The right way to reform


Oren Harari’s famous quote ‘the electric light did not come from the continuous improvement of candles’ serves as a poignant reminder of the ineffectiveness of incremental changes in addressing deep-rooted systemic issues within Pakistan’s public service.

This analogy resonates strongly with those advocating for reform in our struggling governance system, cautioning against relying solely on minor bureaucratic enhancements such as changing titles and designations, making generous adjustments to perks and privileges, and sending individuals to prestigious institutions.

Across the globe, bureaucracies hold a key position in running a state’s affairs and are considered pivotal to the success or failure of a state. In an ideal scenario, bureaucrats, armed with an appropriate educational background, skillset, and training, are responsible for delivering effective public services through well-designed institutions. They are expected to serve people with a commitment to public service, demonstrating responsiveness to citizens’ needs, transparency, accountability, and an unwavering dedication to upholding liberal democratic values.

Public trust is also a vital component of effective governance, and bureaucracies must be trained and encouraged to adopt a positive, citizen-centric approach to build and sustain this trust.

At the time of Partition, Pakistan inherited a bureaucracy rooted in an extractive, authoritative, and controlling model of governance, originally designed to support imperialistic British rule. In the aftermath of gaining independence in 1947, the newly formed state of Pakistan gradually embarked on a strategic initiative, sending its bureaucrats to esteemed world-class institutions and universities to cultivate a skilled and educated workforce capable of actively contributing to the nation’s development.

This initiative represents a concerted effort to bolster the capabilities of bureaucrats by providing them with access to world-class education, advanced research, and best practices spanning various disciplines to run the state’s affairs. The underlying policy framework seeks to cultivate future bureaucrats who not only possess refined cultural understanding, skills, and knowledge but also embody humility, fostering a service-oriented relationship with people to enhance the delivery of public services.

Notably, this approach is still dominant today, prioritizing individual development over the consideration of essential structural reforms required for an antiquated governance model. This scenario is akin to operating the latest Windows 11 on a vintage PC-XT computer or deploying elite race drivers like Schumacher to compete in Formula One while driving a Ford Model T.

The current governance system appears to invest heavily in individuals without addressing the imperative need for structural and institutional reforms in the outdated governance model. Consider a governance system where a medical doctor, having successfully passed essay writing exams, is recruited into the superior civil service to serve in various roles, ranging from managing land records through patwaris to the space programme.

Subsequently appointed as a revenue officer in district administration, this individual is afforded the opportunity to attain a master’s degree in education policy from Harvard, and upon return, eventually ends up regulating Sunday Bazars or flour mills in some remote town. Similarly, envision an officer with a PhD in land use planning from MIT overseeing the country’s federal health ministry. This misalignment between qualifications and roles highlights the disconnect within the governance system, emphasizing the critical need for a more strategic and coherent approach to bureaucratic inductions, deployment and governance reform.

By the early 2000s, it was estimated that approximately 75 per cent of bureaucratic inductees held MA/MSc, while the rest 25 per cent possessed BA degrees. However, this composition has shifted after 2011, with around 75 per cent of entrants now holding four-year undergraduate degrees, mostly earned from local universities. The practice of sending bureaucrats to acquire more specialized advanced degrees, predominantly from Ivy-Oxbridge universities, has persisted, with an estimated 80 per cent of current bureaucrats possessing highly specialized education today, and some have acquired multiple diverse degrees and fellowships, perhaps spending half of their service careers in acquiring education abroad.

This enduring practice has been sustained over decades through the support of government scholarships and education aid programmes sponsored by international non-governmental organizations, among other donors. These organizations allocate funds for projects with apparent aims to improve public service in developing countries. Specific programmes and funding mechanisms evolve over time, guided by agreements, strategic policy objectives, and shifting priorities.

The adage ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’ underscores the reality that someone bears the substantial cost of such education/training programmes, especially in prestigious institutions. This significant investment is intended, by design, to align bureaucracies in developing countries with donors/financiers, influencing policies more than public welfare. A significant question arises concerning who in the government decides who will receive what type of advanced degree. This discourse challenges the assumption that specialized education automatically translates into transformative impact within public service.

Many in public service attribute this inertia to the system itself. This also intrigues taxpayers if the bureaucrats involved in designing such initiatives, ever accentuate a ‘system redesign’ to ensure the principle of the ‘right person for the right job’, aligning with their enhanced skillset and capabilities.

Ironically, over time, these well-equipped individuals often feel disconnected from the relic colonial governance system, leading to a loss of interest in public service. Eventually, they transition into roles as donors/contractors/INGOs employees as consultants, post-retirement and during long sabbaticals – exhibiting a clear conflict of interest. Some choose paths such as becoming mentors for CSS aspirants, serving as an adjunct faculty, resigning and migrating abroad, or venturing into content creation on social media.

In essence, the policy also contends that pursuing excellence through elite education alone is insufficient for systemic reform. The perplexing question often intrigues many: Why haven’t these individuals, armed with high-value education, been able to catalyze transformative changes within public service and put the country on a socio-economic growth trajectory?

The prevailing sense of apathy among system designers, operators and beneficiaries often fosters resistance to change, rooted in the belief that maintaining a bona fide contract ensures perks, privileges, job security, and quick social mobility through premium education. The notable absence of discernible dissent or the lack of voices raised against this perceived problematic system is striking.

Perhaps we need to take a deeper look at some of the fundamental questions: Can one pinpoint bureaucrats who have ever unequivocally spoken out against this systemic malaise? How relevant and useful are these highly advanced degrees for a primitive governance system, culture, and society like ours? Why are individuals allowed to make personal choices of degrees/training programmes/fellowships that are mostly mismatched to their service cadres/appointments/JDs? Does any department carry out cadre & career-based training need assessment (TNA)?

Have these world-class universities been able to transform the conduct of servicemen, fostering professionalism, humility, and empathy, even in those instances where interactions with taxpayers still display elements of derision, apathy and inflated hubris? Can incremental changes in bits effectively address this faltering governance system, or is a comprehensive structural redesign necessary?

A true transformation requires a holistic reevaluation of the governance system, recognizing fundamental disparities and failures despite marvelous individual performances and achievements. Similar to the revolutionary shift from traditional candles to electric light, effective governance reform demands a departure from incremental changes and a profound reimagining of the entire system.

The writer is a development sector professional who has over 30 years of professional experience. He tweets/posts @nadeemkhurshid

Read more