THE civil service is a vital component of state capacity for countries across the world. This is evident from the fact that globally there is a strong positive relationship between the quality of bureaucracy and economic development. This makes civil service reform critical for improving economic well-being.
But civil service reform often appears complex and challenging. In this article, we want to share a holistic (but simple) framework for thinking about reform that focuses not only on its frequently discussed aspects, but also on parts which have received much less attention. If you have often wondered about the complexity of reform and want to have a structured and holistic way to think about it, then this article is for you.
We can categorise the various elements of civil service reform into three broad questions. First, how do we select the right individuals to work as part of the civil service? Second, how do we incentivise the selected individuals to exert more effort in their jobs? Finally, what sort of organisational structure should be in place to ensure civil servants are better able to deliver on their tasks?
Starting out with the first question of selection, key sub-questions include whether the civil service applicant pool comprises individuals who have the right skills, qualifications and intrinsic motivation. Current discussions in Pakistan around the quality of the applicant pool have mostly focused on whether the monetary/non-monetary benefits provided by the civil service are able to attract talented individuals. Significantly less attention has been given to how the civil service job can be marketed in different ways to improve the applicant pool, despite evidence from other developing countries that such strategies can be effective. Similarly, while the civil service exam has featured actively in reform discussions, a lot less has been said about how discretionary parts of the hiring process, such as interviews, can better screen for skills that are not captured through the exam.
How do we select the right individual?
Moving to the second question of incentives, financial incentives have received a fair degree of attention in Pakistan. While existing evidence shows that financial incentives can improve performance of front-line officers, what is less clear is that such incentives only work well under certain conditions — particularly when they are designed well, and performance can be measured objectively. Two points are worth noting. First, incentive designs with targets that are unachievable may not work. Hence, designing incentive structures in a way that induces effort throughout the workforce is important. Second, designing incentives for middle and top management in the bureaucracy is naturally challenging because these officers do several tasks which makes it hard to measure performance. This raises the question of how existing methods such as annual evaluations can be strengthened to establish a performance-based culture.
It is also important to remember that civil servants work in a setting where non-monetary incentives are also salient and can be leveraged in meaningful ways. For example, existing evidence from Pakistan shows that non-monetary incentives such as transfers and recognition rewards can leverage informal career incentives in the system to encourage performance. In addition, many civil servants also have other types of intrinsic motivations, such as mission to serve the community, which can be leveraged to improve performance. By focusing just on financial incentives, we run the risk of significantly narrowing our options for civil service reform.
The final question about organisational design includes several subcomponents such as structuring organisational roles to match the needs of the organisation, matching skills of staff to existing roles, striking the right balance of rules and flexibility for managers, and providing adequate needs-based trainings. One point regarding the optimal level of autonomy for civil servants is worth highlighting here. Recent work from Pakistan and other developing countries shows that civil servants who are provided more autonomy tend to perform better. In the Pakistani context, there is a need to understand the optimal level of discretion across levels of the hierarchy and the space in the existing regulatory structure to offer that.
Ultimately, civil service reform is a complex problem that requires consideration of the broader political economy, institutional and regulatory constraints in addition to the three questions posed above. Deeper reform questions such as how to revitalise the recruitment system or depoliticise the civil service involve interaction with such constraints. But we have highlighted several selective reform opportunities that recognise our contextual realities, and more importantly hold promise for change.
The writers have doctorates from the University of Oxford.
Published in Dawn, September 13th, 2021