Development Advocate Pakistan: Volume 3, Issue 3


Civil Service Reform and the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda

Public service has remained key to the achievement of national economic and social goals across the world. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that capable and motivated bureaucracy has played an instrumental role in economic growth and overall prosperity. The way Britain became a dominant economy in the 18th Century, especially militarily, is attributed to its competent and efficient public administration to raise taxes. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) also recognizes the important role that state institutions play to achieve these goals. Goal 16 of the SDGs focuses especially on building institutions that are accountable, inclusive and characterized by representative decision making.

This need for efficient service delivery is greater for developing countries facing issues of poverty, inequality, hunger, limited access to quality education and health services, lack of clean drinking water and sanitation facilities and other issues the SDGs aim to address. The state cannot resolve these development challenges without an efficient civil service, which, in turn, cannot perform its functions in a manner characteristic of 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 characterized by good governance which means sound policymaking, efficient service delivery, and accountability and responsibility in public resource utilization.

Pakistan’s civil service saw 38 major reform initiatives between 1947 and 2016 and many analysts consider these to be unsuccessful.  The reforms have largely been politically motivated and have failed to address critical issues of accountability, meritocracy, capacity and competency.  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 prioritizes civil service reform as a key objective and the Ministry of Planning Development and Reforms is spearheading a process focusing on specialization and professionalism, outcome-based performance evaluation and meritocracy in appointments.

Like other countries, civil service reform in Pakistan has been largely driven by issues concerning salaries, perks 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— to serve in public service. Non-financial incentives are required to award and support intrinsic motivation like best employee awards, empowering good performers though increased delegation etc.

Public sector reform should also go beyond incentives. For example, organizations play a key role in attracting and retaining talent. This is not an aspect looked at in reform initiatives thus far. The National Highway and Motorway Police is a case in point: besides the provision of incentives and employing a merit based system for recruitment, the Motorway Policy created and sustained an organizational culture which motivates its staff for high performance. While higher wages can attract skilled people, a congenial and enabling organizational culture is needed to drive performance. Reform is a continuous process and it should not be treated as a one-time effort. For any major reform process to be successful, it requires multi-stakeholder engagement and a holistic and evolutionary approach.

The Government should implement reforms as and when required to maintain a modern and efficient civil service that benefits from consistent and high level political commitment. Political will is key to successful reform initiatives. Countries which have gone through major reform and whose public administrations are considered efficient, were championed at the senior most level 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 characterized 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 early 20th century argued for the fundamental value of bureaucracy as one of the institutional foundations of capitalist growth. Others have emphasized 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 important 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. This can happen if a long term, continuous and comprehensive approach to public service reform is employed, which is championed at the highest political level.