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Being rude to civil servants: What is the bureaucracy’s job?

Why Sonia Sadaf doesn’t deserve the blame

SAMAA | - Posted: May 5, 2021 | Last Updated: 2 months ago
SAMAA |
Posted: May 5, 2021 | Last Updated: 2 months ago

The minister berated the assistant commissioner at a bazaar. Art: M. Obair/SAMAA Digital

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In 2005, the defense minister of Pakistan, Rao Sikander Iqbal, invited the prime minister and the Turkish ambassador to his village in Okara. The PM had to speak at a public ceremony arranged by Iqbal as an ostensible display of power and popularity. His party, PPP-Patriots had been at odds with the chief minister, Pervaiz Elahi, and the show at Okara was meant to establish the PPP-P in Punjab as a counterbalancing force against the ruling PML-Q. At the last minute, however, the PM’s security route was changed, disrupting arrangements Iqbal made. The incensed defense minister reacted by taking it out on District Police Office Zafar Bukhari and slapping and beating him in front of everyone. The media picked up the story but the fledgling TV channels did not convey the magnitude of the offense as it would have brought disrepute to Iqbal—who used his privilege and influence to get away with it.  More recently, the PTI and PML-N in Punjab have accused each other of mishandling the civil bureaucracy and using it for electoral gains. The ruling party—at whose hands, Sialkot Assistant Commissioner Sonia Sadaf was publicly rebuked—has continued to launch barbs at the previously incumbent PML-N for what it says was displaying high-handedness with the bureaucracy. They accuse Shehbaz Sharif, the former chief minister, of suspending civil servants in public over even minor divergences from his development plans and quote an instance of a civil servant’s humiliation at the hands of law minister Rana Sanaullah during the PML-N government in 2013-18. While other examples come to mind, it seems that the overarching theme is that the bureaucracy is that estranged child of the family that each elder blames the other of damaging with physical abuse.  Firdous Ashiq Awan and Sialkot AC Sonia Sadaf. Image: SAMAA Digital Why politicians blame bureaucrats There is a clear case to be made that the politicians, especially those answerable to a constituency, see the bureaucracy and its civil authority as a vehicle to gain electoral advantage over opponents. The refusal of some bureaucrats to become an instrument of such political engineering has met with backlash such as the one we witnessed in Sialkot. The practice now is to blame the bureaucracy for the government’s performance and give the public the impression that their misery is not caused by weaknesses in the larger economy or decisions taken by the political government but because of bureaucratic negligence. Many people buy this argument. This reasoning originates from, among other sources, a weak understanding of the bureaucracy and what it should be expected to accomplish. Bureaucrats are not revolutionaries who can be expected to change the fortunes of a country or its people. They cannot accelerate progress beyond what the rules permit and what the inherent expediency of the larger system allows. Any accelerator expectations beyond that are unreasonable and illogical.  What is a bureaucrat's job? The job of the civil bureaucracy is to administer the resources of the state. It must ensure that the resources that the state generates are converted into goods and services for public utility. This arrangement does not, however, involve any discretion of the bureaucrats. The functioning of the bureaucracy is governed by a certain set of civil service rules and policies. The job of a civil servant is thus reduced to the implementation of the rules and policies that often have a limiting, and in some cases, inhibiting presence.  Popular decisions and large-scale reform that change the patterns of people’s lives is not the job of civil servants. Their job is to ensure that the existing machinery of the state continues to function and that the status quo is maintained. Those frustrated with the status quo have to look elsewhere to have their problems addressed. The public is, as a political tactic, made to believe that they should look to the civil bureaucracy and not the political government in times of COVID and inflation touching 11%.  What Firdous Ashiq Awan gets wrong about AC Sonia's job Firdous Ashiq Awan berating AC Sonia Sadaf exposed the poor understanding of the bureaucracy that prevails within the incumbent political regime. The government would not be able to extract the performance that it expects from the bureaucracy unless it begins to understand who the bureaucracy is, what it can or cannot do provided the rules that govern its functioning and the depleted levels of state resources. The AC is not a food expert. There is a separate line department and an authority mandated to perform that function in the province; the authority’s work has specifically been subjected to public appreciation and continues to function with the same rigor even after having been relegated to media oblivion.  The job of the AC was to ensure that the bazaar was set up, infrastructure was brought together to provide vendors spaces and that conflicts between buyers and sellers were amicably resolved. The other job of the AC was to ensure that prices were in line with the control rates and price directives issued by the government. It is not the AC’s job to go to each private vendor to check if the commodities they sell attain certain quality criteria, which apart from being highly subjective, is beyond the skills and competencies that an AC is supposed to possess. While quality is a sine qua non, the adviser could have adopted other ways of ensuring it. One way was to listen to the AC and visit the shop administratively run by the government itself which the adviser refused to do to stress the need to push private vendors to fall in line with her quality expectations.  There are bad bureaucrats too Pakistan is one of the lowest revenue-tax generating economies of the region. Of what we gather in the name of tax and non-tax revenue, a large part goes to our legitimate security concerns while some financial prudence and rationality is lost to political considerations in the distribution and allocation of resources. What is left is allocated to state institutions that are administratively governed by the bureaucracy. The paucity of financial resources limits the extent to which the bureaucracy can be effective in dealing with a plethora of pubic issues and complaints. It can certainly do a lot more and there is also a case of many members of the civil bureaucracy not working to their full potential. But there is also a definite case to be made that even while working at their best potential, the bureaucrat does not have resources to position themselves ahead of public demands. The size of the pie is not enough and must be enhanced. Until that is done, we will continue to hold individuals responsible for failures of a larger system.  The civil bureaucracy is an arm of the state. Under a parliamentary democratic system, however, the elected government has to use the state architecture, including the bureaucracy, to bring home its election manifesto. To use the bureaucracy effectively, the elected government must first understand the machinations of the bureaucracy and adopt the best human resource practices to motivate the bureaucracy to achieve its agenda. What happened in Sialkot is nothing but counter-productive; the public rebuke might win the advisor a few electoral brownie points in her home district but it has served the purpose of demotivating the entire country’s bureaucracy some of whose members have worked relentlessly and without a single work from home day during the testing times of Covid. The disgrace that some bureaucrats also bring to the service by acting incompetently or with a compromised sense of integrity must not give elected representatives the license to use this as an excuse to hide its failures from the public.  The writer is the co-editor of Pakistan at Seventy 
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In 2005, the defense minister of Pakistan, Rao Sikander Iqbal, invited the prime minister and the Turkish ambassador to his village in Okara. The PM had to speak at a public ceremony arranged by Iqbal as an ostensible display of power and popularity. His party, PPP-Patriots had been at odds with the chief minister, Pervaiz Elahi, and the show at Okara was meant to establish the PPP-P in Punjab as a counterbalancing force against the ruling PML-Q. 

At the last minute, however, the PM’s security route was changed, disrupting arrangements Iqbal made. The incensed defense minister reacted by taking it out on District Police Office Zafar Bukhari and slapping and beating him in front of everyone. The media picked up the story but the fledgling TV channels did not convey the magnitude of the offense as it would have brought disrepute to Iqbal—who used his privilege and influence to get away with it. 

More recently, the PTI and PML-N in Punjab have accused each other of mishandling the civil bureaucracy and using it for electoral gains. The ruling party—at whose hands, Sialkot Assistant Commissioner Sonia Sadaf was publicly rebuked—has continued to launch barbs at the previously incumbent PML-N for what it says was displaying high-handedness with the bureaucracy. They accuse Shehbaz Sharif, the former chief minister, of suspending civil servants in public over even minor divergences from his development plans and quote an instance of a civil servant’s humiliation at the hands of law minister Rana Sanaullah during the PML-N government in 2013-18. While other examples come to mind, it seems that the overarching theme is that the bureaucracy is that estranged child of the family that each elder blames the other of damaging with physical abuse. 

Firdous Ashiq Awan and Sialkot AC Sonia Sadaf.
Firdous Ashiq Awan and Sialkot AC Sonia Sadaf. Image: SAMAA Digital

Why politicians blame bureaucrats

There is a clear case to be made that the politicians, especially those answerable to a constituency, see the bureaucracy and its civil authority as a vehicle to gain electoral advantage over opponents. The refusal of some bureaucrats to become an instrument of such political engineering has met with backlash such as the one we witnessed in Sialkot.

The practice now is to blame the bureaucracy for the government’s performance and give the public the impression that their misery is not caused by weaknesses in the larger economy or decisions taken by the political government but because of bureaucratic negligence. Many people buy this argument. 

This reasoning originates from, among other sources, a weak understanding of the bureaucracy and what it should be expected to accomplish. Bureaucrats are not revolutionaries who can be expected to change the fortunes of a country or its people. They cannot accelerate progress beyond what the rules permit and what the inherent expediency of the larger system allows. Any accelerator expectations beyond that are unreasonable and illogical. 

What is a bureaucrat’s job?

The job of the civil bureaucracy is to administer the resources of the state. It must ensure that the resources that the state generates are converted into goods and services for public utility. 

This arrangement does not, however, involve any discretion of the bureaucrats. The functioning of the bureaucracy is governed by a certain set of civil service rules and policies. The job of a civil servant is thus reduced to the implementation of the rules and policies that often have a limiting, and in some cases, inhibiting presence. 


Popular decisions and large-scale reform that change the patterns of people’s lives is not the job of civil servants. Their job is to ensure that the existing machinery of the state continues to function and that the status quo is maintained. Those frustrated with the status quo have to look elsewhere to have their problems addressed. The public is, as a political tactic, made to believe that they should look to the civil bureaucracy and not the political government in times of COVID and inflation touching 11%. 

What Firdous Ashiq Awan gets wrong about AC Sonia’s job

Firdous Ashiq Awan berating AC Sonia Sadaf exposed the poor understanding of the bureaucracy that prevails within the incumbent political regime. The government would not be able to extract the performance that it expects from the bureaucracy unless it begins to understand who the bureaucracy is, what it can or cannot do provided the rules that govern its functioning and the depleted levels of state resources. 
The AC is not a food expert. There is a separate line department and an authority mandated to perform that function in the province; the authority’s work has specifically been subjected to public appreciation and continues to function with the same rigor even after having been relegated to media oblivion. 

The job of the AC was to ensure that the bazaar was set up, infrastructure was brought together to provide vendors spaces and that conflicts between buyers and sellers were amicably resolved. The other job of the AC was to ensure that prices were in line with the control rates and price directives issued by the government. It is not the AC’s job to go to each private vendor to check if the commodities they sell attain certain quality criteria, which apart from being highly subjective, is beyond the skills and competencies that an AC is supposed to possess. While quality is a sine qua non, the adviser could have adopted other ways of ensuring it. One way was to listen to the AC and visit the shop administratively run by the government itself which the adviser refused to do to stress the need to push private vendors to fall in line with her quality expectations. 

There are bad bureaucrats too

Pakistan is one of the lowest revenue-tax generating economies of the region. Of what we gather in the name of tax and non-tax revenue, a large part goes to our legitimate security concerns while some financial prudence and rationality is lost to political considerations in the distribution and allocation of resources. What is left is allocated to state institutions that are administratively governed by the bureaucracy. The paucity of financial resources limits the extent to which the bureaucracy can be effective in dealing with a plethora of pubic issues and complaints. It can certainly do a lot more and there is also a case of many members of the civil bureaucracy not working to their full potential. But there is also a definite case to be made that even while working at their best potential, the bureaucrat does not have resources to position themselves ahead of public demands. The size of the pie is not enough and must be enhanced. Until that is done, we will continue to hold individuals responsible for failures of a larger system. 

The civil bureaucracy is an arm of the state. Under a parliamentary democratic system, however, the elected government has to use the state architecture, including the bureaucracy, to bring home its election manifesto. To use the bureaucracy effectively, the elected government must first understand the machinations of the bureaucracy and adopt the best human resource practices to motivate the bureaucracy to achieve its agenda. What happened in Sialkot is nothing but counter-productive; the public rebuke might win the advisor a few electoral brownie points in her home district but it has served the purpose of demotivating the entire country’s bureaucracy some of whose members have worked relentlessly and without a single work from home day during the testing times of Covid. The disgrace that some bureaucrats also bring to the service by acting incompetently or with a compromised sense of integrity must not give elected representatives the license to use this as an excuse to hide its failures from the public. 

The writer is the co-editor of Pakistan at Seventy 

 
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