May 08 - May 14, 2006

In a much welcome and timely move the government has announced the formation of National Commission on Government reforms with former State Bank Governor, Dr. Ishrat Hussain as its Chairman to simplify rules and procedure at all tiers of governance for efficient implementation of state policies.

The decision was taken at a high level meeting co-chaired by the President and the Prime Minister and attended, among others by the provincial Chief Ministers held at Aiwan-e-Sadr, Islamabad. Articulating the objective behind the move, President General Pervez Musharraf said, "we must remove obstacles in the way of efficient provision of services to achieve a visible improvement in the quality of life for the common man". Of course, reform of government functioning cannot be achieved in just one go; it requires both time and determination. Hence unlike the usual commissions established for specific purposes having clearly stated terms of reference (TORs) and a fixed tenure, there are no pre-determined TORs or a fixed tenure for the present one. It is to formulate and present its proposals on a continual basis. More importantly, it is to be supervised by a committee, jointly headed by the President and the Prime Minister while its members are to include the four chief ministers. It means the commission's recommendations stand a strong chance of being approved and implemented, too. Also, the selection of Dr. Hussain as the commission head holds a special significance. Belonging to the Pakistan Central Superior Services and having worked in the federal and provincial governments, as also with important national and international institutions, he is fully conversant with the working of the government as well as international agencies, which makes him a perfect choice for the assignment.

This is the right time for reforming the government machinery, as deregulation and privatisation are the norms of the day. This is the time when the government is expected to become slim, fit and effective and shed a great deal of its needless weight in terms of personnel. For example, the government commission has reported that 80,000 ghost schools were functioning in the country with far more ghost teachers as a part of the political tradition. Simultaneously the government is going to employ 8,000 women in the family planning department, which is being brought again under the center. The government is trimming many of the over-staffed department like the PTCL, Pakistan Steel, KESC and many more organizations. And more organizations like the PSO as also on the privatisation block. As a result we should have a thin government instead of one with four to five million staff, federal, provincial and local government.

Inefficiency and poor delivery services being intrinsic to our government's functioning, challenges before the new commission are many. An immediate one is to make the third tier of government i.e. local bodies, introduced by the last Musharraf government, work effectively. Towards that end, it is important to put in place a local government cadre like the ones that exist at the federal and provincial plans to ensure better delivery of education, health care and social services as well as basic amenities at the grass roots level. This can be done both through local recruitment as well as transfers from the provincial services. Those serving the provincial governments need to be given a choice to opt for local governments, but such transfers must be made on a permanent basis so that the members of local government cadres develop a strong interest in improving the conditions of local communities. Another area begging change concerns the perks and privileges enjoyed the members of the civil services. Although their salaries are incommensurate with the cost of living, they are entitled to perks and privileges that defy logic. For instance, as per a study carried out by the Planning Commission, a Grade 22 officer is served by a support staff of 19 to attend to his/her personal needs both at the office and home. Additionally, senior officers get government cars and housing while the government also pays their bills is clearly is wasteful expenditure and must be curtailed in a judicious manner. It would make sense to take away all such special benefits and make substantial increases in salaries to enable people to decide how best to spend their income. The commission must also try and remove the duplication of efforts, at all the three tiers of governance. As it is the framers of the 1973 constitution had placed a number of subjects on the concurrent list for a ten-year period. The obvious intent behind the provision was to enable the provinces to develop the capability to take care of those subjects on their own. Nearly 33 years on, the list still exists with the result that the federal and provincial governments continue to invest effort and energy in some of the same areas, such as education and health care, at a considerable cost to the exchequer and a sense of resentment in the provinces. The pattern is being repeated in the province local government relations. Aside from creating distortions in the system of governance, the situation generates all sorts of problems in the promotion of investment as well as public service delivery. The commission should pay attention to all these issues with the sense of urgency they deserve.

Since bureaucracy is the tool for implementation of government's policies, it's important that the civil servants are free of internal, external and personal pressures. It's, therefore, hoped that the commission will take up the issues of simplification of rules and procedures as well as bridging the gap between formulation and implementation of policies for efficient and scrupulous governance. It's however, important that bureaucracy should not be treated as a robot and should be taken along on vital national issues through consultations and inputs. Bureaucrats' vital role in governance needs to be respected as deprivation on this count is bound to lead to their frustration and affect their initiative. At the same time, it's important that the civil servants' personal problems such as financial package, for accommodation, children's education, and etc. are also addressed to enable them to devote themselves to their duty.

The decision to set up the commission is, therefore, a positive step to tone up the country's bureaucracy at various levels that has been unfortunately on the decline for a variety of reasons. The fact is that the civil servants have been losing their confidence, initiative, drive and decision making spirit in recent decades owing to its politicization and feeling of deprivation due to military personnel's induction especially at the higher levels. The Damocles' sword dangling especially over the senior civil servants' head in the form of the National Accountability Bureau is also the major factor that has marred their confidence and initiative as a result of which decision-making process has greatly suffered. The measure to check the rot was thus overdue. The selection of its chairman in Dr. Ishrat Hussain is quite appropriate. With his vision and insight, he is rather right man for the right job. It's hoped that the commission will deliver under his leadership by proposing remedial measures to revive the glory of the country's bureaucracy.