Amidst nationwide protests against the existing quota system in public service recruitment, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced the abolition of the system altogether. The protesters demanded reforms in the system rather than its complete elimination, so the announcement came as a real surprise. It provided a twist and turned the table towards yet another interesting phase of the quota debate.
As the prime minister indicated that some sort of arrangements will still be in place to safeguard the interests of the ethnic communities and people with disabilities, a complete removal of the system is unlikely to happen and we need to wait to see the fine print of the decision in black and white.
The public service quota system has long been a contentious issue drawing attention from all walks of life. However, it became more complex and controversial following the inclusion of 30 percent quota in 1997 for the offspring of Freedom Fighters. It also generated a robust debate about the need and justification for the quota system for specific groups of public-service jobseekers.
The civil service quota system was introduced in Bangladesh in 1972 through an interim recruitment policy issued and implemented by an administrative order. Its primary objectives were to rehabilitate freedom fighters and war-affected women as well as facilitate a fair distribution of employment opportunities across the various geographic regions of the country. However, in 1973, the government-appointed Administrative & Services Reorganisation Committee, led by Professor Muzaffar Ahmed Chowdhury, recommended abolishing the quota system in favour of merit in order to build a reliable and high-quality civil service. Subsequent reform commissions and committees raised similar concerns. But the quota system prevailed.
The impacts of this quota system, however, have been less than satisfactory. If more than half of the recruits come from quotas, the quality of civil service is bound to suffer. Civil servants coming out of such a system may fail to perform their responsibilities well or protect their official interests. Their lack of aptitude and competitive knowledge of key issues may affect their performance in important policy matters and decisions such as security issues, economic policies and cross-border negotiations, among other things.
While the initial objectives of introducing the quota system in a war-ravaged country were noble, an overhauling of it was badly needed. In the current scenario, the civil service needs to be invigorated and the quota system reformed in accordance with the changing context. We have an increasing literacy rate among all segments of the population and an extremely high level of unemployment among the educated youths. The quota system has, thus far, failed to create and maintain a quality civil service that the nation needs and tackle the challenges of the 21st-century realities. Even the Bangladesh Public Service Commission (BPSC) has highlighted the complexities in applying the existing quota system on several occasions and recommended simplifying it in the interest of public service.
So what is going to happen after the abolition of quota? Since the prime minister also referred to the special privilege for minority communities and people with disabilities, we expect to see retention of some sort of a quota provision. It is now the task of the Prime Minister's Office and the Ministry of Public Administration to prepare the summary of the order. The order may contain clauses in relation to (i) special provision for minority communities and people with disabilities; (ii) the fate of the current calls for public service jobs as well as the applications currently under process, and (iii) the time when the new quota-free public service provision will come into effect. It would be prudent for the prime minister and her office to have an immediate talk with the key stakeholders including the Public Service Commission, Ministry of Law (to check and consider any legal ramifications) and representatives from students, unemployed new graduates, academia and the bureaucracy. It will also be up to the prime minster to decide whether to pass an administrative order or prepare a bill and send it to the parliament for approval. The government may decide to impose a temporary freeze on all civil service recruitment processes until the new order becomes effective.
Nonetheless, there is no point in supporting a complete absence of quota since there is a reason why “positive discrimination” is common around the world. However, such discrimination must be transitory and should not outweigh the merit-based recruitment process. Whether a quota system is in place or not, if there is any special need for upgrading of skills or higher education training for young people from any backward community or disadvantaged class, or if any specific support is required by any special group, the government may decide to extend assistance to those people which will help them to be better educated and better trained and compete on their own merit rather than relying on any sort of favour or discrimination.
That means, a labour market improvement may be considered more important than promoting and maintaining quotas. As a contingency approach, if any special circumstances arise, the President of the Republic, in consultation with the Public Service Commission, may decide to appoint people from any disadvantaged group as a one-off measure to maintain equity and justice. The maximum number of such considerations needs to be kept to a reasonable level. Another option is to keep the higher-level public service (first and second classes) completely merit-based while introducing new quota provisions for lower-level positions (third and fourth classes). It could be argued that, compared to the lower level, merit is much more essential for the higher-level positions to deal with critical policy and administrative matters.
Bangladesh, without a doubt, needs a strong civil service. We welcome the prime ministerial intervention that has created a real opportunity for the government of Bangladesh to tap into the huge pool of educated and talented young people available in the job market. A quota-free or a low-quota environment will allow the government to find and recruit the best and the brightest.
Dr Sharif As-Saber is President of the Governance and Administration Innovation Network, GAIN International, and a member of the Professoriate at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.