Feb 25, 2009

The minds of civil servants

bY Nadeem Ul Haque
The civil service is at the heart of most economic systems. It either determines or controls the means to policymaking, legislation and rules in society. If this machine is not well oiled and kept in permanent good order, the economy, even society fails. Yet our civil service has one of the lowest approval ratings as well as one of the highest ratings of corruption anywhere. A survey of civil servants conducted by the PIDE in 2007 found civil servants to be demoralised. They acknowledge that the service is corrupt and that their public-approval rating is low. They were aware that corruption is a serious problem. In addition there is no trust in the accountability process, because corruption is not penalized.The colonial civil service put in place our legal structures, our system of property rights, our procedures of governance, and our communications system. Its members were largely honest. Of course they were paid well and given respect. Today, our survey shows that the civil service has little faith in its human resource management. While acknowledging the benefits of meritocracy, civil servants continue to prefer seniority-based promotion and reward system. Written job descriptions as well as criteria for performance evaluation are not used. Similarly, "connections" are perceived to be the major determinant of nominations for training especially foreign training. Background and abilities are not regarded as important for promotion, assignments and training. Over the years since independence, the civil service has also been heavily politicised. Successive governments have conditioned the civil servant through a system of carrots and sticks. Carrots include lucrative perks, allowing corruption and choice positions, while the sticks are based on undeserved rapid promotions and weeding out of honourable and capable members of the service. The survey also confirms that civil servants fear that their independence has been curbed through repeated political interference.In the old days, the best and the brightest went into the civil service. They were well trained and confident of being the best. The survey shows that the civil service fears competition. While Grade 22 respondents with no more promotions want open recruitment, the junior grades wish to restrict the entry of professionals to Grade 17. Strange that they should want highly qualified people to come in at such junior levels. We were surprised to find that despite low salaries, the majority is satisfied with their civil service job. Those in the Police record a higher level of satisfaction than others because of power and other possibilities. Those in the Foreign Service and Commerce and Trade departments also show higher job satisfaction than others, possibly because of choice foreign postings. When salary and professionalism are both compromised, it is not surprising that elements such as corruption, comfortable postings and power brokering come to the fore. Despite recording low levels of job satisfaction, high levels of corruption and low self-esteem, majority of the officers surveyed indicated they would like to stay in the civil service. Could this be because they have limited career opportunities? When I talk about perks to the few civil servants who are around from the sixties, they are shocked to see what a public servant gets today. Government houses are being converted into houses at the taxpayer's expense. A fleet of cars for personal use. Publicly provided servants. Bills paid. Several paying board memberships. Plots given at cheap prices. With this in mind, we asked our current civil servants on the possibility of monetisation of perks. The majority agreed with monetisation of all perks. While the survey shows a preference for it, monetisation is always rejected when it is proposed. Perhaps this is because perks are mostly a non-transparent method of payment. Entrepreneurial and well networked individuals seek to maximise them. Perks will therefore be quite unequally distributed among the public servants with better connected and aggressive individuals being able to receive more perks.Given this lack of transparency and unequal distribution of perks, any effort to monetise perks would find it difficult to value perks at a level where monetisation would be acceptable to all. This may explain why a majority prefer monetisation but yet in reality it may not happen.In the old days a civil servant retired comfortably within the upper middle class of society. Pensions were good and in a stable non-inflationary environment the retirees had a happy old age. Our survey found that low levels of pension that were eaten up very quickly by inflation affected the behaviour of civil servants. The fact that a civil servant has to wait until 60 to collect his pension had kept many trapped at the expense of efficiency in the system. Recognising this, a majority of respondents in our survey favoured portability of pensions and monetisation of perks. Portable pensions cut down the cost of switching jobs and hence encourage mobility. This little survey has told us a lot about our civil service and its attitude to work, society and reform. I think most analysts will argue that without the development of a more professional and productive civil service, economic progress would be difficult. We must therefore think of ways to reform the civil service. I would argue that such a reform needs to be informed by more surveys like this. We need to address the needs of the civil servants and carry them with us in making this reform. Unlike in the West, the media does not really take to such research. In the more advanced countries, this survey would have been the subject of many columns and talk shows. In Pakistan, such surveys go unnoticed. The writer is a former vice-chancellor of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics.

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