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Invigorating the civil service

The buzz word these days is governance. Some political analysts have argued that governance (or for that matter bad governance) was the main determinant of the 2013 election results. Where does good governance come from? Transparency, accountability, rule of law and informed state policies embodying the basic principles of efficiency and equity are important ingredients of good governance. But governance is also about the execution of policies ie bureaucratic machinery and efficiency of processes through which such policies are translated by the bureaucracy into action.

This means that good governance depends on the capacity of the bureaucracy to deliver. “There is no question that greater transparency and accountability, as well as strict application of law, are critical to improving the performance of governments. However, without basic capacity, no amount of transparency and accountability will produce good services”, wrote Francis Fukuyama in his article ‘What is governance’?

How can we measure the quality of the bureaucracy of a country? An objective measurement is difficult. However, empirical literature on this issue takes the capacity to collect taxes as an indicator of the quality of the bureaucracy mainly due to two reasons: first, it needs capacity and competence to collect taxes and second, successful tax collection provides resources to the state to deliver public goods. Judged against this yardstick (an empirical measure), the capacity of our civil service leaves much to be desired.

There are many reasons for the low performance of the bureaucracy. The first is the perverse incentive system for public sector employees. Civil servants serving in the same grade, with similar qualifications, entering the civil service through the same examination but belonging to different service groups avail vastly different perks and privileges. Those belonging to some service groups are promoted to higher grades much faster than those belonging to others.

Civil servants of a few groups get spacious official residences as of right. Those belonging to other groups hardly get enough house rent to hire a reasonable accommodation what to speak of an official house. These differences in terms of promotion and privileges create frustration in those belonging to the deprived service groups. This lowers their morale, impairs their performance and adversely affects their public behaviour.

These are all subconscious manifestations of inter-group discriminatory treatment of civil servants. However, this inter-group discrimination does not complete the story. There is a lot of intra-group discrimination too. Political and social connections instead of merit and competence are generally the determinants of appointments and placements. And this is why civil servants seek to equip themselves with influence instead of concentrating on competence and quality of public service delivery. This orientation in the civil service strikes at the root of bureaucratic performance.

Lack of an efficacious and transparent performance evaluation system further aggravates the above causes underlying the low performance of civil servants. There is a system of one-time assessment to enter the civil service. Subsequent performance evaluations are subjective, relation-based and nothing more than a notional assessment. It is not rare for a civil servant who enjoys a bad reputation but manages to rise fast in the career ladder and get the best performance evaluations. At the same time a civil servant who is competent, enjoys a good reputation but fails to toe his masters’ lines happens to get bad performance evaluations, which spoil his career.

The current evaluation system does not monitor the fact that a civil servant’s knowledge and skills have appropriately developed to match his changing work demands. Civil servants who develop their knowledge and skills and those who don’t are treated in the same manner in the current system. This makes acquisition of new knowledge, skills, and abilities for effective public service delivery totally irrelevant. It also makes the civil servant indifferent and insensitive to these capacity building attributes.

Since power and influence have worked for the civil servant and knowledge and skills for effective service delivery have failed to deliver, the training institutions that are there to impart knowledge and skills to the civil servants have themselves become totally irrelevant. This irrelevance is manifested in the mechanism used to select civil servants for foreign trainings. These selections are usually based on connections and favouritism. That is why foreign trainings are mostly taken by the civil servants as pleasure trips rather than opportunities to develop themselves professionally.

Given these imperfections in the incentives and performance evaluation systems, a mismatch between discretion and compensation of civil servants further complicates the picture. In times of rising inflation, the real wages of civil servants have lagged behind their cost of living. This constraint, coupled with the opportunity to get away scot-free in the absence of an effective accountability mechanism, levels the ground for misuse of discretion. When discretion is misused, similar treatment is not given in similar situations. This is a big source of discontent among the public and adversely affects public service delivery.

The distortions in the incentive system for the civil servants in terms of spacious residences for some and not so for others must be addressed to place civil servants of similar grades and similar qualifications on an equal footing irrespective of the service groups they belong to. One solution is to auction all the present government officers’ residences (GORs) and invest the funds in welfare schemes including enhancement of house rent allowances of all civil servants alike as proposed by the Planning Commission in the last few years.

Another solution is to use the funds generated through the public auction of existing GORs to build new low-cost government housing to provide similar accommodations to all groups of civil servants in the same grade. Another distortion in the incentive system for civil servants in terms of differential provision of official conveyance has already been addressed but is being massively misused. There is a need to immediately plug the loopholes of the scheme and deter civil servants who get one monetised car from using several others from the operational pool of their respective organisations.

Distortions in terms of promotion differentials among different groups of civil servants are too wide to go unnoticed by those service groups in which rapid promotions are not the norm. A civil service characterised by low real wages, non-merit promotions, and huge differentials between similar cadres in terms of perks, privileges, and promotion prospects should not be expected to be efficient at public service delivery. Not only is there a need to narrow such gaps between different service groups, their performance is also needed to be monitored on regular basis.

Productivity and performance are not static in nature. The current one-step assessment process to qualify for entry into the civil service needs to be replaced with a multiple-step assessment system. Officials of every service group need to be subjected to an examination to qualify for each higher grade. Moreover, a new service group can be introduced at the mid-career level for which all civil servants, irrespective of their service groups and with a certain amount of experience and qualifications, can compete. This group can be tasked with assignments related to economic governance and public policy formulation.

The writer is a graduate of Columbia University. Email: jamilnasir1969@gmail.com

Jamil Nasir, "Invigorating the civil service," The News. 2013-06-22.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social needs , Social rights , Economic inflation , Government-Pakistan , Elections 2013 , Civil servants , Social policy , Public policy , Civil society , Civil rights , Civil services , Bureaucracy , Taxes , Pakistan