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Sick Man Of The Bureaucracy – Pakistan Administrative Service

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For public services, the Pakistan Administrative Service (former District Management Group) has changed everything. Outwardly, it has always been bowing to calls for institutional reforms. Inwardly, resisting those reforms has been almost an article of faith. It has always been favouring a top-down and closed system of governance, quite opposite to the democratic norms of bottom-up flow, transparency and accountability. It reveals how unethical the policy style of the Pakistan Administrative Service is and how little understanding there is at its administrative chancelleries of events of public importance.

More worrying, however, is its general indifference to the people’s lives and livelihoods. The PAS’s hostility to the other cadres of the bureaucracy and its utter disregard for the people’s interests in the country can almost be taken for granted. Its style of management of communications with the people always casts a troubling impression: a sly civility verging on geniality masks a carefully-kept indifference and coldness to matters of highest importance to the people.

The situation has been exacerbated by the 1993 posts apportionment formula, which has placed other cadres of vital importance (from the Provincial Management Service to the Office Management Group) under threat – facing a multitude of problems from budget reduction to curtailment of their authority.

For starters: the Pakistan Administrative Service is “the most elite and prestigious cadre” of Pakistan’s bureaucracy. Over the years, it has developed into the single-most powerful artery of the civil bureaucracy. Though it is an administrative group like many others e.g. OMG and PMS, it has accumulated a larger-than-life clout, mostly at the cost of the functioning of other groups. It has been aptly noted in one paper that “almost all of the country’s highest profile bureaucratic positions such as the federal secretaries, the provincial chief secretaries, and chairmen of top-heavy organizations like the National Highway Authority, Tourism Corporation of Pakistan, Federal Board of Revenue usually belong to the elite PAS.”

To be sure, the bureaucracy generally is reviled all across the country for its supposed lack of empathy towards the general populace, and if there is any single branch of the bureaucracy that must carry most of the burden, it is the PAS. An institution that sits, unfortunately, at the heart of the country’s bureaucratic machinery, is not the institution of the hour in its current form.

It is an institution of the past. Precedent matters more to it than channels of vision and new thinking. There is always talk of experience – so much so that it nearly chokes creativity. As a result, if there is anything that it is good at, it is at immortalizing the past.

They present themselves as genial, they vouch for acceptance of their reliability and capability. It is uncontested, as they present it. But they are neither genial nor reliable, and as for their ability, one does not need to be an expert to conclude that it hardly exists. The utter lack of efficiency in the vital public service institutions is enough to make us aware of how much capable (or not capable) they are.

There is always resistance to change and engagement. However, there is a clash here, not just of interests, but also of policy styles. As the people and civil society push for change, the PAS would retreat. But that would be only as far as the people and civil society push, accepting with equanimity any humiliations that might result. When the outcry calms down, the conformity and mediocrity of the PAS would resume. It has resulted in a general perception that that the Baboos from the PAS would only ever ultimately understand heavy handedness. As the time passes by, it is acquiring more weight.

Most horrific of all steps has been the Moin Qureshi-led 1993 apportionment formula. It was presented and implemented (without following the due spirit of law) by the former interim government of Moin Qureshi – himself an officer from the PAS. The Moin Qureshi formula did damage so grave that it would require years to contemplate the actual loss rendered to the institutional performance. The formula established superiority of federal bureaucracy (the PAS especially) at the cost of the provincial bureaucracy, simply by plundering their share and percentage of seats in the provinces. As a matter of fact, after the implementation of the formula, it would usually take a fresh PCS officer a whole span of 17 years of service to get promotion into the BPS-18. Even now, it takes, generally, 11 years (to a PMS officer).

But the true damage has been done in another sphere – delivery of public service, a purpose that the formula was outwardly meant to serve. But service was neither at the heart of this formula nor that of its creator. Devised by the Baboos from the DMG (the former name of the PAS group), it has always been a tool to penetrate their power, prestige and control. However, it generated bureaucratic backlog of a gigantic scale. It corrupted the entire machinery of the bureaucracy. Moreover, it placed power struggle at the heart of bureaucratic working. Even, at higher levels of the provincial bureaucracy (at grades 20 and 21), it creates so many vacant seats. Last but not least, by shrinking the scope of authority of the PMS officers (currently, their number amounts to nearly 4,400), it resulted not only in waxing of their energies and potential but also in annihilating their incentive to imagine, plan and contribute.

There are, however, some positive reflections of a broader shift in attitudes among the PMS officers. Lately, they have been taking to roads, conducting seminars and growing vocal about their grievances. They have formed a country-wide PMS Association. The reluctance among them to voice their lawful concerns has gradually given way to a larger understanding of their right to counteract the excesses of the PAS officers.

The executives had traditionally viewed the PAS as the fulcrum of stability and service in the country and thus as an effective artery that must be preserved and privileged at all costs. But by 1990, this conception no longer appeared so compelling. Since the 1990s, Pakistan has been experiencing tremendous change and chaos. There is a deeper penetration of democracy. The youth forms a greater proportion of the country’s electorate. The economy needs major transformation. The country has gone nuclear. Then there is the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). All these socioeconomic and political wires have turned the country’s environment hyperkinetic – an environment hardly to be grasped and performed in by traditional bureaucratic groups, especially the PAS.

Once there was a belief that the PAS can perform. The PML-N firmly endorsed a policy of concentration of power – justified on no other grounds but greed. The PAS was part of their style of governance. If one allowed the PAS to consolidate themselves at the expense of other cadres, it was believed, it would create the basis for a working relationship among different bureaucratic entities that, in due course, might form an efficient bureaucracy.

The PML-N’s preference for the PAS was meant to deepen a patron-client relationship. Moreover, nothing could be better suited to the preservation of the power, the buffering of the people-bureaucratic tensions and the emergence of a kind of submissiveness better suited to the taste and style of the PML-N’s moguls.

The years 2008-18 has been, therefore, boom years for the PAS’s power and prestige. But very little of this authority has been channeled into the public service. It has been a source of little comfort in these troubled circumstances. And for all these reasons the record of their government was patchy.

This belief was tremendously undermined by the tendency – which swiftly gained ground among the people after the rise of the PTI to centre-stage – to think of Pakistan in terms of people’s welfare, rather than as a dynastic playing field in which every powerful family has a role to play.

There are many reasons to believe that the election of Imran Khan to the premiership of the country might result in a greater-than-usual degree of change. It is the first democratic change in the 21st century of the administration voted and supported by electorate all across the country – also the first since the ratification of the 1973 constitution with accepted broad welfare and economic responsibility.

The new administration not only has a mandate for extensive policy changes but also seems committed, in statements and style, to the idea of reforming the institutions. There is ample evidence that Imran Khan and many of his leading companions genuinely believe that the country’s bureaucratic machinery has become contaminated with grafters, incompetents, and political appointees.

So far, however, hopes are turning to despair. It has been months since Imran Khan authorized Ishrat Hussain with advisory on institutional reforms. What the latter is up to is, so far, unknown.

For it is only through glimpses from newspaper reports, from his rare public appearances and also from anonymous comments of some senior bureaucrats that we find out bits and pieces of what is going on. It is, therefore, hard to feel like we fully know his predisposition or get a sense of the texture of his would-be institutional reforms’ policy.

But there are certain footprints to base our analysis upon. He is himself from the PAS cadre. He has so far neglected other cadres. He is, whether intentionally or otherwise, not engaging members from academia, policy development and civil society He “is least interested in even listen(ing)” to demands of other groups and is merely “beating about the bush”, one of the senior members of the PMS Association who held a meeting with Ishrat Hussain told me. It can be inferred, therefore – with a certain degree of reservation though – that the bureaucratic chaos that was initiated by Moin Qureshi in 1993 is going to be institutionalized by Ishrat Hussain.

If it is a democracy that we live in, then maintaining such an extreme level of opaqueness is both unfortunate and worthy of condemnation.

Surely there is no quick fix. Reforming institutions is a slow-paced task. But there are steps worth considering. One is to repeal the apportionment formula of 1993, which would tip the balance of authority away from the PAS to the provincial bureaucracy and make them more responsible. It will result in administrative stability and efficiency in the provinces. Another step that can have far-reaching implications is to introduce a ‘Lateral Entry’ mechanism under which capable, experienced and efficient private-sector professionals should be appointed at posts of higher authority and responsibility.

Moreover, the country’s leadership cannot refuse to recognize that the profanation of the PAS is an authentic threat to the materialization of people’s vital interests. The Pakistan Administrative Service as we know it, therefore, might well cease to exist.


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