Government officers are given special trainings throughout their careers on which millions of rupees of taxpayers’ money are spent, but problems still persists, possibly because of a lack of honesty and integrity on part of the public servants.
As another round of the annual
Central Superior Services (CSS) examinations wraps up this week, the hopeful candidates will begin the long wait for the results to be announced later this year. Every year, a sizeable number of youth appears in these exams but the majority is left high and dry because of several issues such as the content of exams, the quality of examiners and the transparency of the grading process.
My reservations about the exams are a topic best left for another time and, in this article, I want to talk about some of the more serious concerns about the system of public service that awaits the successful candidates afterwards. It so appears that the system is rigged to fail and built to provide the maximum personal benefits with the least effort on the job. Because of systemic issues as the ones described in the next few paragraphs, the entire struggle to become a public servant seems to be geared towards achieving mediocrity at a huge personal and professional cost.
Firstly, after passing the written exam, the psychological assessment and the gruelling interview — where the candidates can be asked to recount the exact diameter of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) or to recite specific religious injunctions (in Arabic, of course)– public servants undergo training to prepare them for the challenges of employment in the public sector. Government officers come from a variety of academic and social backgrounds but the process of homogenisation that starts from the exams itself continues into the training as well as the actual job. In government service, there is very little room for adding personal flair to your work and the system never allows any individual to capitalise on her/his personal set of skills. For instance, you could be the most prolific writer in the world but if you cannot learn to write official correspondence in obscure, colonial English, then you cannot survive in public service.
Secondly, the idea behind transferring public servants every few years to different posts was to ensure that individuals do not get entrenched in the localities and start promotingtheir vested interests. However, the current iteration of this theme provides very little incentive to the individuals to actually immerse themselves in local issues. Government officers know that they will eventually be transferred from their current posts and they seek to minimise their personal relations and distance themselves from the local populace as well as their staff. This then furthers their reputation as esoteric, alien beings who have no stake in local development, giving little confidence to the general public.
Thirdly, the purpose of promoting officials through performance reviews submitted by their superiors was to inculcate in them a sense of duty, for if they do not fulfil their tasks, they could be overlooked for promotions. In reality, however, the system of performance reviews contributes little towards the original intention and only serves to ensure a perpetuating system of sycophancy.In fact, the only thing that is looked down upon in government offices, even more than the lack of ‘proper’ writing skills, is a tendency to stand your ground in front of your superiors. You can be the most educated person in the entire office but if you do not learn to say “Yes, Sir!” to every whim of your superiors, then you better start looking for alternative employment or anti-depressants, or both.
Fourthly, public servants get exposure to a variety of fields as wide-ranging as engineering standards to issues of law and order, so as to increase the range of knowledge and provide a platform for further investigation, if need be. However, in contemporary Pakistan, officials seldom choose to delve any deeper and even denigrate the expertise of others through their superficial understanding of the matters at hand. Devoid of any real critical skills, they remain specious factotums, best suited to sorting out the inefficiencies of filing cabinets rather than improving service delivery.
Adding on to the last point, there are serious issues of capacity and competency that plague Pakistan’s government officers as well. Because of a focus on the mundane, they seldom develop problem-solving skills and panic in the face of the first hints of trouble. In order to rectify this, government officers are given special trainings throughout their careers on which millions of rupees of taxpayers’ money are spent, but the problem still persists, possibly because of a lack of honesty and integrity on part of the public servants. That being said, Pakistan has also been blessed with enviable public officials who genuinely seek to provide service to the public but, unfortunately, they remain the exception. Their dedication, commitment and hard work are seldom the product of their official training and, in this way, they fail to transfer their much-needed skillsets to others.
There remain avenues for improvement nonetheless andthe former State Bank governor, DrIshrat Hussain, in his essay, Retooling Institutions, has aptly identified meaningful reform possibilities. According to him, besides making the recruitment of public officials transparent, the artificial distinction between the ‘superior’ and ‘non-superior’ services needs to be eradicated. Furthermore, the pay structures of government officials need to be competitive with private sector salaries and the district, provincial and federal bureaucracies need to get rid of ill-trained, unhelpful and discourteous individuals enjoying arbitrary powers.
The truth of the matter is that public service is a calling that naturally suits some over others and we need to find a way to, firstly, identify those few and then develop their skills towards sincere work because, after all, they are called public servants for a reason. Unfortunately, in a country like Pakistan, with dismal opportunities for upward mobility, people more often than not join government service for that covetedgreen number plate, which gives them carte blanche for aggrandisement rather than anything else.