111 510 510 libonline@riphah.edu.pk Contact

The bureaucratic shuffle

You are going to be the third Secretary, in the last 20 months, of this most challenging of Ministries – if the government is serious about exports, which the pundits tell us should be top of the agenda if we wish to put our current account position on an even keel. Import compression has its limits. Scoring runs will become more important than saving runs if winning the match is the idea.

If the law of averages is any guide, we estimate you to last in this position for seven months, give or take a few, as your immediate predecessors have. But then mysterious are the ways of government. It might falter and let you stay with us until your retirement, or at least longer than you have stayed in your recent assignments.

We are not sure if you have any experience of trade matters but we guess government sees this as a minor detail. Many before you have learnt on the job, as others after you no doubt will. That is the defining characteristic of senior civil servants: they are quick learners. Besides, so we are informed, it is all a matter of leadership – and knowing the innards of government. Once you reach the top you become the government’s amrat dhara – what is good for Interior is good for Commerce.

What is reassuring to us is that you come highly regarded. One of the best in the current lot, they tell us. If you were transferred ‘prematurely’ from your previous assignments it was because you were more needed elsewhere – or because someone else with greater clout wanted your job. Par for the course, the bureaucrats would say?

Why should security of tenure of a Secretary to the government be of public interest? In terms of training and competencies it is six of one and half a dozen of the other. Why should it matter to us if they merrily come and go?

It matters because they are, accept it or not, the actual policymakers. They are also, or should be, closest to the ear of the ultimate decision maker. If you have a revolving door of Secretaries policy-uncertainties grow, especially when you have a timorous institutional framework where policy-flow is top-down.

It matters more when there is a steep learning curve. Would we want someone in whose ‘battle worthiness’ we have invested a lot of effort in to be assigned to another pasture just when he is getting up to speed? We can hardly use them as a Petri dish of government experimentation!

When we bemoan the politicization of services we tend to overlook its most obvious manifestation: truncated tenures.

It also denigrates accountability. People with power have to be held to account for their actions. If we transfer a Secretary early we are letting him go scot-free, leaving the public carry the can of his misdeeds. It makes nonsense of ‘goal setting’ objective that the government’s task force on civil service reforms advocates.

The task force had identified performance accountability, capacity development, and a greater role of the civil service in its own matters as the core elements of its strategic thrust. Have these noble intentions become like scripture, more discussed and analysed than practiced? Or, is it no more than what Harare calls the ‘imagined order’, a myth-based shared imagination?

Accountability was to be ensured through a well-designed Performance Management System, with goal setting and objective evaluation at its heart. How do you do this when you have Secretaries who don’t know whether they are coming or going? Look at Finance, look at FBR, look at Power…

Capacity development was to have been secured through ‘retooling’ and more focused training. The idea was to move away from the archaic regime of ‘generalist administrator’ to a modicum of specialization – the economic, social, and regulatory cadres. It was understood what is good for interior was not good for Commerce. How do you train and develop the ‘right man for the right job’ in a universe of musical chairs?

Civil Service managing its own affairs did not mean arrogating to itself total control of life and destiny of civil servants. It meant a greater role in career planning, which meant a greater say in postings and transfers, and career progression. After all, who would know them better than their own colleagues?

It appears not much has changed. Orders come from above and dutifully complied with by the clerks. The door to politicization remains ajar.

The Prime Minister often pines for the civil servants of the sixties when they could match the best in the world. Sorry, but that’s not happening. For one it is not the sixties. The challenges today are vastly different, requiring constant retuning and up-gradation of skills. For another, there is little indication government really wants a top class civil service. If it did, it would go into the fundamentals of talent management, and create the environment to attract, and suitably reward, the best and the brightest. It would give reforms a chance.

For the present civil service continues its descent, from Superiors of the sixties to the ‘Commoners’ of today. We can only hope it is not destined to follow Hammurabi’s code – the pecking order of superiors, commoners, and slaves.

Reverting to Mr Khokhar, may we add our two bits to all the advice that he is surely inundated with? First, try not to be always in a meeting; or never ‘on the seat’. That is the standard refrain of the staff of all senior officers, from Commerce to FBR to TDAP, obliging us to think this is part of their training: the best learning is in meetings with friends ‘over a cuppa’, and time best spent is ‘under the seat’.

Second, try not to surround yourself with the usual suspects. Cast your net wide to catch those who do not promote self-interest in the name of national interest. Trust us, not all businessmen are scoundrels whose last refuge is patriotism.

Finally, to have a worthwhile ‘Think Tank’ that the Cabinet has decreed, and not another highfalutin forum, please don’t forget the small businessman. He may not speak the Queen’s English but he has his feet on the ground.

Shabir Ahmed, "The bureaucratic shuffle," Business Recorder. 2020-04-30.
Keywords: Political science , Public interest , Secretaries policy , Civil service , Management system , Capacity development , Civil servants , Think tank , commerce , TDAP , FBR

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *