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July 14, 2020

A stillborn NES

Opinion

July 14, 2020

Civil service reforms are the perpetual still-born fetus of governance in Pakistan. There are many reasons why it is so elusive, and delivers so little, but what has taken place since this government was installed is an especially instructive object lesson in understanding the idea of reform.

Reform requires two ingredients above all. The first is coherent political will. In a democracy, no matter how flawed, political will is the consolidated momentum manufactured by a substantial portion of the political discourse in a specific direction. This is not the same thing as a politician’s will (the will of a prominent or powerful individual politician). To pursue reform of something, there needs to be coherent political will that seeks major change in that something.

The second necessary ingredient for reform is clear and resonant purpose. Those that are driving or pursuing reform need to have a purpose that defines what they are doing. Purpose needs to be clear and it needs to resonate with the attendant political will for reform.

These two ingredients for reform are symbiotic and co-dependent. If you seek reforms of an issue or an area in which there is no political will, the most clearly articulated purpose will not be enough to rescue the reform effort. It will fail. If you seek reforms of an issue or an area in which there is political will, but you fail to articulate and match your purpose with the political will for reform, the mismatch will be fatal for the efforts. In short, you cannot pursue reform without political will, and without a purpose for reform that resonates with this political will.

This government’s efforts in the realm of civil service reform are going to fail because the notion of civil service reform has become an abstraction. A virtue that must be pursued because individuals inside and outside the system believe that such reforms are required, without seeking to match their ideas with the attendant political will for such reforms, and without a purpose that is clear and resonant with such political will.

A concept note on a National Executive Service (NES) for Pakistan, dated April 17, 2020 recently appeared in the ether. This concept paper is a painful wakeup call for those invested in change in Pakistan.

The ideas presented in the concept paper are not new, or fresh or innovative. In fact, vast sections of the paper are copied, verbatim, from previous versions of this document that were written between 2006 and 2008 when the current head of the civil service reforms effort, Dr Ishrat Husain, was in charge of reform efforts a decade and a half ago. This stands to reason. The task force he presided over in 2006 had roughly the same ex-officio composition that it does today, with the federal secretaries for cabinet, establishment and finance locked in as members. The problem is that, while the people and offices trying to bring about reform have not changed, the decade and a half since these ideas were penned down have seen large changes in the subject matter that they are dealing with. The 18th Amendment is the largest and most obvious of those changes, but so too are the three kinds of local governments that have been tried since 2006, the new nomenclature for the District Management Group, and tweaks galore to various other offices.

An earlier draft of the NES, dated November 22, 2007, or about thirteen years ago, is literally composed of the exact same text, word for word, and paragraph for paragraph, for large parts of the document.

The ideas and concepts in the ‘reform’ effort that seeks to create an NES are, in some cases, nearly two decades old. For example, the identification of the four streams for the NES originated in a paper written for the Civil Service Think Tank of the National Reconstruction Bureau under the supervision of Maj Gen Asim Bukhari in the fall of 2001. These streams were later adapted by the Establishment Division. Which were then adapted by Dr Ishrat Husain’s National Commission on Governance Reforms. Which are now being adapted by Dr Ishrat Husain’s Task Force on Civil Service Reforms.

Why such little deviation in two decades of thinking about civil service reforms? I asked four non-ex officio members of the task force, but they had not seen the NES paper to begin with. In short, despite this being at least the third major effort for civil service reform in the last two decades, the reformers themselves lack the very basic and fundamental procedural consistency and coherence that they seek to install in the much maligned civil services of Pakistan.

The substance of what has been presented in the latest NES paper is even more problematic than the procedural and historic issues. For starters, this grand reset of the elite civil service has concluded that the best way to man a National Executive Service is to continue to block non-civil servants from being eligible to compete with and enter the NES. The ostensible reason for this is the fear that the authors of this document express, quite clearly, “Striking equivalence of eligibility criteria between the Civil Servants and the outsiders may invoke some controversy… It is possible, given the increased propensity to legal recourse, that the government may find itself embroiled in protracted litigation”.

Fear is an overriding sentiment in the NES document. On the question of the composition of the NES, the paper states, “In order to allay the apprehensions of the young officers belonging to the Pakistan Administrative Service which would lose a large number of Grade 20-22 posts in the Federal and Provincial Secretariats to which they have been entitled under the present rules, there would be a need to add new posts in Grades 20-22 to the Cadre of PAS”.

The proposed solution to the apprehensions of young PAS officers is creating BPS-22 positions of the CEO position in all municipal corporations across the country, and BPS-21 positions to lead the development authorities, municipal committees and tehsil councils. This proposal, which beggars belief, given how difficult it is to find and post adequate officers at even BPS-20 positions anywhere outside Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi, also belies the absence of adequate diagnostic work to inform the ideation, conception and authorship of the NES proposal.

The proposal is replete with assertions and assumptions that are unsupported by evidence, including one proposal to raise the pay of all BPS-20, 21 and 22 officers in the NES to MP-1, MP-2 and MP-3 scales. The paper claims that, “As the number of positions in the equivalent grade at the Federal Secretariat does not exceed 1,300 the financial implications of this salary package will be quite modest”. Yet the paper also identifies 800 as the initial total strength of the NES.

The NES idea is a fantastic example of what happens when a reform effort lacks the right mix and match between political will and purpose. The purpose of a tweak to and nomenclature reassignment to the BPS-20 to BPS-22 is to enhance the cosmetic make up of senior civil servants. There is no political will for such coddling of the Pakistan Administrative Service (PAS). Moreover, this is not what the PAS, Pakistan’s elite civil service group, actually needs at the BPS-20 to BPS-22 level.

What they need is adequate support and protection from witch-hunts. But such obvious reform is hard to even articulate, much less pursue, because it would require cross-platform, political and institutional consensus-building. Thanks to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s incessant containerism, the potential political will for such reform zero.

The Covid-19 pandemic has created a window of opportunity for reform, as economic constraints will enable unprecedented political concessions and compromises all around the world. The last time such a window opened up, Pakistan took advantage by matching the political will for reform, with a clear and coherent purpose: a more cohesive and happier federal system. Out came the 18th Amendment.

It is unfortunate that despite the presence of nascent political will for reform, including the effectiveness of Pakistani federalism, this window will be wasted on stale, in-the-box, out-of-touch ideas like a National Executive Service.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.