Sunday February 25, 2024

The job begins with measurement

November 14, 2023
A representational image of a person pointing toward chits on a whiteboard. — Unsplash/File
A representational image of a person pointing toward chits on a whiteboard. — Unsplash/File

“The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways,” Karl Marx famously said. “The point, however, is to change it.”

Think Pakistan and we might have to turn this quote upside down – like most things. Too many people want change but there is too little reflection on what this change should look like and, more importantly, how to make it happen.

Okay, so whose job is it to reflect? Politicians? They have capacity constraints. Also, their incentives are different. They want power. Change is a powerful slogan in narrative-building. And narratives are important in power politics. But that’s about it. They don’t have to take the trouble and reflect. Also, the demand side of the political marketplace does not ask too many nuanced questions of politicians. The voter is happy with the bridge you built in his constituency. He is not going to bother you with the deep questions regarding its cost-effectiveness, opportunity cost, and the outcome versus output debate.

So, who will do the reflection? Civil servants? The good old creme de la crème?

Here too, I am tempted to begin with the problem of capacity constraints. But let’s assume for a moment that CSS is not broken and that we are getting top-notch brains in the civil service. Let’s also assume there are no political economy constraints and that civil servants have the agency to suggest and implement truly life-changing reforms. Where are those good ideas?

Reflection? It is nonexistent. It is nonexistent because there is no time to think, rethink and redesign. There is no time because a typical day of a civil servant is marked by fire-fighting. You may not believe it and it may come across as a counter-intuitive point but it takes a lot of work to keep the large but slow-moving wheels of the public sector rolling. The formalism of the public sector is time-consuming. It is also stultifying.

So, we are back to our favourite question for the day. Who will reflect? Ah of course – the academia! Who else? After all, it is part of their job description.

The academia is not doing what it ought to be doing. It is disconnected from the real world, especially the local context. It has become an echo chamber where the academics just talk to one another in complicated jargon and feel smug about it. They are not providing solutions to the real-world problems. Forget solutions. They are not even helping in enhancing understanding and making connections.

Universities are supposed to be places of genuine education. The function of a good university education is, as the great Eqbal Ahmed once put it, to demonstrate, manifest, and make clear to young minds that there are organic links between abstract principles and individual and group behaviour. Our academics have failed to establish these linkages for their students. A lot of ink and paper and internet bandwidth and cloud storage are wasted in academia while dealing with a whole lot of irrelevant subjects. How not to deal with relevant issues has almost been elevated to an art form in our academia.

So, what’s the way forward? We will keep making the same mistakes over and over again if we don’t learn. And we will not learn if we don’t have the proper tools to learn. I will just stick to one aspect of it for now – measurement.

“What is not measured, cannot be improved”, said a famous physicist. Yet, we, in Pakistan, have not given enough importance to it. We don’t find much attraction in the seemingly dull world of measurement. There is no glamour in measurement. This is clear in the existing institutional arrangement. The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) is an attached department of the Ministry of Planning, Development, and Special Initiatives. The primary function of the PBS is to collect, compile and analyze data and provide statistical information to ministries and departments.

The PBS should have been at the frontier of new knowledge. The place should have been buzzing with the excitement generated by new ideas. Young minds should have been queuing up to become part of this exciting journey. Experts from all over the world should have been making trips to exchange ideas and establish intellectual partnerships. In reality, though, none of this is happening. We don’t even know who heads the PBS. However, we do know about P C Mahalanobis.

Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis founded the Indian Statistical Institute and soon this institution flourished to attract some of the finest minds and produced pioneering work in the field of statistics: the multivariate distance measure known as Mahalanobis distance, the large-scale sample surveys technique, Cramer-Rao bound, Rao-Blackwell theorem, Fisher-Rao theorem, etc.

Okay, back to Pakistan. We need to adopt the following slogan: Make measurement glamorous again.

We need to take stock of the situation, see where we have been faltering, scientifically understand why our policies haven’t been producing desired outcomes, learn, redesign, and then implement. The job begins with measurement. Otherwise, we will continue to chase a black cat in a dark room.

The writer is a civil servant and public policy practitioner with interest in development, economy, state and service delivery.