Reforming the Civil Service

An effective public service has remained key to the achievement of national economic and social goals across the world. A capable and motivated bureaucracy has played an instrumental role in economic growth and overall prosperity in many countries.

One of the best known examples is Britain which became a dominant economy in the 18th century, especially militarily, in large part due to a competent and efficient public administration that was able to raise taxes. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recognise the important role that state institutions need to play in achieving these goals, notably through Goal 16 which focuses especially on building institutions that are accountable, inclusive and characterised by representative decision-making.

This need for efficient service delivery is greater for developing countries that face issues of poverty, inequality, hunger, limited access to quality education and health services, lack of clean drinking water and sanitation facilities, and other issues that the SDGs aim to address. The state cannot resolve these development challenges without an effective civil service, which, in turn, cannot perform its functions in a manner that helps meet the SDGs, without continuous reform. The increasing demand for service delivery (and accountability) calls for realigning public administration with the broader goals of development.

Effective civil service is characterised by good governance which means sound policymaking, efficient service delivery, and accountability and responsibility in public resource utilisation.

Pakistan’s civil service saw 38 major reform initiatives between the years 1947 and 2016 and these practices have not been as successful as they could have been. The reforms were largely motivated by short-term priorities and failed to address critical issues of accountability, meritocracy, capacity and competency.

Development goals depend on reform.

The good news is that public administration reform has been on the agenda of successive governments in one form or another. The Pakistan Vision 2025 also prioritises civil service reform as a key objective, and the Ministry of Planning, Development and Reforms is spearheading a process focusing on specialisation and professionalism, outcome-based performance evaluation and meritocracy in appointments. Like other countries, past civil service reform in Pakistan emphasised issues concerning salaries, benefits and other financial incentives. There is ample research within and outside Pakistan suggesting that financial incentives do improve performance depending on context.

However, there is also substantial evidence to suggest that many people still join the public service on the basis of intrinsic motivation — for example, a feeling of pride and nationalism. Non-financial incentives are required to reward and support intrinsic motivation like best employee awards, empowering good performers though increased delegation, etc.

Public-sector reform should go beyond incentives, eg organisations play a key role in attracting and retaining talent. This is not something usually addressed in reform initiatives. The National Highway and Motorway Police is a case in point; besides the provision of incentives and using a merit-based system for recruitment, the Motorway Police created and sustained an organisational culture that motivates its staff to high performance. While higher wages can attract skilled people, a congenial and enabling organisational culture is needed to drive performance. Reform is a continuous process and should not be treated as a one-time effort. The success of reform processes requires multi-stakeholder engagement and a holistic and evolutionary approach.

Governments sho­uld implement re­f­orms as and when required to maintain a modern, efficient civil service that benefits from consistent and high-level political commitment. Pol­itical will is key to successful reform initiatives. Change in countries that have gone through major reform and whose public administrations are considered efficient, was championed at the senior-most levels of political offices and sustained over long periods of time. Singapore and Malaysia are good examples.

Around the world, efficient public administration and bureaucracy have been characterised by factors such as meritocratic recruitment and predictable career ladders which provide long-term tangible and intangible rewards. Max Weber, the German sociologist, in his work in the early 20th century, argued for the fundamental value of bureaucracy as one of the institutional foundations of capitalist growth. Others have emphasised the positive role of bureaucracy in the East Asian Miracle of the 1970s and 1980s.

Given the fact that government provides public goods to which market mechanisms often do not apply, an efficient public administration remains the only option for addressing citizens’ needs. Efficient and capable public service is therefore crucial for both economic and social development. Certainly, an efficient and transparent civil service is far more likely to be able to address the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. Experience shows this can happen if the highest levels champion a long-term, continuous and comprehensive approach to public service reform.

By Ignacio Artaza

The writer is UNDP country director in Pakistan.




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