Reforming Pakistan's Bureaucracy

Pakistan's bureaucracy has become a significant impediment to the nation's progress - it is hopelessly inefficient and lacks any robust systems to hold officers accountable. Only a comprehensive overhaul can restore the bureaucratic system's capacity to govern.

Reforming Pakistan's Bureaucracy

While extensive discussions and written analyses have centered around the responsibilities and shortcomings of politicians and military rulers in Pakistan, there has been a noticeable lack of discourse regarding the significant role played by the civil bureaucracy in the nation's inability to provide essential services to its citizens.

Pakistan has an immense potential and a vibrant, enterprising population and has long been held back by the inefficiencies and corruption that plague its bureaucracy. While a bureaucratic system is essential for any functioning state, the Pakistani bureaucracy, as it stands today, has proven to be a significant impediment to the nation's growth and development. There is an exigent need for the abolition of the current bureaucratic structure in Pakistan and to embrace a more efficient and accountable governance model.

The Pakistani bureaucracy has become synonymous with red tape, corruption, and a stifling of innovation. These issues not only deter foreign investment, but also hinder local entrepreneurship, resulting in missed opportunities for economic growth. The rationale behind this bureaucratic system's design is rooted in its origin, which can be traced back to the British colonial administration. It was devised to appoint officers who adhered strictly to directives and advanced the interests of the Raj. These officers were trained in traditional ways, and were not encouraged to exhibit innovation or cultivate their own worldviews. Astonishingly, even in contemporary times, this system adheres to the same recruitment principles. This selection process doesn't demand applicants to possess any professional expertise, such as proficiency in economics, finance, or public administration, or even an understanding of the requirements of emerging markets. Instead, it primarily relies on theoretical knowledge and that is why a close associate in the bureaucracy once aptly remarked that if one could translate a vernacular newspaper like Nawa-i-Waqt into English, they could effortlessly clear the Central Superior Services (CSS) examination.

In an interview, the seasoned bureaucrat and acting minister for privatization, Fawad Hassan Fawad, aptly pointed out that the Pakistani bureaucracy lacks the capacity to effectively manage the complexities of modern statecraft. Professor Tahir Malik, hailing from the National University of Modern Languages, shared his insights following this year's CSS results, highlighting a significant shift in the preferences of top-tier students. According to him, CSS has lost its former luster, no longer being the primary aspiration for high-achieving individuals. He observed that CSS no longer exerts the magnetic allure it once did, as a growing number of individuals now opt to venture into alternative domains or explore opportunities overseas, rather than channeling their ambitions towards attaining influence and authority through civil service.

This system has grown obsolete and now stands as an impediment to achieving qualitative change and reform. Unfortunately, those within the bureaucracy are the ones who benefit from this dysfunctional system and thus perpetuate it for their own perks and privileges. Regrettably, many officers lack the capacity and efficiency required, often exhibiting lethargy, apathy, and indifference towards the issues faced by the common public. Its backwardness becomes evident when we consider that, even in this digital age, the entire workflow within the federal secretariat is still carried out manually.

From my personal observations as a reporter, I would categorize the bureaucracy into three distinct groups.

The first group comprises officers who are unabashedly corrupt, solely motivated by personal financial gain, and view their work as a means to amass wealth. The second group consists of individuals who outwardly project an image of piety but, at their core, lack the competence required for embezzlement. The third category includes those who strike a balance between honesty and competence. They engage in some level of pilferage, but also contribute minimally to their assigned responsibilities.

The bureaucracy's complex and slow-moving procedures have created an environment where even the simplest tasks take an inordinate amount of time. This inefficiency is a major deterrent for businesses and investors, discouraging economic growth. In the course of my career as a reporter, I observed a pattern where secretaries would only sign two or three files throughout the entire day, while the remaining time was often dedicated to engaging in idle conversations and pursuing personal financial gains. An argument frequently echoed by bureaucrats and a specific segment of the public is that the military's interference in bureaucratic affairs has hindered effective governance. I find this justification quite feeble. I often respond by asking: "Did the military prevent you from maintaining cleanliness in your office bathrooms? Did it instruct deputy commissioners and commissioners not to ensure the cleanliness and functionality of their cities, the proper operation of public hospitals and schools, and the honest service of patwaris and tehsildars to the common people rather than exploiting them? If the military can maintain the cleanliness of cantonments, why can't deputy commissioners ensure the cleanliness and functionality of the city's civic services?

Another aspect that renders this bureaucratic system outdated is its promotion criteria, primarily reliant on the Performance Evaluation Report (PER). This, to say the least, is akin to a farce since the PER is crafted not to assess the officer's actual contributions to public service, but rather to gauge how effectively they have ingratiated themselves with their superiors. This evaluation report plays a pivotal role in determining an officer's prospects for promotion.

The current bureaucratic structure lacks a robust system for holding officials accountable for their actions or inaction. This lack of accountability perpetuates corruption and ineffectiveness. Regrettably, the National Accountability Bureau tends to apprehend officers for their wrongful actions, but rarely for their inaction. There is an urgent need for reforms in the accountability laws to address this issue.

The Pakistani bureaucracy, as it exists today, has proven to be a significant impediment to the nation's growth and development. Its inefficiency, corruption, and lack of accountability have held back progress for far too long. The call to abolish the existing bureaucratic structure is not a plea for chaos but a fervent appeal for the establishment of a more streamlined, efficient, and accountable model of governance.

By embracing this revamped approach to bureaucracy, Pakistan has the potential to tap into its true capacity and facilitate an era of prosperity and advancement for its citizens. This change entails not only selecting professionals with expertise in their domains but also fostering a culture of innovation and adaptability within the government machinery. Such a transformation can unlock Pakistan's untapped potential and propel the nation towards progress and well-being.

The time has come for a comprehensive overhaul of Pakistan's bureaucratic system, which appears to lack both the capability and the determination to effectively serve the nation. Pakistan can progress more effectively without this bureaucratic framework, which focuses solely on administrative paperwork and needlessly obstructs dedicated individuals striving to bring positive change to our country.

The author is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad.