September issue 2018
Depoliticising the Civil Service
Since the Anita Turab episode – which resonated in the Supreme Court – many years ago, the state of affairs in the civil bureaucracy has remained unchanged. In fact, it has continued to slide and tumble. It no longer has the sheen it once did. Now, even its shape is distorted. No wonder governance is at its worst, for it is the civil service that provides an administration with its quality and strength. It is the steel frame that holds the administration together. With the steel frame weak and unstable, we have a structure that is prone to interventions. As a result, the bureaucracy today easily gives in to political pressures.
(For those not familiar with the case, Anita Turab, a senior civil service officer, approached the Chief Justice in 2011 for taking suo moto notice against PPP worker, Wahida Shah, for slapping a government official. She petitioned for protection of civil servants against mistreatment by transient governments. Her petition was upheld in a landmark judgment by Justice Jawwad S. Khawaja in 2012 which categorically stated that ‘civil servants owe their first and foremost allegiance to the law and the Constitution. They are not bound to obey orders from superiors which are illegal or are not in accordance with accepted practices and rule based norms. In such situation they must record their opinion and, if necessary, their dissent.’ In 2013, this iconic fighter to protect government servants from humiliation, sought the Election Commission’s intervention against questionable appointments by the PPP administration during its last days in 2013. Her letter resulted in a ban being imposed on all last-minute appointments by the PPP government. And earned Anita a show cause notice for dismissal from service.)
The quality and performance of the bureaucracy has been adversely affected by factors such as insecurity of tenure, improper career planning and poor compensation packages. These have a direct bearing on the quality of induction in the civil service today, via the Central Superior Services (CSS) examination. The reported average success rate of two per cent in these examinations in the last few years points to the quality of education of the aspirants looking to enter.
In the Pakistan of the 1950s and 1960s and, for a better part of the 1970s, the civil services offered one of the best careers for young graduates. The working environment was respectable, salaries reasonable and jobs fairly secure. The corporate sector had not yet developed. The banking and insurance sectors were conservative and slow to grow. The IT and telecom sectors had not yet emerged and only a handful of multinationals were in business here. The civil service was the number-one choice for the youth. Thus, we had a strong and efficient administrative machinery that served as the steel frame even as the political structures around it crumbled every now and then.
My children laugh when I tell them that when I joined the civil service as a probationer in November 1971, my take-home monthly salary was Rs. 485, while a fresh entrant in a banking career would draw a salary of Rs. 350 per month. For the most part of the year that we were at the Civil Service Academy in Lahore, our monthly mess bill averaged Rs. 225. Our salary was not lordly, but certainly enough for a comfortable and respectable life.
In contrast, a civil service entrant today draws a salary of Rs. 36,000 per month, inclusive of medical and other allowances. Compared to this, graduates from IBA, LUMS and similar institutions working at banks, corporate bodies and multinational companies, average a starting salary of Rs. 75,000 per month, with accelerated career progression.
The slide began when the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto introduced civil service reforms, depriving the civil servants of the vital security of service. Earlier, he had sacked a large number of government employees arbitrarily, mostly as a result of personal dislikes. The reforms he introduced made the civil services vulnerable to pressures and political manipulations. The rot had set in.
There was a brief period of relative stability for the civil service under the dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq. The late 1980s and the decade of the 1990s, winessed pivotal changes. The federal and provincial governments, and specially the one in Punjab, transformed the civil service into a personal (political) service, subverting its role to brow-beating and converting political opponents.
This continued until the military takeover in 1999, when the civil service experienced little interference in its day-to-day functions, specially in appointments, postings, transfers and promotions. But this was short lived. The last ten years saw a complete transformation in the civil service, specially in Sindh and Punjab, where it became a tool of the political masters. The creation of 56 companies in Punjab, headed by favoured candidates at an average pay of Rs.1.5 million a month (against their regular salary of Rs.150,000 per month), the posting of junior officers in senior positions and unjust supersessions, were the obvious manifestations of a politicised bureaucracy.
It was the same civil service that had once produced master planners, internationally-recognised financial managers and policy planners, that were the envy of foreign governments. Can we hold this claim today? And why not? Because, for the past 30 years, we have been drawing only average and below-average talent to the service.
As banking and financial services grew, the corporate sector expanded and IT and telecom hit the scene, the youth had a choice of lucrative careers. In contrast, the government remained unmoved. With salaries stagnating, facilities shrinking and respectability and security no longer inbuilt features, the civil service was no longer a magnet for fresh graduates.
We need to change the course of a civil servant’s career, remove the irritants and obstacles that are strewn in his path, give him hope and not despair, offer him security of service and provide him with a respectable livelihood. We must do that not as a favour to him, but as a deliberate effort to draw the best talent of the country to this line of work.
During my eight years as a federal secretary, I kept urging the then heads of government to give some thought to the crisis. Nobody listened. Given our financial problems, we shall never be able to offer market-based salaries to the millions of public-sector employees. But the government can surely offer that to the few thousand civil service members belonging to the different occupation groups that join through the CSS examination. That would be the best investment this nation can make, even though its results will take time to bear fruit.
All efforts to reform the civil service will not produce results unless civil servants are provided iron-clad protection from political pressure. Political will to depoliticise the civil services is the key. Imran Khan has the opportunity to do this. And if he does, it will herald the change in a new Pakistan.
Syed Anwar Mahmood is a former Federal Secretary for Information and Broadcasting and a former Health Secretary .