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Reforms: resisted, ignored & delayed

Dr. Ikramul Haq

Bureaucratic rules, procedures and structures should be modernised and training programs geared towards not just producing a class of capable civil servants, but restoring a spirit of public serviceReforming Pakistan’s Civil Service, Asia Report No. 185 of February 16, 2010 by International Crisis Group.

Since independence, all efforts to reform civil services of Pakistan have failed. Numerous committees and commissions were constituted to suggest ways and means, including rationalising pays and perquisites of employees and to bring fundamental structural reforms, but their recommendations remained on paper. There has always been strong resistance from bureaucracy for reforms as it represents a unity and rule of mediocrity. Since reforms and innovation alone can end mediocrity and sycophancy, two main hallmarks of our bureaucracy, resistance to change is understandable.

The coalition government of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) on completion of its two years on August 18, 2020 showed creditable progress on comprehensive institutional reforms. The Advisor to Prime Minister for Institutional Reforms and Austerity, Dr. Ishrat Hussain, in a presentation to the federal cabinet on August 4, 2020, gave detailed briefing on progress relating to the process of institutional reforms that was widely covered in media. As per details, “more than 71,000 posts in various government departments have been abolished’ and “the number of federal government departments brought down to 324 from 441”. The details of all other actions and their stage of implementation can be seen at the website of Institutional Reforms Cell (IRC), established after approval by Cabinet, on August, 28 2018 in the Prime Minister’s Office.

The material at the website of IRC shows all details, from meetings and their minutes to proposals by various task forces, from areas covered to future plans of e-governance, from modernising the institutions to improving the quality of human resource, from training innovations to changes in recruitment policy and many other aspects leading towards meaningful changes in overall administration in all areas and at all levels. Criticism in various columns is without studying what is presented, which is, undoubtedly, unfair, even unethical. Everybody has the right to criticise, but it should be based on some reasoning, facts and logic. The entire exercise, termed as “reform agenda” by the PTI, is to get rid of obsolete and anti-people colonial-era (raj-mentality) system that is the main impediment in the way of progress.

In private gatherings, top bureaucrats call politicians “incompetent”, “corrupt” and “good for nothing”. Though their total expenses of salaries, allowances, perquisites and benefits run into billions, they are least interested or even capable of doing legislative work, which is their main task. According to bureaucracy, successive governments have been responsible for the present sorry state of affairs in the country.

It is righty concluded in Reforming Pakistan’s Civil Service that “while the bureaucracy must accept its share of responsibility for historically siding with the military to stunt democratic development, political parties, particularly the PPP and PML-N, must also acknowledge that their attempts to curb the excesses of the bureaucracy have more often eroded its neutrality and efficiency, and pressured civil servants act more as personal retainers than as impartial public servants. Internal reforms will only be effective if the bureaucracy is shielded from political manipulation”.

The PTI Government must overhaul the entire administrative apparatus at all levels. It should be a matter of concern that our total expenditure during the fiscal year 2019-20 was 23% of GDP against the total revenues, tax and non-tax, of 15% of GDP. Total expenses in fiscal year ending 2019-20 for ‘Federal Government Running of Civil Administration” was Rs. 524 billion and Rs. 447 billion were spent on ‘Superannuation Allowances & Pension’. Tragically, only Rs. 467.7 billion were spent against the budgeted Public Sector Development Programme (PSDP) of Rs. 701 billion.

The losses of Public Sector Enterprises (PSEs) on daily basis are in millions. It certainly hurts the taxpayers as through heavy indirect taxation, even the less-privileged and poor, are fleeced to fund their losses and the luxuries of militro-judicial-civil complex and politicians. The consolidated current expenditure for fiscal year 2019-2020 for federal and provincial governments was Rs. 8532 billion (20.4% of GDP). Thus, we need to get rid of loss-bearing PSEs, close down all the unnecessary departments, divisions, sub-divisions etc. On Constitution Avenue, Islamabad, one can count 30-50 useless departments, doing nothing but have imposing buildings and huge staff. The same is true everywhere—in all parts of the country one finds government offices, overstaffed, wasting money and making lives of the citizens more miserable.

The powerful segments are not ready to surrender perquisites and benefits. Living in palatial residences with free utilities and army of servants, they are least pushed to serve the masses. They are even indifferent towards their low-paid subordinate staff. Acting as ‘Brown Sahibs’, they are even more cruel than the colonial masters. The political elite is also least concerned for democratisation of governance. We need to decentralise administrative, fiscal and political powers to serve the people at grass root level as ordained in Article 140A of the Constitution. Officials of all ranks must send their children to public schools. Once it is made compulsory, these schools will become model institutions, and the same is true for public transport, which they must use. There should be ban on use of official cars by civil servants for personal purposes. Many high-ranking get monetized transport allowance (taxed at reduced rate of 5%) and enjoy fleet of official cars. If public schools and transport are not worth their standards, then why should the masses be compelled to use the same?

Democratisation of governance should be central theme of civil service reforms. The first and foremost step should be doing away with obsolete laws and rules, delivery and productivity and not just cosmetic changes. The reforms should be all-pervasive, covering e-governance to withdraw all discretionary powers, perks and benefits.

There should be a fair deal for all civil servants but they must live among the ordinary citizens and not in walled/protected enclaves. By living with masses, they will get real insight into problems faced by them and formulating policies for public good. Living in fortified and posh localities, they are alienated from the people they are paid to serve. This culture has to change. The above reforms will not only save money wasted on maintenance of palatial bungalows, but also earn billions by leasing these lucrative/expensive properties for establishing modern urban centres as engines of growth and employment.

Like others, civil servants should get residences through house mortgage or on rent after their pay structures are justly revised and fringe benefits are monetised. They should get cars on lease or go to offices by public transport if they cannot afford lease rentals. This will be the start of true reforms—democratisation of governance, bringing all citizens at par, having access to equal opportunities or equal sense of deprivation. Those who manage and perform state functions must be part of the masses and not act as masters. Once this is done, politicians will also have no excuse/justification to demand luxuries at the expense of taxpayers’ money.


The writer, Advocate Supreme Court, is Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

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