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Ensuring performance

Opinion

May 22, 2019

This is the second of two columns on the subject of improving government performance. In the first column (‘Improving performance’, April 28), I discussed why we must improve government performance and the main issues that affect it. Today, I touch upon what we should do to improve it.

In our 70 years of existence, there have been few moments when there is no government committee studying how to reform the civil service. And yet there is a constant complaint that the government’s delivery may have worsened. Clearly, the reforms haven’t worked, or they were not implemented.

While experts study the matter in its complexity, I discuss doable ways to improve performance. Whichever route we take, one thing is clear: business as usual is no more an option. The people of Pakistan expect better services. Without better services, we will not develop as an economy or a society. Also, a large alienated young population is a risk to our security. This is an existential issue.

My approach relies on ideas that are universally accepted as useful management practices. It focuses on results rather than process. That is, rather than get into elaborate ways to reform the civil service, let us see what we can do quickly to deliver better results.

I recommend that we review and change government systems. Also, we must address the culture of government organizations as well as upgrade delivery capacity of civil servants.

Government activities affecting the people are conducted both in high offices in the federal and provincial secretariats as well as in line departments. The latter are the face of the state that the people see. The former influences by making polices, monitoring delivery, and setting the culture for service. They are also the link between national and organizational goals.

While discussing reforms, it is important to remember that Pakistan’s public sector has many achievements to its name. It has built world-class dams, constructed motorways and mass transit systems, and has established credible institutions. Our police officers are on the front line of terrorism and often its victim. All of the above have been accomplished by civil servants. Their efforts cannot be undervalued. Yet, there is no denying that the people of Pakistan deserve better than what they get.

Most past reforms have centred on civil servants and the many aspects of governing them. Though important, reforming all aspects is a daunting task. I, therefore, propose to focus on the doable. This makes progress possible, even within the present framework. So, instead of keeping our focus entirely on civil servants, I ask my political colleagues to step up to the plate. Below are ideas where ministers must lead:

As a first step to improving performance, I propose to ‘manage by results’. Though this may appear to be an overused idea, it can radically alter our ability to deliver. Each ministry, department, and government office must set goals at the beginning of the year and measure results at the end. This apparently simple idea involves considerable effort. First, the goals should be agreed by all. The minister and civil servants must agree, with feedback from beneficiaries.

Second, the organization must have the resources to achieve them. In effect, goals should be realistic. If we target to reduce crime by 20 percent in an area, the offices must have the wherewithal to do so. Resources include people, their capacity, equipment, and data. Likewise, for other sectors. This way each office must prioritize what is important to achieve. This is why we see that most project goals are achieved, while day to day service delivery lags. A project has clear delivery timeline and resources are in accordance with the task.

Next, I propose a change in culture. Nebulous as this idea seems, there is no more challenging a task before the government. It is an idea that could affect government performance profoundly. The first step is to make every officer own the goals and take pride in achieving them. Also, there should be deliberate efforts to meet and consult with beneficiaries on a regular basis. This will gain their trust, earn their cooperation, and give good feedback on quality of delivery.

At all times, Pakistanis have shown a great sense of public spirit. Yet, there is nothing more corrosive to this spirit than organizations steeped in secrecy and high-handedness. We must build trust between the state and service users. Ministers are best placed to lead here as they are in regular touch with the people.

We must also encourage new ways of working. Involving credible not-for-profits in service delivery is one way to do so. This is already being tried by some provincial governments. Additionally, I stress that politicians must also realize that political interference degrades their role and the offices they hold.

Lastly, I propose improving the ability of ministers and civil servants to meet their responsibilities. Ministers must receive training in heading government organizations, meeting national goals, and peoples’ expectations.

Civil servants include specialists and career generalists. They are at policymaking levels and in direct service delivery jobs. In the latter case, training must relate directly to the official’s present and next jobs. This requires that we identify the skills needed for these tasks.

Building senior level capacity is more complex. Often there is no knowing which job they would do next. Can a person be equally effective in say international trade, debt management, and law enforcement? It is an assumption that is hard to validate. In order to overcome the challenge, we must consider preparing manuals for senior officers of each ministry related to their responsibilities. These manuals should impart practical ways to plan and execute transport policy in one ministry and public health in another.

The officer would self-monitor and self-pace their learning. Formal training for senior officers must focus on strategic policy and management, and on managing organizational change.

The writer was commerce minister from 2002 till 2007. He is chair and CEO of the Institute for Policy Reforms.

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