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July 30, 2019

21st century talent in a 19th century system

Opinion

July 30, 2019

Once upon a time, not so long ago, Pakistan used to be able to value and use a wide array of diplomatic talent available to it. Naturally, this included occasionally raiding the private sector for talent that would have been nearly impossible to develop inside the civil service.

Today, every member of the foreign service of Pakistan based at headquarters frequents the Jamsheed Marker Hall at the Foreign Office for key meetings. Marker was a global diplomatic legend who was never a member of the foreign service. Instead, he began his diplomatic career at the age of 43 as an ambassador, thereafter serving as ambassador in nearly a dozen countries for three consecutive decades.

Marker passed away last year, but his years of service maybe too far in the past for the average Pakistan – who has yet to turn 23 years old. Luckily, Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi is a living reminder of the diplomatic talent available to Pakistan outside the foreign service. Lodhi was the superstar founding editor of this very paper when at 41 she was appointed ambassador to the United States. She has since served with great distinction in difficult times at key diplomatic posts.

So when Ali Jahangir Siddiqui was appointed ambassador to the US last year, it should not have been so strange for Pakistanis to have welcomed the appointment. Siddiqui has the pedigree of a successful business family (like Marker did) and a resume impressive enough for him to be appointed a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2014. Siddiqui not only served with distinction in that role, but was recently critical to the country’s successful renewal of friendly relations with the US. A big portion of the credit for PM Imran Khan’s successful visit to the US belongs to Siddiqui – and the more readily this fact is acknowledged, the easier it will be to motivate the Pakistani system to produce Markers, Lodhis and Siddiquis as a matter of habit, rather than happenstance.

Some civil servants (but not all) will be up in arms about the impact outside talent can have on outcomes for Pakistan. Often, they are defensive for two reasons. The first is their legitimate interest in protecting institutional territory because of fears that outside talent may have nonlinear interests in using the authority vested in them by the state for purposes other than the greater public good. Luckily, an array of tools to protect against such abuse already exist – ranging from the vesting of principal accounting officer responsibility exclusively in civil servants (as decided by the Supreme Court of Pakistan), to the existence of an auditor general’s office.

The second cause for defensiveness among civil servants is the insecurity that outside talent introduces to the system. If diplomatic or bureaucratic talent from outside the system can come and supplant existing lifers, then why should lifers dedicate their entire careers to achieve the pinnacle that was seemingly awarded so easily to Marker, Lodhi or Siddiqui. This is a less convincing argument. Inside-the-system talent should be able to outshine outsiders quite handily given the investment in their career that taxpayers make over a roughly two-decade period prior to their eligibility for ambassadorial roles.

The two decade wait prior to making ambassador is an interesting barrier to inside-the-system. Typically, the minimum periods required at each grade level in the civil service are five years at BPS 17, seven at BPS 18, and another seven at BPS 19. Only the very exceptional and lucky PAS/DMG officers tend to make it to joint secretary or director general or ambassador in the minimum nineteen years. Most take a few years longer.

The world of course does not meander along at the same pace as Pakistan’s Jurassic age system of governance. The constraints on appointing the best talent to the most appropriate positions – and instead forcing superstars to go through two decades of crossing the Is and dotting the Ts – is creating three important outcomes for policy makers and reformists to pay attention to.

The first is the appointment of sub-standard diplomatic and bureaucratic talent to positions that require much better, younger, faster and more talented people. This isn’t just applicable to diplomacy, although the recent round of appointments represent an embarrassing lack of talent, and essentially handcuff the one senior diplomat that is a throwback to an era of abundant talent – Foreign Secretary Sohail Mehmood. This is also applicable to the broader civil service, where appointments to the Prime Minister’s Office are getting younger with each passing year.

There is a reason for this. Old men (and more rarely old women) near retirement do not make for good personal staff officers or chiefs of staff. But it is ludicrous to have principal secretaries to the prime minister (or chief ministers) in positions that are, in pecking order, subservient to the men and women that they often must order around. The Pakistani system needs to be able to afford political leaders the option to appoint the best and most qualified talent to the most important roles in government – not just the ones that have grown old working for the public sector.

The second important impact of the non-meritocracy of Pakistan’s nineteenth century colonial administrative system is that it squeezes the best officers out of the system altogether. Some of the brightest officers – whether diplomats, or administrators – that were recruited in the late 1990s left the service altogether in the 2010s because of the array of opportunities available to them outside the system. Some went on to do PhDs, others joined the UN or the World Bank or other international organizations, others still became successful entrepreneurs.

There is still plenty of the talent inside the system, of course, but the accumulated loss of talent to the civil services over the last two decades is screaming for attention. One of the studies Arbab Shehzad should be conducting is a qualitative assessment of who left the civil service over the last quarter century and why – as well as a thought exercise as to how people like renowned public intellectual Raza Rumi, or environmental activist Rizwan Mehboob, or public -sector delivery specialist Zubair Bhatti may have been deployed, were they still available to the system.

The third and perhaps most important impact of the continued use of an archaic system to find, deploy and use Pakistani talent is that it is creating the pressure to find more Maleeha Lodhis and Ali Jahangir Siddiquis – whilst simultaneously suppressing the possibly even better younger talent within the system from being used. This not only demoralizes and demotivates civil servants – especially the really good ones – it also forces the very best ones to take risks and innovate in a way that the wider system is incapable of appreciating or incorporating.

The emergence of younger civil servants, particularly from the police service and the Pakistan Administrative Service on social media for example is a telling set of signals. The cynical view is that these officers are motivated by the dopamine hits from validation on social media. The truth is a little more complicated, and refreshing. Dozens of cops and administrators are using Facebook and Twitter to do their job better. Many of them are not only not going to be rewarded for using 21st century tools despite being chained to a 19th century system. They may even be punished for doing so.

The Pakistani reform conversation’s most common feature is that ‘the rules of business don’t allow it’. But the ‘rules of business’ have been drafted by the very dinosaurs that are holding back the system. Every once in a while, Pakistan will luck upon an Ali Jahangir Siddiqui. But every day, the system is destroying future Siddiquis by chaining them to desks they don’t belong to, and on career paths that take an unnecessarily long time to ripen. The talent PM Khan and Pakistan need to deliver a reforms agenda, or the country’s many promises to the US, to the FATF, to China, to Saudi Arabia and beyond, is available within the country, and even within the civil services – but it won’t emerge if it remains buried under this 19th century system.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

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