Prime Minister Imran Khan’s beginning is impressive. He ticked all the right boxes on the economy, institution-building, justice and local government in his first speech.
PM Khan is now primarily dependent upon the public sector (and the bureaucracy in it) to deliver his agenda. Since the public sector essentially is a product of 18th-century colonial design (and capacity), many of us who have spent years on making the public sector work are beginning to really worry about whether the new government really understands the enormous delivery challenge at hand. The government will have to come up with additional institutional mechanisms to make things work at a rapid pace.
Hassan Khawar rightly wrote last week that “Pakistan is a country with [the] brightest civil servants and [the] weakest governance”. The collective capacity of civil servants may not necessarily result in collective organisational capability. The case of the Pakistani bureaucracy is exactly that. You have a few of the brightest minds working as secretaries, the majority of whom (and this includes additional and joint secretary level positions too) are well spoken, policy literate, workaholics who are too busy in managing day-to-day government priorities. However, they neither have time nor are expected from their chief secretaries to strategically manage their departments.
Unfortunately, in many cases, efforts towards rapid human development, institutional reforms or improving ways of working in terms of ensuring transparency, innovation or rapid performance are often found to be not very high on the priority list of very classical Pakistani bureaucrats. We do find exemplary change leaders who try to attempt new and positive things in the public sector (for eg: Zubair Bhatti trying technology in Jhang’s districts and later expanding the model at the Punjab level, or Ali Jan attempting vaccination improvement across the province or Jabbar Shaheen or Imran Sikandar really embracing the data-led accountability model in education in Punjab) but in most cases these reforms prove to be the exception. Such efforts are usually never a government-wide phenomenon aiming to improve the system, and so they can easily wither away after a while.
Sector-specific reforms are often pushed by projects and can deliver a few islands of excellence here and there. Long-lasting design changes in Pakistan’s official machine will only come through ambitious and sustained bureaucratic reform with clear changes in incentives, performance accountability and a system of merit-based recruitment with protected tenures.
Learning from what has been achieved already can be a good starting point for the PM Office. It is fashionable to say that all previous reforms in Pakistan have failed. That is not true. The appreciation of new concepts in top bureaucracy such as protected budgets, introducing a data-based decision-making regime and using the technical assistance available from donors as per government’s own design needs are all relatively recently acquired capacities, all of them a result of the government’s conscious efforts to send officers to international degree programmes in America and the UK.
I have seen one recent Harvard-trained Pakistani officer learning the art of managing debts at the sub-national government level at the IMF. Getting our best men and women to represent Pakistan with their various international counterparts or making them attend meetings to design local reforms informed by global practices can bring major changes in the way we manage our policy and development.
That is why, compared with regional governments in South Asia at least, Punjab is much bolder in embracing public-private partnership models in service delivery – typically in education where the Punjab Education Foundation is delivering education to over 2.5 million children. Sure, the previous government could not see the bigger picture and went on to replicate public-private partnerships arrangements in other sectors too creating one company after another, displacing the role of actual government agencies and neglecting reforms within the government’s core agencies.
That is where parliamentary oversight could have played its role but unfortunately ensuring transparency, public evaluation of policies and having thoughtful and measured policy evaluation was not a strong point of the PML-N government.
Prime Minister Khan’s strong point is his focus on the areas where the PML-N faltered: parliamentary oversight, decentralisation, transparency and developing policy within our means. However, PM Khan’s challenge is way bigger than that faced by candidate Khan. He could afford to set lofty impossible political goals for himself and his campaign and inspire his people but in policy implementation PM Khan will have to deliver in the short run while improving the quality of the civil services in institutional terms as per the vision of his first speech. That will not be easy.
Delivery goals in education, health and law & order will be crucial to achieve, especially when the prime minister will realise that most ministers, however experienced, do not have a track record of success in their respective areas. This is not his fault. This is how Pakistan’s politics is organised, where most electable politicians are extremely sharp in managing power politics in their respective constituencies but lack crucial policy experience important to run or transform ministries.
That is why it made sense to deploy a seasoned bureaucrat like Arbab Shehzad as minister establishment along with the creation of the Prime Minister’s delivery unit where ex-McKinsey Pakistan partner Taimur Jhagra is playing a key role in deploying people who have done these things before. It will be interesting to see how Taimur Jhagra, Ishrat Hussain and Arbab Shehzad work together to quickly go into the implementation mode of whatever design is at hand. It will not be fruitful to restart the civil service conception from scratch. Ishrat’s previous report during Gen Mosharraf’s time is comprehensive and sufficient enough (and had taken three years). Therefore, it will be important to quickly design first-generation reforms at a typical private-sector pace.
The writer is an Islamabad-based public policy expert.