Civil Service Reforms in Pakistan: Challenges & Response

Shahid H. Raja
11 min readMar 27, 2022



The phrase civil service reform is generally used in two quite distinct ways. For the political elite and the common man, it is a short-hand for efforts to improve the management, efficiency and effectiveness of the bureaucracy. However, when used by academics and world institutions, it connotes fundamental changes in the administrative structure and procedures along with attitudinal and behavioural changes in those responsible for the delivery of public services. I am using this term in the latter sense.

Why does Pakistan need Civil Service Reforms?

There are basically two main reasons Pakistan needs civil service reforms. One is the failure of the bureaucracy to deliver the goods and secondly the changing governance environment in which our civil servants have to work now.

A. Service Delivery Failure

Regarding the first, there is no need to dig deep; there is a widespread perception in the country that its government is not delivering what is expected from a responsible executive. And this perception is not without solid foundations. Although there has been a gradual decline in all the institutions of the state during the last 7 decades due to myriad reasons, the ineffectiveness of bureaucracy due to its diminishing capacity, over-politicization and corruption has seriously undermined Pakistan’s economy, social and political development.

Just read the performance report of any department and you would invariably come across, with few exceptions here and there, lop-sided planning, implementation delays, surrendered funds, dismal failure to meet the targets etc. Whether it is the Human Development Index or the Global Corruption Index on the one hand or the Global Competitiveness Index or the Global Fragile States Index on the other, we are always bracketed with the least developed countries. That’s why Pakistan stands at 129 out of 193 countries in terms of the government effectiveness index of the World Bank published a few days ago.

B. Changing Governance Environment

More than the above, need for the civil service reforms stems from the challenges being posed by a rapidly changing governance environment. There is a paradigm shift in the role of the government and the governance style all over the world. From the traditional roles and structures of inflexible control and procedure orientation, governments are redefining themselves towards result orientation, flexibility, facilitation and a citizen-centric approach.

As the issues about government are becoming more complex, the need for effective, informed and neutral policymakers and public servants is ever increasing. Consequently, the entire modus operandi and standard operating procedures of governance are likely to undergo a radical change in the face of fundamental social, economic and political changes posed by a rapidly changing world. The boundaries between local and global issues are decreasing. Arab Spring started from a small incident, which happens routinely in Pakistan. Child labour, domestic violence, school curricula etc are now under greater scrutiny of the global actors not because we are dependent on outsiders for aid but as a member of the global community.

Globalization has resulted in a larger than life role of the global state and non-state actors who are increasingly penetrating those domains which were henceforth exclusively reserved for the domestic state machinery. This is all the more penetrative when the state is suffering from capacity and legitimacy deficits. Add the heightened expectations of the modern citizenry for good governance, reinforced by judicial activism, and increasingly assertive media and civil society organisations to have a proper assessment of the need for reforming our civil services to meet these challenges.

Why do Civil Service Reforms fail in Pakistan?

There have been approximately two dozen high profile commissions and committees formed during the last 70 years in Pakistan to bring about fundamental structural and managerial changes in the bureaucratic structure of the country. However, except for 1973 Bhutto’s administrative reforms and the 2002 Musharraf devolution plan, all of them either remained unimplemented or failed to address the core issues related to the administrative structure and its culture and have been more of reforms for the sake of reforms. Some of the reasons for their less than satisfactory results are as follows

A. Half-hearted Governance Reforms

Firstly, Civil Service Reforms are part and parcel of the bigger reforms namely governance reforms. No doubt, civil services are one of the most important institutions of the country and reforming them is the need of the day, yet they are a sub-set of the overall governance structure of the country. As such, these reforms should be a component of a bigger reforms package covering economic liberalisation, privatisation, decentralisation, electoral reforms etc. to benefit from civil service reforms. However, in actual practice, these are considered a panacea for all the ills afflicting society and the economy with the result that any improvement made is either nullified by the effects of the dysfunctionality of other components of the governance structure or fails to create an impression of successful implementation of the civil service reforms.

B. Heightened Expectations

Secondly, it is the heightened expectations and exaggerated optimism about any civil service reforms effort. Everyone expects too much in a short period without realising that any plan to transform an institution is a long, painful process with lots of pitfalls and potholes. The same is the case with the civil service reforms; while it is easy to change the administrative structure and its attendant rules and procedures, changing the attitudes and behaviour of its incumbents is an uphill task. You are trying to change the decades-old administrative culture in a few years and expect your bureaucracy to become a paragon of virtue in a society that is still not willing to mend its ways. Consequently, failing to notice any perceptible change in the way the public goods are delivered, an atmosphere of despondency sets in regarding the entire process.

C. Design Flaws

Thirdly, any civil service reforms start with a design i.e., what sort of initiatives should be taken. Irrespective of numerous other constants and variables, it is the appropriateness or otherwise of the reform agenda which determines the chances of success or failure of civil service reforms. In their zeal to put up an ideal civil service reforms plan, the consultants go for a broad spectrum set of policies with over-elaborate reform projects that ‘attempt to address too many objectives simultaneously. Ideal but impracticable due to capacity constraints as well as devoid of any objective criteria for measuring its success. Not only the achievement of goals is ill-defined in the reform paper but also the threshold above which it would qualify to be successful is properly described. Consequently, even if there might have been a substantial success on some fronts, it is overshadowed by the failure of a few others.

D. Faulty Approach

Fourthly, related to the above is the issue of approach; whether to attack all the fronts agreed upon, or we must strategise them in practicable steps, known as incremental approach. A simultaneous attack on all fronts is the political necessity of a regime that had promised too much in the last manifesto and is anxious about the next elections. However, as stated above, civil service reforms are akin to any other social reform that require time, effort and consistency. Consequently, most reforms fail because they never get past the implementation stage at all before the end of the mandated five-year tenure of the regime.

What to do

Essentially, the basic objectives of any administrative reforms are to bring about attitudinal and behavioural changes in the civil servants which could result in effective service delivery, operational efficiency and customer satisfaction. This needs actions on three inter-dependent areas namely

  1. Administrative Restructuring: Restructuring along with the attendant legal framework of administrative structure as well as the institutional mechanism for recruitment, training and subsequent career planning of the civil servants.
  2. Service Conditions: including incentives and remuneration and accountability.
  3. Capacity Building: Thirdly, and most important their continuous capacity building for bringing requisite attitudinal and behavioural changes as well as imparting necessary skills.

Keeping these objectives in view, here are a few suggestions

  1. Simple & Available is Beautiful

Firstly, stop tinkering and experimenting with the administrative system just for the sake of creating a grandiose structure that is unimplementable and creates unnecessary antagonism from the entrenched stakeholders. In all the civil service reforms, administrative restructuring gets maximum attention because of the cosmetic value of this exercise. Let it stop now: all over the world, devolution of powers and decentralisation of state institutions has proved to be one of the key instruments to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery.

Fortunately, we have a ready blueprint in the form of the Devolution plan of General Musharraf. Despite all the reservations, people have accepted this system; let it continue and keep on improving it on a need basis. The devolution plan is still incomplete as the centre has transferred a lot of its administrative and fiscal powers to the provincial governments while the provinces are still reluctant to delegate the legitimate powers to their respective district governments.

Additionally, meaningful devolution of powers to appropriate levels of decision making curbs centrifugal tendencies among the regions feeling marginalisation. Local governments should have a clear mandate, duly approved by the provincial legislature and should be allowed to work independently within their respective jurisdiction by their mandate. Give them adequate resources, enhance their capacity and encourage them to raise revenue and spend them on their priorities

2. Rationalise the State Role

Secondly, it is the right time to rationalize the role of the State. It should concentrate on its traditional functions of protecting the society from external aggression and their proxies within the country and also establishing the writ of the state to ensure efficient and effective performance of its core functions-regulation and facilitation. At the same time, it should create enabling legal framework and accompanying institutional environment besides building essential physical infrastructure which the private sector is unable or unwilling to provide.

To shed its extra load, Pakistan should accelerate the privatisation of not only those SOEs which are continuously incurring losses but also those which are earning profits because better alternatives are now available in the private sector. Fortunately, there is a broad consensus on the need and benefit of privatisation/ deregulation in the country and a robust private sector is ready to take on big State-Owned Enterprises.

The unconditional support of international organisations particularly the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and the availability of a comprehensive legal and institutional framework that has matured during the last 20 years will go a long way in the expeditious privatisation process. Additionally, given the emergence of aggressively penetrative social/electronic media, an extremely intrusive civil society and a very activist judiciary, the process will be very transparent.

3. Digitisation is the Future

Thirdly, the need, importance and benefits of digitisation of the public sector by using digital technologies as an integrated part of its service delivery mechanism cannot be overemphasised. Besides improving governance through greater transparency and accountability of government functionaries, it helps governments to ensure efficient and effective provision of services at a fraction of the costs incurred by providing the same services through traditional means. The government departments and agencies should not only digitise their service delivery but also use social media to interact with the public.

With few exceptions, here and there, all over the world, state institutions are often accused of inefficiency, non-responsiveness and lower quality of services. Providing these very services online is ipso facto, no guarantee of their improved quality. But there are some good reasons to believe that digital governance can and has resulted in improved services. Professional management and private sector involvement in providing services online are strategic drivers for improved services; the very technological architecture of digitization is based on the streamlining of services. It is a paradigm shift now instead of a stakeholder coming to your office, the state is to provide the services at his/her doorsteps, a click away whether living in a city or the rural areas.

4. Rightsizing Bureaucracy

Fourthly, while decentralization, privatization and digitisation would reduce the span of state control, right-sizing of the bureaucracy is the need of the day. Frankly, it is oversized and bloated, a perfect example of the operation of Parkinson’s Law. Ironically, all previous attempts to cut it to size resulted in increasing it! This should not happen this time. Let there be a task force with a clear cut target and a fixed schedule to suggest how to right-size the number of employees working in various government departments and organisations.

5. Capacity Building

Lastly, it is the capacity building of the civil servants from top to bottom which should be getting the attention it deserves. It is only by constantly and consistently improving the knowledge and skills of its employees that a state can ensure better service delivery. What should be the aims and objectives of a meaningful training regime of institutions responsible for providing initial and in-service training to civil servants? To my mind, those trained must depict the following six traits to deserve membership in the elite services of the society namely

• Knowledgeable, not necessarily a scholar

• Efficient without being ruthless

• Effective but with a human touch

• Empathetic but firm

• Ethical but deliverer

• Skilful without being manipulative

A tall order? Not necessarily. Every country has produced many civil servants who possessed all the above traits to a greater or lesser degree and even now we can find them among our colleagues. But the tragedy is they can be counted on fingers. The real challenge for those responsible for the recruitment of civil servants, their training, appointments, promotions etc., is to increase the number of such civil servants to at least what they call critical mass. Yes, we must produce that critical mass of civil servants who fulfil the above criteria so that we can achieve our societal projects and safeguard our national interest.

Despite all the reservations about the frequent and prolonged military interventions in the statecraft during the seven decades since independence, their two contributions towards strengthening bureaucracy are worth noting. First is the mandatory linking of promotions of officers to higher grades to their successful completion of training courses introduced during the 1980s and secondly, revamping of the training institutions carried out during the mid-2000s. Leave them as they are if you cannot improve them further but do not reverse these decisions.

Before concluding, I must remind the policymakers that civil service reforms or any administrative improvement are a lifelong process; it does not end with the preparation of a grand design that is half-implemented in bits and pieces. And more importantly, political commitment at the highest level in terms of resource allocation and providing guidance is the most crucial but also the most difficult element for the successful and sustainable implementation of any plan of action. If it is there, even a rudimentary legal framework and institutional structure can work wonders; if not, even the best of the above would not deliver.


Thank you very much for reading the article

If you liked it, kindly express your appreciation by clicking the clap icon below as many times as you like

Why not share it with your friends on social media? Knowledge is a common heritage of us all

And, kindly, do follow me as well as subscribe to my newsletter

You may like to read also

1. Two-Nation Theory: Myths & Reality

2. Pakistan Ideology: Sources & Contents

3. Federalism in Pakistan: Challenges & Response

4. Constitution-making in Pakistan: Causes of delay

5. Pakistan’s Water Crisis: Challenges & Response

6. Causes of Breakup of Pakistan in 1971: Lessons Learnt

7. Pakistani Culture: Sources & Legacies

8. Pakistan-USA Relations: Challenges & Response

9. Civil Service Reforms in Pakistan: Challenges & Response

10. Pakistan’s Foreign Policy: Seven Strategic Dimensions

11. Public Policy Formulation in Pakistan: Main Features

12. Eight Drivers of Globalisation

13. Global Terrorism: Challenges & Response

14. Arab Spring: Causes, Consequences, & Lessons Learnt

15. Modern Nation-state: Origins, Features, & Prospects