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October 30, 2018

Reforms in a democracy


October 30, 2018

After winning the election, the leadership of the ruling party asked for three months of respite from criticism so it could set Pakistan on the course for transformational change. We are fast approaching that three-month mark.

Prime Minister Imran Khan took oath of office on August 18, so on November 18th, the three months that he had asked for will be up. Ten days later, on November 28, the famed 100 day deadline that the PTI has imposed on itself will also be up.

Thus far, since the government took charge it has signalled two overarching positive themes, and a few positive subthemes (note: I deliberately and intentionally omit mention of the negative themes, of which there has been no shortage, in keeping with PM Khan’s request for a three-month moratorium). The two overarching positive themes are: compassion for the underprivileged, and the urgent need for reforms. Sub themes within these include an ambitious housing scheme that aims to add five million new homes in Pakistan within the next, now four years and ten months. Another key sub-theme is the quality of life for people of Afghan, Bengali and Bihari origin – including the PM’s problematic, but compassion-driven promise to offer citizenship to them. But perhaps the most important sub-theme has been the anticipated package of civil service reforms that is being prepared as we speak.

Among the community of public policy professionals that I am a part of, one of the most exciting prospects this government signalled was its intent to undertake substantial reforms. There was almost universal applause at the choice of Dr Ishrat Husain and Shehzad Arbab as the guardians and stewards of the reforms process. Since taking office, both gentlemen have upheld their sterling reputations for professionalism, openness and the single-minded pursuit of the assignments they have been given.

As the days and weeks have passed by, however, the optimism surrounding the reforms conversation has been overtaken with substantive critiques and inputs to the reforms conversation. In the last two weeks alone, a significant number of public policy professionals, including US-based scholar Adnan Rasool, former finance minister Miftah Ismail, and science and industry experts Naveed Iftikhar and Shahjehan Chaudhary have written detailed analyses of the civil service reforms agenda. They all merit serious consideration given the importance of the topics they have tackled.

Some of the questions they have raised seem to lie at the very heart of the reforms conversation. Should Pakistan’s provinces have separate civil services for the provinces and the federal government in which crossing over is disallowed? Should perks and privileges be monetised? Is there an instrument that can prevent one occupational group from dominating the civil service at the expense of all others? Should lateral entry be encouraged at BPS 19? Should civil servants continue to enjoy a monopoly on leadership roles at BPS 22 for divisions and/or ministries?

Like any robust policy debate, the government could decide to choose any of several paths when it comes to answering these serious policy questions. But the real evidence of the government’s intentions, its capabilities and the hope for a better future will not really be in whether Pakistan can rename existing occupational groups, or offer more free degrees for civil servants, or proliferate yet more interest groups like the ones that already exist.

The real evidence of the government’s intentions, its capabilities and the hope for a better future will be in how these questions are tackled, how decisions are made and why specific choices are made.

In the simplest terms, the debate about civil service reform should not be about whether Dr Ishrat Husain is good at framing and taking forward a reforms conversation. It isn’t about whether provincial civil servants deserve the same crack at the spoils that the CSP/DMG/PAS elitists enjoy. It isn’t about whether ordinary civilians can join the civil service at BPS 19. It isn’t even about whether the best qualified people are running the government or not.

The debate about civil service reform must be about what is good for the people of Pakistan, or the will of the people of Pakistan. In a democracy, there can only be one way to answer the question about the will of the people. That answer is the ruling party’s governing philosophy.

When the PML-N won the election in 2013, it very explicitly defined and pursued a governing philosophy. We don’t need to like it, or endorse it, to acknowledge its clarity. It was, in the simplest terms possible, to increase the supply of electricity, roads and other infrastructure in service of expanded economic opportunities. The purpose of this was to win votes. The methodology pursued was single-mindedness. This meant outcomes dominated over processes (which is probably what produced the rent-seeking opportunities that officers like Ahad Cheema are alleged to have taken advantage of). It also meant throwing fiscal caution to the wind (which is probably what produced a blind pursuit of China-heavy projects, imports-heavy growth, and a debt profile as ugly as it seems). For the Noonies, reform would slow down delivery, not speed it up. Between 2013 and 2018, this approach was, for better or worse, deemed to be the will of the people of Pakistan.

Now that the PTI has won the election, from now until sometime in fall 2023, the PTI’s governing philosophy will be the legitimate will of the people of Pakistan. What is the PTI’s governing philosophy?

This is where the three month, or 100-day timeline becomes so incredibly important. What many of us call an election honeymoon is really just a block of time that a new party or coalition takes to establish a governing philosophy. The PML-N and PPP governing philosophies are so deeply entrenched that even scions with new ideas about how to govern find it difficult to chart new paths. The PTI has no such burden. It is free to define a path of its choosing. But it does have to make a choice.

In the first two and a half months of its rule, it has shown flashes of what it could be: a genuine reformist party driven by compassion for the underprivileged. But it has also shown flashes of what it should not be: a vindictive lynch mob, interested only in winning the fake news wars, and incapable of learning from its own, or others’ mistakes. The civil service reforms this government pursues must be informed by the PTI’s governing philosophy.

If the governing philosophy is justice – distributive, administrative, regulatory or adjudicatory – then the current debates are secondary. The first question PM Khan should pose to Dr Ishrat Husain is: how will a widowed mother of three, who does not have access to the wealth of the elite, be better off because of his reforms?

If the governing philosophy is anti-corruption, then the principal questions that the civil service task force should deal with are not about capacity building or lateral entry. They should be about procurement, about transparency in contract awards, and about the Market Rate System regime.

If the governing philosophy is economic growth, then the principal questions in a civil service reform debate should be about ease of business, driving up investments, access to finance and regulations that ease the path for entrepreneurs – domestic and foreign.

And of course, if the governing philosophy is about avenging two decades of the PTI’s political failure, then the civil service reforms agenda can be any number of inane tweaks to a broken and dysfunctional system in which neither the civil servant, nor her or his political masters, nor the poor taxpaying citizens that finance the entire edifice know why the steel frame exists, or what work it actually does.

The choice of governing philosophy that PM Khan and his cabinet make will determine the degree to which Dr Ishrat Husain’s civil service reforms will serve the people of Pakistan. An absence of a governing philosophy that drives reform will only produce the same kind of ‘reform’ that we are accustomed to seeing in this country: change of nomenclature, and a suite of new goodies for the civil service, dressed up in fancier language than before. The fault for this will not be the civil service reform task force’s. It will be PM Khan’s. The clock is ticking on his honeymoon.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

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