Reforming Pakistan's Civil Service: ICG Report - A Must Read

Reforming Pakistan's Civil Service
International Crisis Group, Asia Report 185; 16 February 2010


Decades of mismanagement, political manipulation and corruption have rendered Pakistan’s civil service incapable of providing effective governance and basic public services. In public perceptions, the country’s 2.4 million civil servants are widely seen as unresponsive and corrupt, and bureaucratic procedures cumbersome and exploitative. Bureaucratic dysfunction and low capacity undermine governance, providing opportunities to the military to subvert the democratic transition and to extremists to destabilise the state. The civilian government should prioritise reforms that transform this key institution into a leaner, more effective and accountable body.

General Pervez Musharraf’s eight-year military rule left behind a demoralised and inefficient bureaucracy that was used to ensure regime survival. There was a dramatic rise in military encroachments as retired generals were appointed to key civil posts, such as the chairmanship of the Federal Public Service Commission, the premier agency for recruitment and promotions. The military regime’s poorly conceived devolution of power led to further administrative confusion and the breakdown of service delivery at the district level, the key administrative unit of governance. The decision to vest revenue and law and order functions in nazims (mayors), elected indirectly and on a non-party basis, led to greater collusion between unscrupulous district officials and corrupt police.

The civil bureaucracy’s ills, however, predate military rule. Archaic rules and procedures and a rigid hierarchical authority structure have undermined its oversight of a public sector that has expanded considerably since the 1970s. Low salaries, insecure tenure, and obsolete accountability mechanisms have spawned widespread corruption and impunity. Recruitments, postings and promotions are increasingly made on the basis of personal contacts and political affiliation, instead of on merit.

The civil service’s falling standards impact mostly Pakistan’s poor, widening social and economic divisions between the privileged and underprivileged. With citizens increasingly affected by conflict and militancy, including millions displaced by fighting in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the government’s ability to ensure law and order and provide services such as education and health care will be vital to winning the hearts and minds of the public, and restoring links between the citizen and the state.

Bureaucratic procedures and practices, formal or informal, play a key role in public perceptions of the government’s functioning. Both the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which heads the coalition government at the centre, and its main opposition, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N), have a stake in investing the patience, resources and political capital needed to enhance the bureaucracy’s ability to execute government policies and respond to public grievances and needs. Both parties should resist the temptation to again use the bureaucracy for short-term political ends, which undermined its functioning. The government’s inability to deliver basic services and good governance could provide an ambitious military leadership the opportunity to intervene.

In the 1990s, the PPP and the PML-N each formed two elected governments but were prevented each time from completing a full term by the military – either through its civilian proxy, the president, or a direct coup in October 1999. The two parties share the blame for that flawed transition, by failing to deliver good governance and as well as a willingness to align with the military against each other. Unsurprisingly, each dismissal, including the October coup, was justified on the grounds of bad governance and corruption. In this, another period of fragile democratic transition, the two parties must realise that repeating past mistakes will again make them vulnerable to military intervention.

If the flaws of an unreformed bureaucracy are not urgently addressed, the government risks losing public support. The recommendations of the National Commission on Government Reforms (NCGR), which was set up by the military regime in 2006 and presented a report to Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in May 2008, if properly implemented could help reform the civil service.

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