View Full Version : Civil service reform - Shahzad Chaudhry - 9th May 2015

9th May 2015, 12:57 PM
When Ahsan Iqbal, the Minister for Planning and Development, brought opinion-makers of various shades together to address the issue of internal reform within his ministry, what emerged instead from the exchange was a resounding consensus on the need to change the civil service structure in the country. He suitably followed it up with half-page advertisements in national newspapers for the next few days eliciting proposals. One hopes he got a few. Else, the files in many ministries are full of studies on reforms by notable figures — Dr Ishrat Hussain, formerly of the World Bank and the State Bank of Pakistan, perhaps the most well known among them. However, what is wrong with the civil service is not ‘only’ what Dr Hussain recommends; it is far more germane to the intent behind why the service was formed in the first place.

The originators of the concept of the civil service that we, in India and Pakistan, have inherited had little of ‘service’ in mind and a lot more of the ‘control’ that went with the extraordinary powers of the civil servant. The civil servant — initially the white man himself, gradually replaced with the native who was distilled for loyalty and trained in the manner of the overlord — was the primary British tool to establish the writ of the Crown in the dominions under British control in India. He had two primary roles: to lord the territory in the name of the Crown; and that came via his second function — collecting revenue to reinforce the pervasive primacy of the Crown to which the natives owed their allegiance and on whose pleasure they pursued their tilling and businesses. Worse taxation has not been known. To match, as an aside, was what came during the time of that abominable Afghan marauder, Ahmad Shah Abdali, after whom we have named a missile: “khaada peeta laay da; te baqi Ahmad Shaa da”. (Loosely, ‘what you eat and drink is yours, rest belongs to Ahmad Shah’).

This power to take away, albeit under some statutes, was what dominated the mindset of the civil ‘servant’. One, there has never been anything ‘civil’ in this construct; and two, he was the ‘servant’ of the Crown, and never of the people. At Independence, the Crown was replaced with the government. In India, where democracy has had a consistent run, the power of the government has been reasonably tempered, though the civil servant there is still an unbridled beast in an environment of societal division and inequality. In Pakistan, sporadic runs with democracy have neither let a democratic culture evolve nor a pattern of accountability has found root to exercise a check on the unlimited power of the civil servant. The civil servant in Pakistan thus is far closer to the original model and functions with not the slightest sham of accountability.

To many, though, branding the civil servant en bloc may be a rather misrepresented characterisation. I mean mostly the District Management Group (DMG), the successors to the administrative lords of Punjab and Bengal of the British times. Even though I make this differentiation, in no way do the rest in the breed stand exonerated from the libelous disposition that has continued to ‘manage’ the common man. Ever since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto attempted the first significant reform in 1973 to tame the bureaucracy, the practitioners mutated their services in the pleasure of the new master — the politician.

The DMG, or the civil services as a class, became more political agents than the servants of the state. That is when the professionalism associated in the exclusivity of the function got tainted. That is when personalised service at the pleasure of the political master became the norm; and that is also when the efficiency in their basic function of administration was eternally impaired. Pakistan’s current tale of an inefficient social order, poor security, corruption, and a host of other ills are rooted in the inability of the administrators to focus on what was their prime function. Personal gratification, vested interests and saving the turf became the newer defining attributes of the civil services in Pakistan.

A civil servant, especially of the DMG class, is a fantastic fellow, but what beats me is when he is also the prime fallback source for everything from environment to trade to primary health to civil works and developmental projects. He is the go-to guy if you wish to create a solar energy park, or institute a mass mobility transport system, or to engineer the traffic in towns. Developing housing projects is his instinctive riposte. Rigging elections is what he can do in his sleep. Hosting television programmes, no problem. Pray, what is he? A jack-of-all-trades, one-size-fits-all, DIY kind of a fellow? These are some aspects that mar the face of what used to be a ‘superior’ club. The list is endless. (Pin most of these on the military and they will fit perfectly, too.) Lest all my good friends in the civil services are eternally offended, honourable exceptions exist. But the drift is pretty much apparent in how the centre of gravity in the existing model of governance has been irreparably compromised. Any surprise then that society continues to decay beyond redemption? This cries for restructuring, not a reform.

The needs of the 21st century society are far more than establishing simple control or securing the state’s interests; it has a lot to do with real service and its delivery. Nineteenth century structures are simply not designed to deliver on those lines. It is time to go to the specialists of the respective fields in governance from the private sector, a la the American system of civil service that combines the cadres and the specialists in each administration. There is no harm in developing a general cadre, especially for administration, but when it comes to populating the top tiers in the bureaucracies at the policy level, sectoral specialists alone will fit the bill for informed input in the respective fields.

Whatever doesn’t deliver is irrelevant and needs to be replaced. Away from their election woes, does Ahsan Iqbal or the prime minister have the gumption to break through the barriers of deliberate inertia meant to secure entrenched interests in a service that simply is not structured to achieve ends meant to fast-track society towards modern existence?

Published in The Express Tribune, May 9th, 2015.