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February 3, 2015

The curse of mediocrity


February 3, 2015


For decades, Pakistan has been facing self-created crises one after another – the latest being the petrol crisis. One major reason for the repeated crises has been the ‘curse of mediocrity’. The British philosopher John Stuart Mill made the following observation: “The general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind.”
All over the world mediocrity runs deep, especially in public institutions. Lamentably, all our key public institutions and the political system exhibit extreme mediocrity and incompetence. While there are millions of Pakistanis who excel in their profession and pursuits, unfortunately most do not work in public institutions.
Four decades of out-migration of the best and the brightest have sapped the country of excellence. Now mediocrity is a disease coursing through our national veins and ethos, fuelled and fostered by years of apathy and inaction by society and government. Incompetence is now a unifying threat that lurks below the surface of every institution, debilitating and damaging our country deeply.
All our public institutions – legislative, civil, judicial and military – exhibit the following defining traits of mediocre institutions: indifference; superficiality; denial; compromise; arbitrariness; hostility to excellence and aversion to performance accountability. While excellence nurtures excellence, mediocrity breeds the mediocre. For example, our mediocre political leaders appoint mediocre ministers – as has been the practice of this and previous governments. Also mediocre heads of agencies and departments promote and foster the average.
One small but telling reason why mediocrity flourishes in our institutions are promotion policies – except those who die in service, without fail almost all young civil and judicial officers entering the service get promoted to senior grades irrespective of performance. Our institutions abhor excellence. Since

excellence atrophies if it is not recognised and rewarded, our institutions are now stacked with the mediocre. Moreover, mediocre institutions foster a culture that replaces the pursuit of the possible with the warm embrace of compromise.
Like all mediocre systems, our public institutions spend much time pondering the nature of accountability and good governance, but precious little time actually on holding people to account or practising good governance. No ministerial or high -evel official has ever been held accountable for the numerous crises and failures of policy and implementation. The leaders of our institutions have made it a habit to blame their mediocre performance on others, rather than accept responsibility and reform themselves.
Mediocrity in public institutions, coupled with corruption and complete absence of performance accountability, are some of the key reasons for the morass we are stuck in for the last few decades. All institutions that shape our national destiny are fast reaching levels of incompetence prevalent in ‘failed states’, and are collectively responsible for the repeated self-created crises. It is painful to see our taxes being wasted on the salaries and luxurious lifestyles of the tens of thousands of incompetent senior officials in all branches of the state.
Our political institutions exhibit the highest levels of mediocrity. Although there is electoral competition for becoming part of the legislatures, it is mostly a competition among second-rate and incompetent individuals. There are many politicians who are outstanding, but the majority are mediocre and do not have the academic training, experience or leadership qualities necessary for holding legislative or ministerial office. Worse, the majority are also corrupt. Few =, if any, of the ministers could ever get a job – beyond mid-management – in the corporate sector. And yet they are leading and managing our national policy apparatus.
All our civil institutions also suffer from a severe case of mediocrity. The few exceptional people who work in these institutions are overshadowed by a mass of incompetent officers. As a result, performance of all civil institutions is pathetic: those delivering education or irrigation services, those providing power or health care , those collecting garbage or taxes , those delivering justice or policing . Pakistan’s abysmal human development, poor economic management and wasteful development projects reflect the deep-rooted incompetence in our civil institutions.
Our judicial institutions fare no better. Judicial excellence is an exception, and mediocrity dominates. Very high pendency and long delays in case disposal – even in civil cases – and many frivolous and strange interventions and decisions are indicative of the mediocre nature of judicial institutions.
The performance of military institutions in their core mission has been unexceptional, despite the thousands of cases of heroism. However, their level of competence is considerably higher than civil institutions, partly as a result of merit-based promotions – less than five percent of cadets graduating from the military academies make it to the general officer level. But these institutions have also made errors. The serious security breaches at major bases and army headquarters are a telling example of the prevalence of incompetence. Only very recently have they started to change course and exhibit excellence in their core mission.
The majority of our public and private universities, which are supposed to foster and nurture excellence, are now breeding grounds for the ordinary and run-off-the-mill. As a nation, we have so little to show for in terms of innovation, and we are not prepared for the onslaught of the knowledge-based global economy.
Our private sector is equally mediocre. Most firms produce sub-standard products, but have prospered by shielding themselves from competition through high levels of protection and cartelisation. Pakistan’s share of global exports have been stagnant for over two decades – indicative of the mediocre performance of our private sector, in comparison to exporters from India, Bangladesh, China, Vietnam, etc.
Our public institutions were among the best in the world in the 1950s and 1960s. Now they are among the most mediocre, incapable of simple tasks let alone overcoming our complex challenges. So how do we begin to move away from a culture of mediocrity and towards a society that champions and cherishes excellence?
Making this move would require overcoming massive inertia. It requires absolute commitment and a relentless drive by the political system – to lift expectations; to deliver excellence itself and to measure its performance against the highest standards; and to initiate a deep civil and judicial service reform plan (like the anti-terrorism plan) which promotes excellence and breaks the pervasive hold of mediocrity. Failure to do so will accelerate our drift to a failing state, and the nation will continue to face a major crisis every so often.
The writer is a former operations adviser at the World Bank.
Email: [email protected]




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