The blues of cutting red tape in Pakistan
In recent days, the Imran Khan government has launched arguably the most ambitious bureaucratic reforms in the country’s history. The launch has, however, been a wantonly subdued affair— no fanfare, no lofty promises and not even a single word from the Prime Minister’s Office— though plenty of deliberate media leaks provide us ample idea of what is afoot.
The bureaucracy is the executive pillar from among the state structure’s traditional troika— the other being the parliament and judiciary. In Pakistan, the bureaucracy is such a powerful force in politics, beyond its remit of governance, that along with the military leadership it constitutes what is locally called the ‘Establishment’— the mythical force that either empowers or emasculates elected governments at will and determines their fate.
The key elements of the current reforms include downsizing the bureaucracy by shaving off 20 percent of the nearly 700,000 civilian federal government jobs, first by not filling about 70,000 posts lying vacant for over a year and then commuting an equivalent number of other jobs, forcing early retirement of under-performing officer-cadre bureaucrats by bringing in tough new evaluation rules and all but ending pension for civil servants.
The idea, as hinted in various interviews by Ishrat Hussain, the author and prime minister’s special adviser on the reforms, is to replace red tape with a leaner and more efficient government through the induction of subject experts on officer ranks on market-rate salaries. The idea is for budget for higher pay grades to be financed by savings from commutation of pension— the most popular financial reward sought by the general populace when looking for government jobs.
The drive for re-centralization of governance is a reaction to the 18th constitutional amendment, a major rehaul of the constitution effected a decade ago by the parties of Bhutto and Sharif that shifted vast powers and financial resources away from Islamabad to the provinces. This militates against the traditional governance worldview of the Establishment which has recently dropped all pretenses of supporting the most significant constitutional reforms in decades and openly spoken against the amendment
Many before— including the harried governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif— have tried to rein in the bureaucracy, which often sees elected governments as a nuisance forcing them into punishing levels of efficiency, through reform programs of their own, but all have failed to end Pakistan’s legendary red tape that stunts implementation of policy and stifles growth and progress.
But why the compulsion for reforms now, considering that the Khan government enjoys an unusually robust working relationship with the military and there should ostensibly be no threat of any sort to it from the civilian bureaucracy since the latter is influenced by the military?
The initiative seems to be part of an elaborate system being engineered into place for the long haul wherein the military with the support of the Khan government is effecting a more centralized form of governance which it wants to broadly control. An unusually high percentage of posts in full and semi government positions are already being manned by serving or retired military officials appointed by the Khan government.
The drive for re-centralization of governance is a reaction to the 18th constitutional amendment, a major rehaul of the constitution effected a decade ago by the parties of Bhutto and Sharif that shifted vast powers and financial resources away from Islamabad to the provinces. This militates against the traditional governance worldview of the Establishment which has recently dropped all pretenses of supporting the most significant constitutional reforms in decades and openly spoken against the amendment.
At stake are around Rs 3 trillion, about 60 percent of current annual national revenue, that now goes to provinces. Of the remaining amount, pension is the largest federal expense other than defense and debt servicing that shrinks the revenue pie, putting an existential squeeze for a growing re-securitization of the state, a policy currently aggressively championed by the Establishment.
Cutting down on the civilian bureaucracy and saving hundreds of billions of rupees on salaries and pensions is seen as an answer to this conundrum considering that a doddering economy is not generating additional sizable revenues to play with.
It is difficult to sympathize with Pakistan’s bloated bureaucracy that even if ignored for its generally dismal performance seems an executive anathema considering Pakistan is a decentralized federation with its constituent provinces directly governing themselves. There is no need for a disproportionately massive duplicate federal governance structure.
The overt rationale for a leaner and more efficient federal bureaucracy could not be more welcome for a country desperately requiring an improvement in governance commensurate with the twenty-first century. But the covert purpose underwriting the current reforms are troubling. Greater transparency and public support are required for the reforms to legitimize an exercise which will have far-reaching consequences for Pakistan.
*Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science.