Election-year bureaucracy: Govt in a bind over new picks

Govt buckles up

A massive reshuffle in the bureaucracy is awaiting the government's nod in a year considered crucial in the lead-up to the next election.

The reshuffle includes appointments in three top civil service positions -- cabinet secretary, principal secretary to the prime minister, and Prime Minister's Office secretary.

Besides these, 35 out of the 78 secretaries will go into retirement before the national election due early 2024.

According to Secretariat insiders, the government may face serious challenges in filling up these posts as those who will be promoted to secretary will likely come from the 11th and 13th BCS batches, recruited during the BNP-Jamaat rule between 1991 and 1996.

It faces similar challenges in picking deputy commissioners as they too will likely be from among those recruited through the 21st, 22nd and 24th exams held during the 2001-2006 tenure of the BNP-Jamaat alliance.

Perception is widespread that applicants having affiliations with the ruling party get priorities during recruitments in civil service, and these government officials remain loyal to that party.

As part of the reshuffle, Kabir Bin Anwar, senior secretary of the water resources ministry, may be appointed the cabinet secretary, the highest post in the bureaucracy, since the three-year contract with current Cabinet Secretary Khandker Anwarul Islam expires on December 15, government sources said.

If Kabir Bin Anwar joins office on December 18, he will get only 13 working days to serve as the cabinet secretary, as he is slated to go on post-retirement leave (PRL) on January 3. In this situation, the government may opt to extend his tenure.

When the government appointed Khandker Anwarul Islam as the cabinet secretary on 28 October 2019, he only had two weeks to go on PRL. His tenure, since then, has been extended twice.

Tofazzel Hossain Miah, senior secretary at the Prime Minister's Office, is likely to be the PM's principal secretary, as the contract of incumbent Principal Secretary Dr Ahmad Kaikaus expires on December 31.

Kaikaus was bid farewell at the last cabinet meeting on November 28. He is going to join World Bank Group as alternate executive, replacing Mohammad Shafiul Alam, the last cabinet secretary, said sources.

On the other hand, Mohammad Salahuddin, PS-I to the PM (additional secretary), may get promoted as the PMO secretary, according to the sources.

Changes have already been made at the public administration ministry, which is responsible for recruitments, promotions and changes in civil bureaucracy.

For example, Mohammed Mezbah Uddin Chowdhury joined as senior secretary there on November 2, as his predecessor KM Ali Azam, also a senior secretary, went on PRL on October 31.

Later, the government appointed Azam as a member of Bangladesh Public Service Commission, suspending his PRL and related benefits.

Of the 35 or so secretaries set to go on PRL before the 12th general election, 11 will start their PRL by the end of this month -- six of them on December 31. The rest 24 will go next year.

According to the public administration ministry's website, 78 secretaries and 399 additional secretaries are now working at different ministries and divisions.

The timing of the retirement of a whopping number of top civil servants in a span of one year means the government will have to fill up this vacuum with the election just round the corner.

There is no recent precedent of such a large number of senior bureaucrats going into retirement in such a short time.

Speculations already run rife about the appointments to be made, given the general election will be held under that administration.

Most bureaucrats are against contractual appointments of secretaries. Immediate juniors of secretaries get deprived when the latter get extension and contractual appointments.

This is why many bureaucrats are opposing the appointment of Kabir Bin Anwar as the cabinet secretary since the government may have to give him an extension.

Against the backdrop of this opposition, Mahbub Hossain, senior secretary of the Energy and Mineral Resources Division, may become the cabinet secretary.

Former cabinet secretary Ali Imam Majumdar is against any contractual appointments in the bureaucracy.

"One contractual appointment destroys the possibilities of many juniors who are next in line. Usual promotion procedures should be followed in bureaucracy."

About the 35 top bureaucrats going into retirement, he said this will not create any vacuum.

"The additional secretaries who will take over the responsibility as secretaries have the experience of working in the administration for around 30 years. So they will be able to discharge their duties smoothly," Ali Imam added.

Usually, deputy commissioners function as returning officers during elections, while UNOs perform the duties as assistant returning officers.

Both the DCs and UNOs work under the public administration ministry.

On the other hand, the cabinet secretary, principal secretary to the PM and the PMO secretary play a very crucial role in the government's decision-making.

Senior secretary of the Public Security Division under the home ministry is another vital post in the run-up to the election, as police, Border Guard Bangladesh, Coast Guard, Ansar and VDP, who play important roles during polls-time, are under this division.

Senior secretary of this division, Aminul Islam Khan, a cadre of the 8th batch, is scheduled to go on PRL on March 31. As the police are under this division and the post of Inspector General of Police has been elevated to the rank of senior secretary, a senior secretary-level official is required to succeed him.

The government is in a fix over appointing 35 new secretaries as it is left with the option of choosing them from the 11th and 13th batches. These two batches come from examinations held during the BNP-Jamaat tenure between 1991 and 1996. Iajuddin Ahmed and SMA Faiz were the PSC chairmen when these two BSCs exams were held.

Iajuddin Ahmed went on to become the country's president and Faiz was made Dhaka University vice-chancellor during the BNP rule.

Government policymakers are also faced with a tall task of appointing deputy commissioners, who play a vital role during the polls.

Only last month, the government appointed new DCs in 18 districts and reshuffled DCs in five other districts.

Of them, 13 came from 21st BCS, four from 22nd and one from 24th.

Public administration officials said the government will also change the DCs in the rest of the districts ahead of the national election. These DCs are likely to come from the 24th and 25th BCS batches.

Government sources said since the policymakers are uncomfortable with appointing DCs from those batches, they may pick them from the 27th batch, whose appointments were made during the Awami League tenure in 2009.

"There are strong possibilities that the government will post DCs from the 27th batch," said a high official in the public administration ministry.