The story of civil service reforms is as old as Pakistan. From the Pay and Service Commission in 1949; Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s first-ever occupational groupings and introduction of lateral entry in 1973; to the Anwar-ul-Haq commission under General Zia in 1979, and the National Reconstruction Bureau under General Musharraf in 1999 to National Commission for Government Reforms under Dr Ishrat in 2008 - Pakistan has seen more than its fair share of civil service reform efforts – the last of which was a hastily done follow up (to Dr. Ishrat’s 2008 work) tried in-vain near the end of PML-N’s last tenure. The PTI’s was supposed to be different, only that things are moving rather slow, contrary to the promises made by Imran Khan.
In any case, the Cabinet’s decision to review the rules and regulations that govern the hiring of management cadre in order to attract talent from the private sector is praiseworthy. But at the risk of pointing the obvious, the revision of rules and regulations isn’t the only concern that has to be addressed. For instance, taking the foot of the pedal that fuels the anti-corruption hype under Khan’s leadership is one such important concern that needs to be addressed to attract private sector. Equally important is the need to take concurrent measures on at least two accounts to achieve the desired fruits of lateral entry.
The first of these revolve around the basic good management environment that private sector individuals need to be able to deliver. In a professionally managed shop – be it a government office or a private organisation - managers ought to be free to manage their organisations with clear standards and measures of performance. They are also allowed to increase competition through use of contracting and tendering. They have the scope for specialised, flexible hiring, and efficient use of resources in a system that allows cutting fat from the system to stay lean and fit.
There is a degree to which lateral entry at top management level can bear fruit if the staff at lower management is the same old inefficient, incompetent lot. Likewise, there is a degree to which private sector-styled management can deliver if politicians continue to meddle in the affairs, or otherwise do not provide political support in the reforms proposed by the private sector leaders. The story of musical chair at the Board of Investment, of Shabbar Zaidi at FBR, and many other are an apt reminder that private sector professionals need private-sector-styled enabling environment.
The second concurrent measure that ought to be taken alongside lateral entry is market reforms across the myriad list of ailing economics sectors that are preventing Pakistan’s economy from taking off. For instance, if the power sector is not deregulated alongside the hiring of technocrats from private sector, then the presence of a few private sector individuals at the helm of affairs will achieve little. Sooner or later they will leave, leaving an institutional void, and the system will fall back to the norm.
Lastly, due care must be taken while reviewing the rules and regulations to ensure that lateral entry is not used to benefit those unfit to take the job. Top federal administration offices must not become a parking lot of favourites retiring from the private sector; nor should it become a parking lot for those retired army officials who don’t have the necessary academic and post-retirement professional background to run offices that demand technical expertise.