IT was a necessary pep talk in the circumstances and has helped shed light on Prime Minister Imran Khan’s approach to reforms in the civil service. Addressing a gathering of bureaucrats in Islamabad, Mr Khan both asked for the bureaucracy’s professional support and pledged to protect bureaucrats from accountability witch hunts. The prime minister did not mention specific changes that his government intends to make, but did appear to suggest that the reforms process and its early results will take at least two years to become apparent. That is a fair demand and a sensible approach. Reforming the giant federal and provincial bureaucracies will require careful consideration that balances the need for greater efficiency with rightful legal protections of bureaucrats. The prime minister’s point man for civil service reforms, former governor of the State Bank of Pakistan Ishrat Husain, is an experienced leader, but as early incidents in the PTI government’s term have indicated, insulating the bureaucracy from political interference is a complex and long-term problem.
In his comments on Friday, the prime minister did express an admiration for the so-called Singapore model of governance. In Mr Khan’s understanding, the Singapore model is effective because bureaucrats are highly paid and there is firm accountability. While there is merit in looking at global examples to effect change domestically, Mr Khan and his team should also take care to avoid simplistic prescriptions. Indeed, there are examples of relatively professional setups in public service in Pakistan. For example, the National Highways and Motorway Police along the Lahore to Peshawar motorway corridor is regarded as professional, courteous and effective. While higher wages are a factor, ensuring entry standards, on-the-job training, quality resources and human-rights awareness have also played a role. Similarly, citizens applying for or updating CNICs have a noticeably professional Nadra at their service. There, too, factors beyond simply pay have resulted in a public service that is reasonably efficient and can be lauded. While arguments for a pay increase for bureaucrats could have some merit, the bloated, overstaffed aspects of the bureaucracy will also need to be scrutinised. Otherwise, gigantic cost increases beyond the capacity of the state to absorb will become inevitable.
Certainly, Mr Khan is the only recent national leader who has made it a priority to advance civil service reforms. The previous PML-N- and PPP-led federal governments may have occasionally referred to the need for civil service reforms, but both parties were content to continue with business as usual in the bureaucracy. At a minimum, then, Mr Khan has infused the debate on bureaucratic reforms with a sense of urgency and political will. If Mr Khan and his advisers abide by a sense of fairness and the need for greater efficiency, positive change should be possible.
Published in Dawn, September 16th, 2018