Weekly reflections: Some narratives on civil service reforms


 By Dr Abdul Saboor

 Pakistan is confronting a formidable challenge of institutional reforms in the administrative and executive structure of civil services. The smooth functioning of any political government owes to a great extent to the operational functioning of bureaucracy. In the similar fashion, the failure of government in running the state affairs in an effective and efficient way is strongly associated to the performance of civil servants in the country. The narrative that there is weak cooperation from civil servants is not fairly as true as the narrative that government has created hype through various political statements which might have made the pace of work slow. It is more likely that bureaucratic system is not tending towards good like everything else in the society where we may observe deterioration happening over the period of time.

No one can deny the magnanimous importance of civil servants who made some impressive breakthroughs in building the image of Pakistan on diplomatic fronts. Chief Secretaries, Inspector Generals and District Administrators along with their jubilant team of public men have created a lot of success stories as one can observe the urban and infrastructural development in some big cities and rural reformation in almost all provinces of Pakistan. Some regulatory mechanisms are enhancing the economic and social development.  Similarly, the improvements in the governance structure and institutional reforms are some of the admirable endeavors made on the part of brilliant bureaucrats. They certainly served and spend the golden period of their life in the development of the country.

The pace of progress of such success stories has been quite encouraging till the time when some social and economic decline had not started. After that we witness nothing but status quo though some hint for a kind of deterioration. The improvement across the time was good enough though not as good as we observe elsewhere in the world. Some countries excelled the other countries more rapidly in terms of governance and institutional indicators. What has happened with us? Something happened somewhere and that ‘something’ should be explored for taking a right direction to progress and prosperity. There is no harm in confessing our mistakes.

Political intervention and influence of outer forces has actually shaken the very fabric of civil services. Some of the bureaucrats get frustrated in the dusty environment and remain reluctant to be proactive and productive. This is the way the inefficiency comes up. They do not get posting of their choice, competency and temperament. Within a span of few months, quick reshuffling of bureaucrats may add salt to the injury. There is a displacement cost of such adventures not only in the pure economic sense but in political and social terms as well. Moreover, even the replacement of a Provincial or Federal Minister slows the overall performance of his Ministry for some period of time. It takes time for the incumbent political leader or new bureaucrat to adjust in the new scenario. Such kinds of frequent time spells might be the significant cause of deterioration.

There is a typical structure of civil services which has been disfigured with the passage of time.  The foundation of civil services is wisdom as the highly knowledgeable persons are initially recruited in this system. But very unfortunately after joining the civil services, majority of public men remain away from learning activities. This is partly due to the nature of tough and tight bureaucratic work under political pressure where no moment is left for intellectual grooming. Part of the problem lies in discouraging governance system where novel ideas are not acceptable to the political community. Political leaders want quick solution or quick results of their development interventions. But, the foresight of an intelligent bureaucrat is focused towards long term achievements that could make the name and fame of nation.


Service structure along with its ladder is highly important for management of the administrative units. Both the prompt promotion or delayed promotion creates problems of deep consequences in the delivery of public services and thus institutional failure is the ready outcome. If promotion is made without taking into consideration the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) impression is created among civil servants that the limited work is enough for getting promotion. On the other hand, if promotion is constrained in high performance situation, frustration is created among hard working civil servants. This also leaves impression for others that performance does not matter a lot for winning promotion.

Thus the pyramid of service structure should be revisited by controlling the speed of promotion in some exclusive groups and cadres. Meritorious arrangement should be made by designing a comprehensive strategy that is equally satisfactory for all. It is also proposed that in the ladder of promotion across every grade and scale, some entry points may be opened for technocrats and civil servants of other groups to create a competitive environment among the applicants in a particular group. Following the model of Civil Services of South Korea, at least 20 percent quota may be allocated for open competition with strict qualification criteria. This is how the whole structure would be free from political maneuvering. The same meritorious and competitive arrangements may be made active as being followed in the initial recruitment.

Vis-à-vis political will, there is dire need of revival of intellectual will in the whole bureaucratic system. There is no match of the progressive experiences of civil servants in multifarious environments and situations. A new politician cannot deliver quite successfully through authoritative tools. His political will may be translated into intellectual will if a good working environment is created by building the relations of respect and trust with civil servants. The likelihood of doubts and fears swinging in both sides should be removed through dialogue and discussion. Public men of both of these responsible positions are accountable for anything odd. Blame game would bring nothing except a cooked story by a crook reporter. One who is more intelligent should take more responsibility.

Thanks to the independence of sober media both printed and electronic and other learning sources, public have now become fully aware of what is happening around them. ‘Who is doing what’ has not been a secret. Similarly, citizen rights and information laws are compelling the public men to deliver on democratic basis. The key reforms are required in the efficient ways of dealing public through new means and measures. Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) might be a good way forward. As for instance, India has launched E-governance system by introducing online complaint method in New Delhi. This is a program of bringing administrative solution of public problems at their door steps.

Revival of civil services is possible if some standard political decisions are taken. In the recent promotion of civil servants some good gestures have been shown by the government. This is laudable the continuity of which needs to be shown down the road in all spheres of bureaucratic life-transfers and promotions. In the whole reform process, solution and new ideas should come from within the bureaucratic system rather than on the basis of ‘one man show’ so as to get ownership of reforms on the part of honorable community of bureaucrats.

One important narrative for civil service reforms revolves around leadership approach rather than management strategy. Presently the idea of management is in vogue in which whole human energy is consumed in debating the issues and thus in finding quick-fix solution without understanding connections and consequences at the grass root level. Contrary to that a leadership approach is required not only in the formulation of civil service reforms but in all of the attributes to be designed in these reforms. The beauty of this approach is that it takes care of the context and circumstances. Every administrative decision is not workable everywhere and that too at every moment of history. So, visionary leaders are required rather than dull managers.

Instead of authoritative nature of working, the idea of benevolent bureaucrat is gaining popularity in the world.  The success of a good political leader is based on an intelligent civil servant while the glory of a good civil servant stands on wisdom and taking vision from researchers, scientists and technocrats of various fields of social sciences. This kind of connectivity can make revolutionary changes in the whole governance system in the country.

Human mind is unique and dynamic so should be the character of benevolent bureaucrats for ensuring remarkable delivery services to that mind. This would be a marvelous story if they place the mind of that person in their own mind and thus take strategic decisions accordingly. And then they may watch the revolution happening in front of them.

Dr Abdul Saboor is Professor of Economics and Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, PMAS Arid Agriculture University, Rawalpindi