A politicised civil service?
ON Nov 12, 2012 the Supreme Court of Pakistan announced its judgment on Constitutional Petition No 23/2012.
Authored by Justice Jawwad S. Khawaja, this landmark judgment held that appointments, removals and promotions be made in accordance with the rules, and discretion if exercised must be so done in a transparent manner; that tenure, posting and transfer must adhere to the rules; that civil servants must not obey illegal orders of superiors; and that officers should not be posted as OSD (officer on special duty) without compelling reasons.
The thrust of the petitioner’s grievance was twofold. First, the standing of the civil service be restored as service of the state and not the regime. Second, political interference should be stopped.
In para nine of the judgment, the learned judge has referred to the civil service and political executive as two limbs of the executive branch of government.
With the greatest of respect, the politician does not see it that way. In his scheme of things, he is charged with the superior task of policy formulation with the civil servant having the subsidiary role of putting such policy into effect. Injecting political overtones into the administration is a natural corollary of such thinking.
Pakistan is said to be a parliamentary form of government with three branches — the judiciary, legislature and executive. The last named is headed by the prime minister who is the chief executive.
The civil service functions under his direct control. He is from a political party with a manifesto that it needs to implement once in power. Failure to deliver would mean a withering away of the party. The civil service is responsible for operational delivery, assisting in policy formulation and implementing programmes and projects.
Pakistan inherited a system of administration from the British in 1947. Built around the ‘steel frame’ of the former ICS it was said to be apolitical, efficient and merit-based.
Unfortunately, the civil service played the role of loyal collaborators to armed forces in the regimes of Gen Ayub (1958-69), Gen Yahya (1969-71), Gen Ziaul Haq (1977-88) and Gen Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008). Secure in the belief that they had constitutional protection (till 1973) civil servants treated politicians with disdain.
On assuming power in 1972, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto decimated the civil service. Doing away with constitutional guarantees, he introduced organic law to regulate the conduct of civil servants.
A media campaign was launched to demoralise them, with politicians using derisive terms such as ‘naukarshahi’, ‘afsarshahi’ and ‘baboos’ for them. Individuals were publicly humiliated and key positions were given to ‘lateral entrants’ recruited on questionable grounds.
The regimes of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif (1988-1999) saw a further ‘politicisation’ of the civil service. Each political party prepared lists of officers who were sympathetic to it as well as a ‘negative’ list. Gen Musharraf was the icing on the cake. He appointed over 1,000 loyalists from his constituency to civil service positions.
Given the limited job opportunities in the country, the vast majority of civil servants adjusted comfortably to playing second fiddle to the armed forces or to politicians depending on who was in power.
They quickly realised that without the necessary political support they would not make it up the slippery slope of the bureaucratic pyramid. Some civil servants may disagree; unfortunately, this is a harsh reality. But is such politicisation a bad thing? Many countries are abandoning the concept of a neutral civil service.
The United States has a ‘spoils system’ in which a change of administration in Washington every four years sees the entire upper tier of government replaced by appointees subscribing to the policy of the incoming president.
Though the Pendleton Act, 1883 and the Hatch Act, 1939 introduced an element of transparency into the selection process and prohibited political activity among civil servants at middle and lower level, the apex is totally politicised.
Britain was said to boast a neutral civil service. Even here things are beginning to change. In June 2012, Francis Maude, the cabinet minister launched a civil service reform initiative aimed at giving contractual positions to the upper tier of the civil service along the lines of the New Zealand model.
As the Guardian observed, “Sir Humphrey [of Yes, Prime Minister fame] is no longer independent.”
Let it be said unambiguously that the orders of the Supreme Court need to be enforced in letter and spirit. The question is whether an initially demoralised and now ‘politicised’ bureaucracy, will undergo a transformation and a change in attitudes.
The civil service is but a means to an end. In the ultimate analysis, the overall objective of creating such an organisation is to serve the people of Pakistan. The party which has assumed power on the basis of a popular vote should in all fairness be allowed to fulfil its commitments to the electorate.
Politicised civil services continue to deliver reasonably well in developed and developing countries. Neutrality does not necessarily result in efficiency.
A bold initiative is called for. I propose that the civil service be bifurcated into two components. At the highest level, appointments should be made by an incoming political government on a contract basis and be valid only for its tenure. The remaining civil servants would pursue their careers in an apolitical, transparent and merit-based environment.
A number of advantages would accrue. First, the bureaucracy would have a sense of commitment for the policy objectives of the government. Second, knowing that they serve at the sufferance of the political machinery, civil servants would no longer sit on the fence. Third, they would have to deliver in a fixed time frame or face the sack.
Fourth, senior civil servants would quickly recognise that they and the political leadership would sink or swim together.
Fifth, middle and lower level civil servants would be free from pressures and be in a position to give honest rule-based advice. The punishment for differing would be a mere transfer. Let us try this option.
The writer is the author of Political Administrators: The Story of the Civil Service of Pakistan.