The road not taken
ROBERT Frost’s poem, The road not taken, ends with the following lines: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.”
Had he been a civil servant he would have written “And I took the less risky one”, instead of “less travelled by”, because risk-aversion comes naturally to civil servants, just like poetry did to Robert Frost.
Risk-aversion is a tendency among civil servants to avoid situations that can put them in direct conflict with the power brokers — be they politicians, the military bureaucracy or their seniors. It is a global phenomenon. However, this aversion is accentuated in developing countries like Pakistan as situations requiring a response arise more often. Delayed decision-making, ambiguous rulings, conflicting orders nullifying each other, etc. are all forms of risk-aversion among civil servants.
The poor bureaucrat cannot be blamed for such an attitude as daring decision-making does not come naturally to a middle-class man who toils hard for years, first in the attempt to enter the proverbial ‘permanent’ government service and later at the lower levels of bureaucratic hierarchy. So, when our man reaches the top echelons of power his one and only consideration is to stay put. This metamorphosis of ordinary middle-class individuals, from a member of the public to a public servant to eventually the system’s servant is the story of all ‘successful’ bureaucrats.
Contrary to common perception, civil servants are not work-shy. They put in long hours to carry out their official duties ranging from providing the usually clueless minister with all that is necessary to run the show, to thankless jobs like maintaining law and order and of course, the mundane routine of implementing laid-down official procedures.
Being part of the state machinery in a state where the general inclination of the public is to make governing as difficult as possible is not an easy job and requires talent. The question is that if these individuals are so talented why is governance so bad.
The usual deduction is corruption; but the real reason is risk-aversion among civil servants, and the blame for that does not lie on them alone. The causes of risk-aversion are endless, ranging from systemic to social.
The system of appraisals puts so much in the hands of the seniors that a difference of opinion can be suicidal for a junior officer. There are hardly any independent and efficient checks in place to gauge the service of an officer beyond what his boss thinks — and that kind of predefines the winner of all arguments. None would risk his promotion by disagreeing with the one who is going to play a pivotal role to make it a possibility.
The most significant criterion for promotions is seniority. Other than the scenarios in road traffic, a junior civil servant usually can never overtake a senior, no matter how much the senior underperforms. Initiative, innovation and inspiration are not rewarded and might even backfire in cases when outdated rules and impertinent conventions are bypassed by an individual to get the job done swiftly. Later, they may come back to haunt, sometimes in the form of court petitions and at others in the form of departmental inquiries. This prompts civil servants to lie low and go with the flow.
Political influences are another cause of risk-aversion among civil servants. Saying ‘no’ to somebody who is in power takes a lot of courage and then being able to face the victimisation in the form of being transferred or made officer on special duty takes even more courage. Since gutsy individuals at the political level are nowhere to be seen, most civil servants just don’t risk it.
Civil servants are also restricted by anachronistic rules; service rules, code of conduct, secrecy act and what not. Times have changed but rules have not. In an era of media freedom, WikiLeaks and demand for laws for free access to information, our civil servants ironically are not supposed to talk to the media, write for newspapers, blog and, at times, even have an opinion.
Such bars are understandable in matters of state security but not all matters fall in that category. Notions of state security and official secrecy should not be used as a smoke screen to cover up malpractices. Actually, such rules are there to ensure that civil servants do not become whistleblowers. Given such preferences of the system, an upright individual finds it tough to rise to the top in the Pakistani bureaucracy and ends up feeling suffocated.
Lastly, a definite factor behind these risk-averse attitudes is the declining ‘esprit de corps’ among civil servants. Over the years, camaraderie has been eroded because of a number of factors — political inductions, military interventions, disproportionate remuneration and individual opportunism. This has resulted in the civil service becoming very weak as an institution.
It is said about pre-Partition ICS officers that such was their integrity and comradeship that it was very hard to victimise an officer who took a just stand as his fellow colleagues would stand by the principle as well as the individual.
Today, it is very hard to find an individual who would stand for principles and even if someone does rise to the occasion, his colleagues do not. Oligarchy has replaced camaraderie. Oligarchs stand for power, comrades for principles and that has made all the difference.
The writer is a civil servant.