IRONIC as it may seem, the recent workshop at Bhurban on reform in civil service was a manifestation of what actually ails our civil service. The participants included top bureaucrats and cabinet members and the venue was one of Pakistan’s most expensive hotels.
The same workshop could have been more conveniently arranged in the auditorium of any government building in Islamabad and that too with hardly any burden on the national exchequer. When it comes to using public money or public office, those at the helm of affairs are very callous — this is precisely the predicament of our civil service. Lest I digress, the following paragraphs evaluate the proposals made in the civil service reforms package.
First and foremost, the proposed system would seek to create a selection structure that would allow the government to hire specialised cadres, who would be recruited by sitting for separate, cluster-based exams for each service group. The government also wants to give due weight to specialisation in the selection of cadres for specific service groups. Special service cadres for engineers, IT experts, agriculturists, educationists, health administrators, and financial analysts would be formed. This is a good idea, provided it is implemented categorically without making exceptions that eventually erode the very idea of specialisation.
Secondly, taking into consideration increasing life expectancy, the government wants to increase the retirement age of civil servants beyond 60. This is not politics where personal charisma or leadership skills elevate one individual as compared to another. A structured service must groom new leaders periodically; if this is not the case then something is not right. Increasing the retirement age or even giving extension in service to select officers is akin to overlooking the system’s failure in grooming capable successors. Such measures in fact pave the way for prolonging the careers of individuals who manage to win the trust — by hook or by crook — of the political leaders. Furthermore, the poor state of governance in Pakistan does not make a good case for incumbents to be given more time in the saddle.
Avenues of personal discretion must be done away with.
Thirdly, lateral entry is being given a green signal which would mean that people from the private sector would be hired at middle- to senior-level positions. In theory, it is a good idea to make use of their experience but practically it would lead to cribbing among the civil servants who follow a predetermined route in service. Also, what are the safeguards that, in a country where even a peon’s post is not filled without taking into consideration the recommendations of friends, relatives or those who matter to the appointing authority, such posts would be created and filled purely on merit?
The very idea also negates the proposed reforms, because on the one hand the reforms promise that recruitment at entry level would focus on hiring people with relevant educational background and on the other hand — instead of grooming those individuals to take up leading roles — it is proposed to look elsewhere for leadership.
The government needs to look towards capacity building of individuals by making sure they get apprenticeships in the private sector. For example, government functionaries dealing with the oil sector can serve in any oil marketing company, police service officers can be attached to the army, and postal or railway groups officers can serve in private companies of similar scope under an agreement with the government. The duration and performance evaluation of such attachments should be significant enough to influence the individual’s career progression. Singapore’s civil service is one successful example of such a system of training.
The government’s fixation with the idea of creating a National Executive Service Group finds its place in the proposed reforms. The NES will be offered a special salary package besides better career progression. Again this negates the very concept of reforms that focus on uplift of the service in general rather than creating another service that would open up avenues of discrimination and personal discretion.
Training seems to have been largely overlooked in the proposed reforms. Recent research by the National Defence University, Islamabad concludes that training contributes to improving job performance of civil servants recruited via CSS exam by only 24pc. Reforms should focus on improving relevance and follow-up of training. One can find many officers in the foreign ministry who have learnt Chinese or French during training and are now serving in, say, Bangladesh or Sudan. Such examples can be found in nearly all service groups and at all levels.
David Frost, the renowned media personality, once said: “He’s turned his life around. He used to be depressed and miserable. Now he’s miserable and depressed.” I hope when the government promises to turn civil service around, it means and achieves a different sort of turnaround.
The writer is a former civil servant.
Published in Dawn, September 20th, 2015