Sunday April 21, 2024

The pitfalls of performance

By Mian Salimuddin
July 12, 2018

Every successive government in Pakistan places public-sector reforms high on its agenda. In 2000, a presidential directive required all ministries to prepare their performance measurement plans. In 2013, the PML-N government introduced Vision 2025, which was aimed at transforming “the public sector into a performance-driven entity, with a focus on quality service delivery for citizens”.

Not to be left behind, the caretaker prime minister has asked his cabinet to prepare the blueprint of a long-term structural reforms package for the incoming elected government to consider. While there are now countless reports on public-sector reforms, ministries continue to function in the same way and have shown no visible signs of improvement. In fact, there is a growing perception that the performance of the government has worsened with each passing day. There seems to be no serious effort to implement reforms in the public sector despite the hype and rhetoric.

All reports on public-sector reforms that have been compiled so far suffer from a basic yet fatal flaw: they focus on peripheral issues. These concerns include monetisation schemes; recruitment procedures; age-enhancement for entry into the civil service; lateral entry into government service; and the outsourcing of government functions. None of these reports provides “a detailed roadmap for [the] implementation of reforms to improve the service-delivery capacity of state institutions”, as spelt out in Vision 2025.

The main reason for this failure is that the various committees on public sector reforms have been dominated by people whose skills are in policy formulation and who have relatively little experience of managing or working in spheres where services are actually being delivered.

To be fair, government departments – which, by now, have become a punching bag for the ills of the government – have had a number of genuine concerns and issues that haven’t even been recognised by any reform reports. With time, these concerns have become chronic and produce a debilitating effect on any attempt to introduce reforms in the public sector.

Government departments in Pakistan are answerable to a number of institutions of the state – parliamentary committees, standing and enquiry committees and parliamentary procedures. Senior officials have to deal with NAB, FIA and the judiciary. Each of these institutions considers it to be their sacred duty to hold government officials responsible for any misdemeanours.

This wouldn’t pose a major problem if there were a clear-cut consensus as to what is expected of senior government officials. Unfortunately, various organs of the state have diverse and often conflicting objectives. As a consequence, top officials get discordant signals about the results that are expected from them. Since it is not humanly possible to meet everyone’s expectations, the officials end up by being criticised by those whose mandate isn’t fulfilled. This has led to demoralisation, a preference for risk aversion, decision-avoidance, and a proclivity for non-action. A culture of procrastination and an eagerness to transfer the blame for delays and inaction onto other departments is now the hallmark of most government departments.

A critical issue that now confronts the civil service is defining the point where political responsibility gives way to managerial responsibility. The lack of clear and accountable management culpability, and the self confidence that goes with it – particularly among the higher ranks in the departments – is a serious impediment in introducing any performance measurement reforms.

Most people in the government dread the introduction of any performance measurement system lest it is used against them, especially if the results don’t look so good. Employees at all levels link a performance measurement system with their annual appraisals – performance evaluation reports (PERs). This negative conditioning is widespread in public-sector organisations and has been a huge obstacle in the implementation of a performance measurement system. Employee fears focus on three questions. First, will the performance measures evaluate individual performance? Second, will performance measures be used for disciplinary purposes? Third, what happens if the goals or targets in the performance measures are not achieved?

The emphasis of performance measurement is on key processes and outcomes that determine organisational success. At the departmental level, performance measures should target performance various departments or sections rather than individual performance. If the targets aren’t achieved, efforts should be made to analyse the reasons for these shortcomings.

Performance measurement can be viewed from two perspectives. When applied constructively, a measurement system can be a helpful tool that provides information about how well employers and managers are doing in achieving objectives and where they might have room for improvement. But if a measurement system is used poorly, employees see it as a punishing rod with which to hit people if the numbers or results are bad. In order to make a performance measurement system successful, it should be used as a tool that is in the hands of employees.

With so many reports on public-sector reforms lying in dustbins, civil servants often ponder over why their precious time, energy and their abilities should be invested in something that will last with the current government. Political practice dictates that any incoming government disowns anything their predecessors initiated –whether good or bad.

A performance measurement system can certainly be the victim of political whims and make even the most ardent supporters of performance reforms have second thoughts about being part of any such endeavours. To overcome this hurdle China, India, Malaysia, the US and the EU as well as small countries like Nepal and Bhutan have enforced legislation to bring performance measurement systems.

Finally, the people have their own grievances about how government reports publicise the work done by its departments. Citizens want easy-to-understand, accurate and timely results of their tax-money utilisation. Most of the government work is focused on outputs, such as the number of basic health units established and the number of children who have been administered polio drops.

Output information doesn’t tell us anything about the actual results achieved or the impact on the communities. Output measures the volume of work, but doesn’t necessarily guarantee the desired outcomes or impacts. Are basic health units providing the level of healthcare that is expected of them? Is the number of polio cases reducing? Has tax collection increased?

Government departments rarely think in terms of outcomes or results. They often stress on procedural values over substance. A perfectly executed process is a waste of time and money if it fails to achieve the desired results. Government departments must show that spending public money has led to improvements within communities. For this to happen, departments must be able to report on results, not just the amount spent on activities. Government reporting must, therefore, change from outputs to the results achieved. An effective performance measurement system cannot be implemented until we shift from output reporting to the results achieved by government departments.

Governments across the globe continue to introduce performance management in state institutions. The alacrity to implement performance improvement programmes is based on two premises. First, government departments can be run economically and efficiently. Second, performance improvement programmes are linked to governance, economic development and foreign investment.

In Pakistan, we have yet to understand these basic but simple truths. We usually wait for donor agencies to demand government reforms. This is followed by short-lived, knee-jerk solutions with disastrous results, after which we move back to our comfort zones. Imposed improvement programmes have never worked. We need to develop a well-thought-out strategy to ensure an effective buy-in from employees prior to launching much-needed improvement programmes in the public sector.