Jan 11, 2010

Bureaucracy rules

Monday, January 11, 2010
Zafar Hilaly

The writer is a former ambassador.

Much is written about how the Constitution can be made better; how wars should be fought; why party leaders should be elected and not selected; why controversial judges and their judgements must not be allowed to determine our fate. And yet scarcely a murmur is heard of the need to reform the bureaucracy, the one institution that the man in the street, to his everlasting regret, has to confront almost every day and suffer.

Obviously this is not because the bureaucracy is functioning well; nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, it seems that as a society we have taken a collective and silent decision to surrender, to give up and accept our fate or, at best, to leave deliverance from the despotism of the bureaucracy in the hands of God, or revolution.

Why else should the average citizen put up with an institution that has come to be viewed as a vast labyrinth of mass routine; where men and (a few) women work assiduously to find a difficulty for every solution and to lure good ideas, and then quietly strangle them; where malice, self-interest, carelessness and mistake abound and multiply; where those who do not work cannot be fired and those who do often are; where only those prosper, like Karaoke singers, who sing the song that they are asked to sing, rather than from any original score; and where only those thrive who oppose everything and propose nothing, and do not offer an opinion unless it has been around for 60 years.

It is extraordinary that procedures, protocols, regulations, laws, bylaws, and what have you, and their implementation, which impact on the life of the man on the street more than the wording of a Constitution or the identity of a prime minister, are not in the hands of those he has elected to sit in parliament, but rather those he has barely heard of, actually never heard of, and who would not even bother to spit on him if he was on fire.

It is no less astonishing that the ordinary citizen should be inspected, directed, censured, commanded, corrected and have every operation stamped, measured, numbered, licensed and be fleeced, extorted and fined by those about whom he has no clue why they are where they are, or how they got there.

Neither politicians nor insolent dictators seem to care about the pain inflicted on the public by the suffocating bureaucracy. All they seem eager to do is to select favourites, heedless of whether they qualify by knowledge, virtue or experience, as long as they identify their interests, which is essentially selfish, with those of the public at large.

Documentary and other evidence of the recent promotions in the federal bureaucracy, now challenged in the Courts, could reveal to the public a mite of just how bureaucrats are recruited, their promotions effected, and the potpourri of factors that determine their fate at the hands of the rulers. But much more is tucked away somewhere in the files but, as often, in the shameful memory of generations of their colleagues, never to be revealed.

We are all too painfully aware of factors for getting on in the bureaucracy and what are fatal disabilities such as, how (arms folded or not) one prays, indeed whether one prays at all; or whether one holds contrary views concerning the training of recruits in Kakul. Promising civilian careers have actually ended in disputes over such trivia.

There are countless other examples where whim, fancy, bias and prejudice have changed or alternatively destroyed lives. But, then, one is told, that is par for the course because it happens in all societies, which is probably true. But what is unacceptable is that we go along with such prattle with a sigh of resignation. Other societies fought against it, won and have much to show for their success. And to think that we were once at the starting line together.

The good news is that there may be cause for hope. Last month Mr Zardari announced the appointment of Justice Bhagwandas as chairman of the Federal Public Service Commission (FPSC). A stunning and appropriate choice considering some of the other appointments that he has made. Mr Bhagwandas must be a man possessed of the most equable temperament, the hide of a rhinoceros and the patience of Job to have prospered in the Islamic Republic.

Having got as far as he has done, Mr Bhagwandas could perhaps take the risk of earning his boss’s disfavour by insisting that the restrictions which the Commando imposed on the powers of the FPSC chairman should be removed. He could, of course, go further and demand that all recruitment and promotions also be determined by the FPSC. The prime minister’s options would be confined to picking one from the list of candidates cleared for promotion by the FPSC.

Of course Mr Gilani will take umbrage. But Mr Bhagwandas could stress that as long as every criterion but merit is used to determine promotions, the bureaucracy will remain lugubrious, inefficient and demoralised, and the object of derision, contempt and ridicule. A bureaucracy in such a condition, the learned former justice could add, cannot possibly implement government policy effectively, and hence improvement would only redound to the benefit of the government itself.

Mr Bhagwandas could also have another look at the CSS examination papers. He may discover the merit of the saying that “often the greatest fool may ask more than the wisest man can answer.” A selection process that stresses memory and learning by rote, rather than aptitude and argument, and assigns marks accordingly, is valueless.

Unlike America, where the best minds are not in government, as the disastrous policies of successive US administrations have conclusively proved, in Pakistan the best minds did mostly aspire to government service, albeit in the past. There has been a sea change since. Perhaps that’s for the good, but considering how poorly government is shaping, the trend needs to be reversed.

We have a war on our hands, an economic crisis to contend with, terrorists running rampant and, to cap it all, Messrs Zardari and Gilani to lead us. They need all the help they can get. Of course, they have parliament, but there one beholds “a range of exhausted volcanoes,” and at best further evidence of life after death.

Clearly, Mr Bhagwandas has his work cut out. Much will need to change if reform is to succeed. Of course, there is a lot over which he has no control, like wages, conditions of service and prospects in general, all of which are crucial in attracting good material. But some, such as better, fairer evaluation, close monitoring of performance and vastly improved recruitment techniques, are within his domain. One can only wish him well and desire of him a perspective of his job that is broad rather than a narrow, for the sake of the suffering public.

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