Modernising bureaucracy: Ahsan Iqbal unveils ambitious civil service reform plan

In a set of reforms likely to have far-reaching consequences, the government on Monday unveiled its ambitious three-year plan to overhaul the Civil Service of Pakistan, aimed at replacing the British-era structure with a system more in line with the modern economy.

The draft of the civil service reform strategy was made public at Bhurban by the planning ministry. At its core, the plan calls for a drastic overhaul of how the civil service conducts recruitment, and the manner in which bureaucrats are assigned career tracks and granted promotions.
Under the existing system, university graduates from all over Pakistan take a single entrance examination and on the basis of their grades, provincial quotas, and personal preferences, they are granted a slot in one of 12 service tracks. Selection does not take into consideration previous education. For instance, it is not necessary to have an accounting education to be inducted into the audit and accounts service.

The new system would seek to create a selection structure that would allow the government to hire specialised cadres, who would be recruited by sitting for separate, cluster-based exams for each service group. And taking into consideration increasing life expectancy, the government wants to increase the retirement age from 60.

The government also wants to end the ban on lateral entry into the civil service, allowing people in private industry to join senior government positions. “The present civil service structure has outlived its life. People’s aspirations have gone global and no government can match them with the present structure,” said Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal.

To allow the government to recruit top talent, as well as crack down on corruption, the ministry proposes offering higher salaries for civil service positions. “Extremely low salary packages are the reason for misuse of public resources,” said Iqbal. As a start, the government has allocated Rs1 billion in this year’s budget for performance-based pay for bureaucrats.

The government also wants to end seniority-based promotions and instead make them contingent on performance. “Promotion should not be a right, it should be earned through performance,” said Iqbal.

The government will create key performance indicators for each bureaucrat and at least 11 ministries have already agreed to make their employees sign new contracts where they agree to those terms.

In order to depoliticise the civil service and give civil servants time to implement the policies they initiate, the government also wants to appoint Secretaries (the highest ranking civil servant in a ministry or department) who have at least five years left until retirement.

“The final set of recommendations and the implementation timelines will be put forward for the approval of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif within this week,” said Iqbal. He said after the premier’s approval, the package will be taken to federal cabinet, with an aim to implement it from next month. The proposed recruitment plan will be implemented as early as February 2017.

In February this year, the prime minister had asked the planning ministry to come up with civil service reforms after being frequently frustrated with the pace at which bureaucrats implemented what the PM considered essential reforms.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 15th, 2015.