WHILE the intention behind the endeavour may be lauded, the civil service reform package unveiled by the government the other day has come as a disappointment to many who believed the bureaucracy would be restructured in such a way as to make it more responsive to the ever-changing requirements of the economy and the needs of the citizens. Instead of reducing the discretionary powers of the bureaucrats and making them accountable to the people, the new reforms only appear to address procedural improvements in the rules of business. It does not mean that the proposed changes, which include new criteria for promotion to higher grades, a mechanism for forced retirement of under-performers, induction of provincial service officers into the Pakistan Administrative Services, new rotation policy, etc are not needed. But these are relatively minor issues that could have easily been addressed as part of an umbrella civil service restructuring plan aimed at boosting overall governance by building the capacity of the bureaucracy to deal with the demands of a changing world, as well as improving public service delivery. The ruling party has come to power on the promise of change — it is only comprehensive, wide-ranging reforms that can ensure this. Indeed, the committee, which had been assigned the job almost two years back, could have done much better, given the expectations.
Several studies in the past have pointed to the fact that a dysfunctional and inefficient bureaucracy is seriously undermining the nation’s social and economic progress, and increasing public distrust of the state’s intentions and ability to serve its citizens. Yet only limited progress has been made in the last seven decades to reform the administrative structure inherited from the British colonialists in spite of several attempts by successive governments to do so. Past efforts to remodel the country’s civil service did not make the desired impact because of a lack of knowledge about what needed to be done and politicisation of the bureaucracy. Besides the bureaucracy is seen as resistant to any change that would hurt its powers and perks. The lack of political will to push through civil service reforms is another key reason for the failure of every attempt to introduce meaningful changes. It would not be incorrect to say that like past governments the present administration will also continue to face roadblocks in executing its socioeconomic agenda unless it moves beyond cosmetic bureaucratic reforms.
Delayed olive branch
THE PTI government has finally mustered up sufficient political prudence to extend an olive branch to the opposition in an attempt to build a better working relationship in parliament. But many say it is a case of too little, too late.
According to a report in this newspaper, a three-member delegation from the treasury benches visited the parliamentary chamber of the Leader of the Opposition Shehbaz Sharif and asked for the opposition’s help in running the business of parliament more smoothly. The delegation, which included Defence Minister Pervez Khattak, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ali Muhammad Khan and Chief Whip Amir Dogar, argued that the two sides should collaborate to bring down the temperature in the House and work together on people-friendly legislation.
The opposition, however, reminded them that it is the government that has been calling the opposition thieves, dacoits and traitors. The opposition members said the government was only reaching out because the opposition was taking them to task on the Broadsheet scandal.
It is no secret that ever since the PTI came to power, parliament has been reduced to a wrestling ring where shouting matches have taken the place of serious legislative work. The government shares the bulk of the blame for this sorry state of affairs. Prime Minister Imran Khan, who had once promised that he would hold a question hour regularly in parliament, has now almost totally absented himself from the proceedings. The treasury benches too have made it their priority to bring their street politics into parliament. As a result, legislative work has almost ground to a halt and parliament’s role as the centre point of a democratic system has diminished considerably. Perhaps the government did not realise that making parliament dysfunctional to browbeat the opposition would ultimately have an adverse impact on its own performance.
More than halfway through their term, the treasury benches are now recognising that they have the most to lose if they have little to show for their legislative performance. However it may be a bit too much to expect that the opposition would suddenly turn the other cheek while it is being constantly hounded. The price of confrontational politics is a steep one, as the government may be belatedly realising.
It is though never too late. The government should go the extra mile to improve the environment in the House and establish a basic minimum working relationship with the opposition. A good first step would be for the government to get off its high horse and engage the opposition in some meaningful dialogue that goes beyond optics. Two issues demand urgent attention: electoral reforms and amendments to the NAB ordinance. If the government can bring itself to stop targeting and heaping scorn on the opposition, perhaps some steady progress can be made on the floor of the House.