September issue 2018

By | Cover Story | Published 4 weeks ago

Civil service reform is a subject that has caused rivers of ink to flow, only for good advice to be ignored and bad advice to be accepted by both civilian and military dispensations. The last time serious proposals for reform that had any chance of success were articulated, was in the early 1960s and it is a measure of Pakistan’s failure that the problems they sought to address were allowed to grow unhindered. The result is that Pakistan’s civilian state apparatus is in intellectual decline, saturated by integrity issues, and often lacks the technical skills needed to perform specific tasks in an increasingly complex world. 

Institutional reform is a multi-generational exercise while governments, with crises-ridden, limited tenures, generally lack the patience and wisdom to set in place practices and structures that will mature over a 10 to 40 year timeframe and require constant tending and course correction. 

The quality of governance in a state depends a great deal on the quality of the state machinery. Pakistan’s administrative decline over the past 40 years has diminished the ability of any government to deliver on its promises and policies. An important driver of this deterioration has been arbitrariness in decision-making and enforcement, decline in relative – and at times absolute – terms in pay and services conditions, and a lack of effective accountability.

Political interference in the daily operation of state machinery must be reduced by the greatest extent possible. The government can formulate and then adhere to a policy of de facto security of tenure (minimum two years in a particular post) for all civil service officers (Grades 17-22) of the federal cadres, accompanied by regular rotation (after three years in a particular post). What that means is that the cabinet can decide to halt all transfers of federal state servants subject to review by an independent panel of eminent persons constituted to advise the prime minister on this matter. It will put an end to problems of over-frequent transfers in some departments and the continuation of some officials for too long in the same post. 

The government must put an end to the use of civilian state apparatus and autonomous bodies as a means of generating employment. Given the provincial status of many subjects, the federal government can, at its level, ban recruitment except for essential staff, with the caveat that provinces may hire more people, provided that they pay for them out of their own revenues. 

Civil servants need to be held to a standard of public scrutiny comparable to elected representatives. Enforcement of asset declaration by all federal and autonomous bodies employees is imperative. These declarations ought to be made public in the case of all federal secretaries and accessible to the public upon request as far as the rest are concerned. Civil servants must be required to relinquish any position or stake, however honorary, that they enjoy or hold in any other organisation, be it an NGO, a private enterprise or a board. Their spouses and dependents must declare any stakes or employment in a non-government entity. 

Civil servants and those employed in autonomous bodies, whose tax is deducted from their salaries but do not file a tax return, need to be compelled to do so. A wall of separation must be enforced between those in the service of Pakistan and international donors, international organisations, aid agencies, private companies and semi-government entities. All officers presently deployed on such assignments in Pakistan should be recalled.

While these corrective measures are being carried out, a parliamentary commission charged with the drafting of a Constitutional Amendment providing safeguards to civil servants at all levels of the state, should be formed. The existing services can also be granted constitutional status, thereby preventing arbitrary changes to their organisation and service conditions and placing them under genuine parliamentary oversight. This commission will have one year to draft the necessary legislation. If there is insufficient political support for an amendment, then the government can proceed with the drafting of a new act that can be passed by a simple majority. 

The voluntary freeze on arbitrary transfers and recruitments, increasing public scrutiny of civil servants, and initiation of a legislative process that will grant the civil service effective constitutional status or, failing that, meaningful formal legislative cover, are some of the initial steps on the path of reform. These changes will have to be followed by improvements to pay and service conditions.

Take-home pay must be restored to competitive levels. Given the shortage of funds and the sheer size of the state apparatus, monetisation would only be feasible, at first, for officers of the Central Superior Services. Initial pay in BPS 17 for CSS recruits, ought to be Rs. 200,000 a month, and go up by Rs. 150,000 a month per grade. This would be mean that a federal secretary (BPS 22) ought to draw a take-home salary of around a million rupees a month. In real terms, this increase would restore federal civil service officers’ salaries to about 60 per cent of what they were in the mid-1950s and early-1960s. It would also mean entry-level positions in the civil service would pay better than nearly any other field and allow the state to attract the best talent. The flip-side of this would be termination of all non-monetary forms of compensation.

The maximum age of recruitment must be raised to 35 years for persons with advanced qualifications. Retirement age, meanwhile, should be raised to 65, and pensions should be standardised pensions by grade, phasing out the current complex system. These steps would bring the service structure in line with present demographic and educational realities.

There needs to be a professionalisation of the bureaucratic elite. It is truly remarkable that nearly every state function that affects the welfare of Pakistan’s citizens (health, education, commerce, trade, industries, intelligence, accountability, communications, infrastructure) lacks an integrated professional civil service elite. It is time that posts in all departments were properly organised in cadres and that full-fledged central superior services recruited via the Federal Public Service Commission (FPSC) were created for health, education, public works, industries, intelligence, economic development, human rights and women’s empowerment, religious affairs and accountability. Officers of these new services could be rotated between the centre and provinces as needed. 

Methods of recruitment also need to be reformed. Rather than a single combined exam, it would help if separate services held their own exams, administered by the FPSC. Each service should have certain requirements. For example, taxation services should require a degree in Economics, Business/Public Administration, Mathematics, Statistics, a relevant Law degree and so on. A basic qualifying exam may also be introduced in subjects like English and Current Affairs and only candidates who pass this stage would be eligible for examination in other subjects. The reservation of vacancies for military officers in the services ought to end, though the age limit can be raised for those in the armed forces who attempt the exams. The quota system must be audited and modified to ensure that candidates domiciled and educated in deprived areas benefit from it.

The Common Training Programme needs to be done away with. Each service should have at least two to three years of specialised training, depending on the specific requirements of each department, or ministry. The mid-career and senior management courses can be safely abolished and their establishments packed up or used to cater towards initial training. Civil servants can be offered sabbaticals and study leave on easy terms, so that they can advance their qualifications. Tying advancement to senior posts to such expertise could provide the needed incentive.

Finally, there must be reforms that address the accountability of civil servants and build the autonomy and integrity of the services over time.  

One proposal that has been tossed around by governments since 1985, without any success, is the creation of neutral statutory bodies to oversee the promotions, transfers, and discipline of officers. The composition of these bodies may vary, depending on the scope of their authority, and there can be separate bodies for different services. The modalities may also vary, but what ought to remain constant is that once the neutral bodies are set in motion, their members will have one fixed, non-renewable tenure. Ministers and senior civil servants will lose their ability to directly influence transfers, promotions and discipline in these neutral bodies. A related proposal is to restore the powers of the Central Public Services commission to what it was under the 1935 India Act, or otherwise expand the said powers to encompass the role envisioned for neutral statutory bodies.

Another proposal, from 1961, is the creation of a Council of State to respond to complaints made by citizens against the bureaucracy, carry out investigations and impose penalties on errant officers. In order to ensure the prestige and neutrality of such a council, it should enjoy constitutional cover and have clearly-specified powers of investigation and enforcement. Building such an institution and dealing with its teething problems is likely to take several decades. This reform will most likely be resisted by those civil servants who do not want there to be any effective body before which citizens can vent their grievances. The courts are too slow and overburdened by frivolous litigation, and departmental discipline is weak to non-existent.

Meaningful reform of the civil service would reduce political interference and arbitrariness, improve pay and service conditions, and make officials accountable for their actions. Many of the ideas shared above have been proposed – and rejected, or set aside – at one point or another. Perhaps the first thing the new government needs to do is take a history lesson and review the advice lying abandoned in its own records. It should avoid unnecessary public discussion about how to reinvent the wheel and start executing the proposals that Pakistan’s finest public service minds, from Cornelius and S. K. Dehlavi, to Ijlal Haider Zaidi, Mian Aslam Hayat and Zafar Iqbal Rathore, have left behind.

Ilhan Niaz is the author of Old World Empires: Cultures of Power and Governance in Eurasia and The Culture of Power and Governance in Pakistan, 1947-2008. His upcoming book, The State During the British Raj: Imperial Governance in South Asia, 1700-1947, will be published by Oxford University Press.