Sunday, February 12, 2012

On conjuring promotions to make civil bureaucracy smile

As I See It column
The Independent
February 11, 2102
M. Serajul Islam

During my stay in Egypt as Ambassador, one thing about their bureaucracy used to make me curious. It was the large number of bureaucrats with the rank of Director-General in the various government Ministries. A Bangladeshi who worked in Radio Cairo explained to me that most of these so-called “senior officers” were in fact desk level officers. The post of DG was given to them just to make them happy.

I never seriously inquired into this issue because at the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, things were different and the bureaucracy was very professional and competent. It did not have desk level officers masquerading as DGs! I had forgotten all about this issue concerning Egypt till I read an interesting piece of news about the Government’s impending decision to promote a huge number of officers to the posts of Deputy Secretary, Joint Secretary and Additional Secretary. An officer dealing with the issue said on condition of anonymity that the impending promotions would involve 700 officers. Of these, 80 officers would be promoted to the rank of an Additional Secretary, 250 to Joint Secretary and 350 to Deputy Secretary. More importantly, there are no available posts for these promotions!

When we served in the Government, one sacrosanct principle for promotions was availability of posts. The question of anyone getting promoted when there was no sanctioned post was simply impossible. Those days, creating a post was equally difficult; often almost impossible. Our promotions in the Foreign Ministry used to be held up for years at various levels on the issue of availability of posts.

This sacrosanct principle of availability of post for promotion has been sacrificed by this government for more “over riding” considerations of making bureaucrats happy as explained by officials dealing with the promotions. Before analyzing this incredible, almost unbelievable, explanation, it would be worthwhile to have a look at the picture of our bureaucracy in the context of numbers.

Before the new promotions are given effect, there are 1500 Deputy Secretaries against sanctioned posts of 800. There are 500 Joint Secretaries against 250 such posts. At the level of Additional Secretaries, here are 150 such officers against sanctioned posts of 108. The promotions waiting at the wings would only add to the serious situation already created, that of promoting without vacant posts. I would like to stand corrected if this is not the first time when a Government has gone ahead playing with the administration is his manner in the history of administration of this country.

Clearly what the Government is doing is not legal apart from the many inevitable problems that come with it. The present structure of the bureaucracy has just not emerged suddenly. It has been painstakingly put together over the years where the issues of structure, function and manpower have been considered seriously and in depth to put the civil bureaucracy on rational and logical footing. It is the balance between structure, function and manpower that the Government is about to sacrifice where the newly promoted officers, believe it or not, will be in the same job and do the same work, their promotions notwithstanding!!

This issue of making top bureaucrats happy points at ill intent. Since when has a Government in Bangladesh been interested in making the civil bureaucracy happy? Anyone who has been connected with our bureaucracy would know that no government in Bangladesh, the present one excluded, has ever shown the slightest inclination of doing anything that would bring smiles to the members of the civil bureaucracy. Therefore the logical question that comes to mind is why this government is suddenly so interested to make the civil bureaucrats happy.
If one would care to look into the issue with a bit of seriousness, the answers would be obvious as day light. Only recently, the government has extended the retiring age of the members of the civil bureaucracy from 57 to 59. Before that, it had extended the retiring age of the freedom fighters in the civil bureaucracy by 2 years. To the freedom fighters, the government had granted the benefit of the quota to their children and grand children in government jobs. Meanwhile, the Government has also politicized the bureaucracy where those it considers not to be supportive of its political agenda have been sidelined in a number of ways.

Therefore the privileges already given by extending retirement age or the quota system have gone to those members of the civil bureaucracy whose political leanings for the ruling party are well known. However, the extension of 2 years in retirement age, while making a section of the bureaucracy loyal to the ruling party happy has made another section that are also loyal to it, unhappy. These unhappy bureaucrats were waiting to be promoted till the government announced the 2 years’ extension in the retirement age of civil servants that blocked their promotion prospects.

The new promotions have been conjured (I could not figure out a better word to describe the aberration) to make these bureaucrats happy. The new promotions and the two years’ extension in the retirement age will now make the entire civil bureaucracy loyal to the ruling party happy and grateful to it. Given the fact the national elections are only 2 years away; the real intent behind these promotions does not need much common sense to understand. Clearly, these extensions and promotions have been motivated by political considerations and none at all for the health and strength of the civil bureaucracy.

This brings me to the promotions in the public universities to help us understand the irregular promotions in the civil bureaucracy better. When I went to the University in the 1960s and was a Lecturer there, DU was not as big as it is today. Nevertheless it was a major university even in comparison to the big universities across the world. In the entire Arts and Social Science faculties those days, there were less than a dozen Professors. These days, in the Department of Political Science alone , there are more than 30 Professors!

The same large number of Professors as in the Department of Political Science is to be found in almost every department of Dhaka University. This has been achieved by an ingenious manner and started soon after we became independent. DU did it by delinking the principle that promotions needed sanctioned posts. Thus when a Lecturer/Assistant Professor/Associate Professor has been in service for the mandatory years required for the next promotion, he/she has been promoted after meeting certain professional requirements where availability of posts has not been a matter at all! This is what has made DU a top heavy institution in terms of its teaching faculties.

It would be interesting to inquire whether this democratic way of distributing academic posts has had any positive impact in academic ways on DU and all the other public Universities that have followed DU’s example in deinking promotions from sanctioned posts. I am afraid the result of such an inquiry would be very negative. In fact, this indulgence to the teachers of the public universities is one reason for the sad state of affairs there these days. It is this ingenious but dangerous strategy that the government has accepted to make the bureaucracy happy to serve a political purpose.

In the game of numbers known popularly as Housie, there is a reverse pyramid or a top heavy formation that earns money for the player who achieves it. But this is for fun to make the game interesting. In personnel management or public administration, the reverse pyramid is the anti-thesis of logical organization of any institution, private, autonomous or governmental. This is why the top heavy faculties of our public universities make little sense. It will make certain bureaucrats happy but help make a fragile structure even more fragile.

The above piece was written before the Government announced the promotions. In the end, 649 officers were promoted. Of these, 127 were promoted to rank of Additional Secretary; 264 to Joint Secretary and 258 to Deputy Secretary. The Government ruled out politics in the promotions but ended making the bureaucracy even more top heavy than what was speculated!

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

No comments: