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EDITORIAL: On paper and in theory it’s a fine idea to allow civil servants to compete for MP scales for five years once in their careers without having to resign from government service. But in practice most lucrative positions on offer are most likely to go to bureaucrats unless checks and monitoring of the hiring process are not upgraded for this exercise. And surely, the last thing the Cabinet Committee on Institutional Reforms (CCIR), which reportedly endorsed this decision, wants from what starts as a good idea is to inadvertently further sideline the small pool of talented professionals that usually live off the MP scales. It is still the civil service that executes policy, after all, and given its track record and reputation there is every reason to suspect that its officers would be only too happy to facilitate their own kind when they conduct the job interviews.

One has to look only as far back as the Musharraf era, when all the regulatory bodies were established - Pemra, Ogra, Nepra, etc. - to see how senior bureaucrats on the verge of retirement positioned themselves to take over these bodies and put further shine, and all that comes with it, on their illustrious careers. These trends repeat themselves only because they are allowed to; because the would-be drivers of change are the very bunch that benefit from no change. And so we go round in circles. It is also reported that along with this opportunity to branch off into MP scales for five years to broaden civil servants’ experience as well as their bank accounts, ministries have also been allowed to hire experts/consultants for “specific tasks” for a period of “six months” and a maximum contract basis cost of Rs 6 million. All this should work well enough provided the process through which the right people are chosen for the right positions is transparent and based on merit. There was much talk about implementing just such a programme at the briefing given to the CCIR, but the proof of the pudding lies in the eating especially when it comes to the establishment division, so we’ll have to wait and see how it turns out.

A lot of good can come from rotating bureaucrats across a much wider spectrum than they are allowed to at the moment. They will bring rich experience from the service, which will no doubt add to their new environment, and also take back some when they return. That is a much better use of their abilities and time than only allowing them deputations to international agencies. Why not have Pakistan’s so-called finest spend the most fruitful years of their service inside Pakistan? It can only be hoped though that such measures will help in giving the civil service the kind of approach it needs to keep up with the times. For there can be no argument that while it vaguely resembled the ‘iron frame of empire’ in the early decades after Partition, it has degenerated into a very different kind of entity over the last 30-40 years. At the moment the one thing it can be counted on with certainty is making anything it touches the very definition of official inefficiency. And since most government work is carried out by this institution, it’s no surprise at all that the whole thing is tied up in red tape and anybody who tried to bring reforms only lost their way in it.

This government has made it something of a mission to transform the service. Yet while it has made much noise about it, and also discussed a number of plans put together by Advisor to Prime Minister on Institutional Reforms and Austerity Dr Ishrat Hussain, nothing concrete has so far seen the light of day. So while the main course of reforms is still being cooked perhaps it’s a smart idea after all to start with small and contained initiatives just like the MP scales window to whet the bureaucracy’s appetite for change. But it must not be allowed to become yet another way for them to entrench themselves even further in the system. Therefore, such initiatives are welcome but only as long as transparency and merit can be assured.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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