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Public service—for self or others?

Huzaima Bukhari

“I think there’s no higher calling in terms of a career than public service, which is a chance to make a difference in people’s lives and improve the world”—Jack Lew

The last few decades have seen a systematic decline both in the manner in which public servants deal with the people, and in their own moral values. Whether the servants are employed on a permanent basis as in the civil service or hold temporary posts in the capacity of political public office holders, these words of Jack Lew are a far cry from the motto of our public servants who enter this domain for anything but making a difference in people’s lives and improving the world. The incumbent prime minister of Pakistan, on taking oath, never for a moment imagined that he would be hurled in a government that is fraught with corruption from top to bottom. Had he been aware of the magnitude of depravity rampant in the political and bureaucratic circles, he might have had second thoughts about forming a coalition government and would have chosen to sit in opposition until he had a clear mandate to set things straight. Right or wrong, the choice to govern has been made!

While public service is provided by the government to people living within its defined territory, civil service is independent of government, comprising career bureaucrats, hired or constitutionally appointed to serve during a specific tenure. The first priority of both types of public servants is to represent the interests of citizens, something that has gone down to the bottom with self-interest taking precedence. Employment in the public sector is sought with all other motives, except service to public.

The modern form of civil service dates back to 221 BC Imperial China during the Qin rule and was designed to choose the best administrative officials through a merit-based examination, to handle the state’s bureaucracy. The system was directly responsible to create a unique class of scholar bureaucrats regardless of their family origins. Over the years, the examination methods underwent many changes but in theory, the Chinese civil service proved one of the major outlets for social mobility in the society but practically, sons of the landed gentry benefitted from it since preparation of the exams was time consuming. By late nineteenth century, this system was abolished by the Qing government because it began to lose its credibility as it had taken the shape of style over actual content and originality of thought due to which it got difficult to ascertain if the candidates actually did have the capacity to perform their functions in an amicable manner.

Needless to say that the European commentators held the Chinese system in high esteem and perhaps the colonial way of recruiting civil servants was to some extent influenced by it. In Pakistan, the Federal Public Service Commission (FPSC) conducts a competitive examination for the Central Superior Services of Pakistan and other civil-service posts; Pakistan inherited this system from the British Raj Indian Civil Service while the provinces select their own public servants through provincial Public Service Commissions. The only difference is that the Raj treated the people as subjects whereas after independence, the people became citizens. However, the mind-set of our civil service has remained that of pre-partition with people being the sufferers and civil servants becoming the handmaids of imprudent public office holders. Anyone who cannot find a decent job or who wants to be close to the corridors of power appears for competitive exams and once in, audaciously complain of poor salaries as if they were earlier unaware, and yet they eventually manage to send their children to expensive universities abroad. Has any intelligence agency ever bothered to investigate how these ‘poor’ employees have succeeded in getting dual nationalities and obtained properties in foreign countries?

Whatever may be the form of appointing public servants to important government posts there are some fundamental qualities they ought to have and a code of ethics and responsibilities that they must observe. The qualities that have been laid down are; excellent organization and negotiating skills, creativity and flexible thinking, leadership, decision-making capability, team-working sensibility, single-handed working ability, good oral and written communication skills, enthusiasm and commitment for politics, policy issues and current affairs. One wonders how many of our public servants actually meet these standards and on their basis, how many deserve to continue with their political and civil assignments. Canadian recruitment, evaluation and promotion rules ensure that public service values or ‘people values’ play a key role,

The term ‘people values’ means showing respect, fairness, courtesy while dealing with both citizens and fellow public servants. Respect for human dignity and value of every person should always inspire the exercise of authority and responsibility. It also requires that public service organizations should be led through participation, openness and communication. A cursory look at our public service sector will reveal the complete opposite. The most minor of things that can be handled within seconds, may take many days with files moving around aimlessly. Red-tapism is the hallmark! In order to get one’s work done, either one has to have close connections with the public servant or financially gratify him. Very rarely matters are resolved in normal routine. A gallup poll can be conducted to find out the public’s opinion on this issue. The results would certainly reveal the level of disgust and frustration that people harbor about public servants (sic!).

Now if the incumbent prime minister is earnestly serious about turning around the fate of this country, he would have to revisit his organizational structure and filter out those who are responsible for his ‘anti-people actions’. Thus, if prices of utilities are being doubly increased, the heads of the service providers should be given exemplary punishment as they have failed to remove corruption, nepotism and inefficiency from their respective departments because of which there are leakages, line losses and lack of timely actions for defaults, in addition to poor development.

Rather than squeeze the juice out of people to meet trade and fiscal deficits, why is the government holding onto massive properties like the infamous GORs, governor houses, etc. When in trouble, one makes use of one’s available assets and not skin one’s kith and kin, then why cannot the government sell/lease out these vast tracts of land to enable economic activity to generate revenue? The primary malaise for these problems is the huge army of public servants who, like leeches are sucking the blood of their own people for whom they give two hoots and with the exception of a handful, have led Pakistan to the brink of bankruptcy, chaos and total mismanagement.


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

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