twin framework of the national reconstruction plan and the accountability process contributed to the failing state that we witness presently when trains do not run on time, municipal waste splatters urban areas, farmers have little water at the canals’ tail-ends, hospitals and schools are broken down, etc.
The Age of Business
The next step on this road downhill was, however, taken when the camp-follower functionaries of state-aligned themselves with the political elite to create business opportunities for the rent-seeking regimes. Having proximity to the political masters gave the ambitious and lustful civil servants vast opportunities to line their own pockets.
Pleasing their political bosses, and using their bureaucratic chicanery, they contracted out mega-projects to companies of dubious repute under newly devised procedures aimed at getting rid of all ‘cumbersome’ rules and regulations of audit and controls. The political bosses, who had over decades worked hard to enfeeble the institution and make it vulnerable, justified this innovative distortion of laws and rules by accusing the civil servants of being too inefficient to deliver mega-projects on time.
Thus, emerged the new ambitious and lustful business-partner civil service, nick-named by some quarters as the go-getter group, which is not only a mere camp-follower but an active participant in resource-extraction. This is indeed a sharp decline from the days of honest and capable functionaries of the state who were dedicated to the cause of creating a value-creating true welfare state.
This re-emergence of the extractive state that had existed in the pre-Raj days, and was dubbed Sikha-Shahi, where instead of creating value the functionaries of the state lived off the people and the land, is fast becoming the new normal. It is sad that we now read about, and witness, ambitious and lustful civil servants who create business opportunities for their greedy political bosses and in the process also create illegal business opportunities for themselves being portrayed as ‘role-models’.
We may have come full circle and reverted all the way back to the pre-Raj days of the civil service. Welcome back to the era of buccaneers, robber barons, and go-getters of the East India Company days! There are indeed many exceptions to such camp-follower and business-partner civil servants but they are ‘properly and duly’ penalized and eliminated through the promotion processes.
This distortion in the promotion process created the much-preferred under-19 teams who were ready to jog when ordered by the political bosses to walk: the age of blind obedience and complete compliance dawned. This governance model is based on patronizing pliable juniors, who overawed by the unexpected vast powers and direct access to political authority, are willing to take all kinds of risks to remain in those undeserved positions of authority and access.
These junior brigades in each camp climbed up the promotion totem pool through a process designed to weed out all those who were not considered enthusiastic camp-followers of the regime. The much-trumpeted promotion policy of the-best-of-the-best translated in reality to this narration by Shakespeare:
King Henry and the prince his son are gone:
Clarence, thy turn is next, and then the rest,
Counting myself but bad till I be best.
I’ll throw thy body in another room
And triumph, Henry, in thy day of doom.
Dum Spiro Spero
Today the civil service, as a whole, is seen by the common man to be primarily motivated by value-extraction rather than interested in real value-creation. We have de-constructed the rule of law and reverted back to the days of the law of the ruler. The impartial rule-based bureaucracy based on the Weberian model of maximizing efficiency, maintaining order, eliminating favouritism, and administering dispassionately may seem to have seen its demise.
The entire edifice created post-1857, based on rules and laws, has now slowly withered away leaving behind a plastic frame ready to adjust to the changing weather patterns. The way out of this abyss will require a leadership commitment to stop this fast decline into a failed state. Proper division of power between the executive, legislature and now even the judiciary, will have to be devised.
We may have come full circle and reverted all the way back to the pre-Raj days of the civil service. Welcome back to the era of buccaneers, robber barons, and go-getters of the East India Company days!
Vertical authority within the civil service will need to be restored by revising the now distorted distinction between policy and operation. Fixing tenures of senior officers will also have to be mandated. Apart from a host of other measures to restore and strengthen this institution, compensation of civil servants will have to be revised to bring in line with the economic and financial conditions.
Compensation cannot be based on seniority and promise but has to be linked to performance. Hence, the creation of an elitist-generalist cadre, or national executive service, recruited purely on merit and compensated on performance, will also be required. The hardest part will be to bring back the rule-based bureaucracy. And this hardest part will come from the leadership itself.
Building institutions is a painstaking job. Only leadership committed to rule of law can set an example. Otherwise, if we continue on this downhill road, the dreaded failed state will soon be our destiny. But one lives with hope, and one wishes that maybe there will be times when the functionaries of the state will rise above their temptations and ambitions and administer this glorious land in the true spirit of the welfare state. As the philosopher, Cicero said ‘Dum Spiro Spero—while I breathe, I hope’.
Asim Imdad Ali is currently a partner in an Islamabad based law firm. He earlier served in Central Superior Services, at positions of increasing responsibility, in its prestigious DMG group (1992-2006), and later served as Head of legal and regulatory affairs in a major multinational company. He is an LLB (gold) from Punjab University, LLM from Kings College London, and did Masters in Public Administration at Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University where he was an Edward S. Mason Fellow.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.