May 13, 2010

Deforming bureaucracy

For a country like Pakistan, the evolution of bureaucracies has been forced and lateral, not natural and linear

By Adnan Rehmat

All types of governments -- whether elected or self-appointed and whether benevolent or autocratic -- require bureaucracies to govern countries. It is not in the nature of bureaucracies to offer corrections to governments on policies or even to inform priorities, merely to try and implement them as ordered. For bureaucracies anywhere process, not service, drives them. One cannot understand bureaucracies until understanding that for bureaucrats, procedure is king and that performance is for governments. And for a country like Pakistan, which has see-sawed between democracies and dictatorships, the evolution of bureaucracies has been forced and lateral, not natural and linear, with the result that little works and even files of the president and prime minister go missing somewhere between ministries.

It does not help that for a bureaucracy that has alternately conformed to diametrically opposed national priorities and agendas in Pakistan over the past few decades as politicians and generals have held sway over uncertain games of musical chairs for abrupt periods in power, the country's bureaucracy was an inheritance from the Raj era and designed for colonial duties in the first place, rather than service-oriented as in a welfare state. Not even the bureaucracy in Pakistan will contest the general perception that it is rusty and ineffective at best. At worst its capacity is severely diminished due to overt politicisation and corruption in its ranks and the abject failure to attract the best and the brightest of the country's citizens to it anymore.

Colonial bureaucracy

According to Andrew Wilder, who has recently researched the capacity of Pakistan's political institutions, including the bureaucracy, Pakistan's colonial heritage has heavily influenced its political culture as well as its bureaucratic and political institutions. The Indian Civil Service was designed to rule the British empire in this part of the world. While representative institutions were gradually introduced into colonial India, their role was advisory rather than policy-making, and to deal with local administrative matters rather than substantive issues. They were never intended to be democratic institutions that transferred power to elected representatives, but rather were designed to help legitimise and strengthen the authority of the bureaucratic state. The power imbalance between the strong bureaucratic institutions that Pakistan inherited from colonial India and the weak representative and democratic institutions has been one of the greatest causes of political instability in Pakistan since its independence.

With at least three distinct decade-long periods of military rule, Generals Ayub-Yahya, Zia and Musharraf in particular helped create and consolidate the rot by institutionalising ad hocism and skewering the natural progression of career bureaucracy. Each time there was a transition to democracy, in the 1970s, 1990s and recently, there was little serious effort made to institute reforms that would inject back professionalism and meritocracy within the executive. This ensured concentration of powers -- usually controlled directly by both civil and military bureaucracies -- in the executive branch stayed put to the detriment of legislature as well as the judiciary. Even now it is the executive supported by the bureaucracy that typically initiates legislation, bypassing the legislature

by promulgating presidential


Patronage bureaucracy

Another legacy holding sway in Pakistan's political culture and institutions, as well as its electoral politics, notes Wilder, is the institutionalisation of patron-client political associations between the bureaucracy and local elites. In exchange for benefaction in the shape of land grants, pensions and titles, feudals, clerics and tribal chiefs were co-opted by colonial managers to provide political stability and collect revenues. After independence, this direct patron-client relationship between the bureaucracy and local elites strengthened the image of the bureaucracy as the providers of patronage, influence and security, thereby undermining the development of political parties that normally would have played this intermediary role.

Until the break-up of the country in 1971 the civilian bureaucracy played the dominant role in Pakistan's policy-making and as such was insufficiently controlled or influenced by elected politicians. During this period, there was limited scope for interference from politicians as the bureaucracy, particularly the elite Civil Service of Pakistan, maintained control over the selection, training and posting of its members and was therefore able to retain its institutional autonomy. The political unrest that brought down General Ayub's regime in 1969, followed by the bloody civil war that dismembered Pakistan, seriously undermined the political strength and legitimacy of both the civil and military bureaucracies.

Politicised bureaucracy

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto carved out his political strength from this bureaucratic weakness after coming to power and set out to rectify the power imbalance between the elected and unelected institutions of the state. Within weeks of assuming power he stamped his authority by compulsorily retiring 1,300 bureaucrats and followed that up within months by sweeping administrative reforms. This included introducing a policy of lateral recruitment to increase political influence over a bureaucracy resistant to reform. Then through the 1973 Constitution he sliced away the protection of tenure. Rapid politicization of the civil service followed. This model of patronage, which dispensed with professionalism and performance and promoted loyalty to rulers, has been religiously followed by all subsequent governments whether elected or military. Thousands of civil officers are routinely transferred before and after elections to serve the wishes of their political masters, making it difficult for bureaucrats to get postings, transfers or promotions without the support of political or military patronage.

While the politicisation of bureaucracy, as a result of Bhutto's administrative reforms, did have the short term positive result of giving elected representatives more influence over unelected institutions but permanent adoption of this model also resulted in the decimation of a neutral and competent civil service. Of the dozen serious attempts to study administrative reforms since Bhutto's hanging, almost all seek to restore constitutional security of tenure and safety from prosecution for the civil servants -- arguing that insecure officers can't perform wonders. Both Generals Zia and Musharraf seriously toyed with the idea of restoring these guarantees but understood -- as did the governments of Benazir and Nawaz -- that to retain their grip on the polity they would require a weak and subservient civil service rather than a strong and independent one, and so backed off.

Militarised bureaucracy

General Zia was in fact clear in what he needed to do. He strengthened and consolidated the military's position not only as the country's strongest bureaucratic institution but also as its strongest political institution. While he did reverse Bhutto's reforms, such as the lateral entry of civilian bureaucrats, he offset this by increasing the lateral entry of military officers into the civilian bureaucracy. In fact he instituted a 10 percent quota for former military officials in the officer grades in the civilian bureaucracy. General Musharraf took this to unprecedented heights. When he left in August 2008, there were over 10,000 serving and retired military officers in the civilian bureaucracy his government had appointed.

Even well before Musharraf staged a coup in 1999, the military was a state within a state. Today arguably it is the state -- the elected civilian government and 18th constitutional amendment notwithstanding. The military controls all key state institutions through either direct control or through invisible influence -- the civil service, foreign policy, economic policy, home policy, intelligence agencies. The judiciary and the legislature are still recovering from the encumbering if invisible influence of the army. The worry is that due to the emaciated civilian bureaucracy, the administration of state institutions is still transparently marked by the invisible hand of the military and continues to depend on its capacity rather than civilian.

Considering that there is no concerted effort at broader reforms, over time, the effect is being compounded, especially since the elected government is increasingly noted for its poor governance track-record of two years. There may have been political triumphs for it but good governance is not one of them. The military has become organisationally and institutionally stronger in the last decade. It has ensured it gets much better governance and administrative training than the civilian bureaucracy even as the latter suffers from institutional decay and heads into the other direction.

Professional bureaucracy

Headed by former State Bank of Pakistan Governor Ishrat Hussain, the National Commission for Government Reforms, set up by the last military government but also tentatively supported by the incumbent elected government, has completed an exhaustive two-year review of what ails the civil service of Pakistan and what can be done to prop it up as a standard bearer of professionalism. The commission offers the following key recommendations as the only way for Pakistan to get a service oriented bureaucracy that can help run the proverbial ship of state properly:

Greater accountability: The need to strengthen internal and external accountability mechanisms to address widespread corruption within the bureaucracy;

Enhanced efficiency and transparency: The need to promote greater efficiency and transparency by replacing manual processes with automated ones and rationalising antiquated and outdated rules, procedures and regulations;

Rightsizing: The need for greater efficiency and affordability through rightsizing (most feasibly through natural attrition) of the large number of government employees in the relatively unproductive subordinate services (Grades 1 to 16);

Reform of the cadre system: The need to promote equality of opportunities and career advancement within the civil service rather than the tradition of giving preferential treatment in terms of training, positions and promotions to certain elite cadres.

Is this the roadmap to recovery? Given the chequered history of attempts to reform and deform the civil services in Pakistan, it seems this is not likely in a hurry -- considering that the timing of reforms is as relevant a tactical issue for military as it is for civilian dispensations. The popularly elected political government wants to break a record by surviving five years and the military establishment is keen to consolidate gains by repairing the damage from Musharraf's overstretch of his last two years. Any serious reforms now will have short term consequences on the principal stakeholders of the political system, including the parliament and the military, each of which is in no mood to lose their respective influence and its attendant benefits. Meanwhile, the only thing that will save Pakistanis from its bureaucracy is its inefficiency.


  1. Pakistan’s civil bureaucracy has too often colluded with the military establishment to retard the growth of democratic institutions and to gain or retain power even under elected civilian governments. At the same time, over-centralization and establishment’s interference in political matters have undermined government capacity to tackle the major problems. Meanwhile the civil service is resistant to radical change in order to sustain its hegemony. In case of Pakistan Peoples Party, bureaucracy always played a monstrous role and hindered its functioning till the end. Perhaps PPP was always ominous for the bureaucracy because of its poor friendly policies and agenda to empower lower class. Bureaucracy must abandon its old bad ways as Pakistan is not in a condition to absorb more shocks. PPP is on way of change and turned over a new leaf to nudge country on the path of progress and key changes, so it must avoid hindering Government function.

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  3. Pakistan people linked with military bureaucracy, civilian bureaucracy, politicians, feudal and industrialists have created a nexus and benefit each other. When ever any tried to break this nexus, he faced music and President Asif Ali Zardari has not been that lucky. His government’s attempt to put the ISI under the Ministry of Interior could not succeed. It was a good step and way to block involvement of agencies in the political matters. It would be most fruitful for Pakistan that civil and military organisations, instead of sticking to their traditional turfs, should enter into negotiations for a gradual and respectable retreat of the military from civilian administration. Military intervention in political matters resulted in marshal laws and we witnessed worst dictatorships. It would be more convenient that if military bureaucracy and other institutes confined them within their specific fields only.