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December 18, 2020

Reforms: theory and practice

December 18, 2020

Institutional reforms are basic to good governance, and Pakistan is in dire need of such reforms – political to bureaucratic to the public sector. Pakistan has seen multiple phases of economic and bureaucratic reforms, while political reforms are mostly neglected or ignored for various reasons.

The political system has passed through turbulence since its inception. Since 1973, no reforms have taken place, except a hybrid model of governance tilting towards a presidential office, although constitutionally with a parliamentary system, during military regimes. As such, no proper constitutional and political reforms took place except the introduction of a larger women’s quota in parliament during Musharraf’s regime.

It is a matter of concern that the local government system has not been prioritised by political parties; ideally local government would be the backbone of the political system, providing solutions to the problems faced by citizens right at their doorstep. All military regimes have rightly prioritised the local government system, although due to their own political exigencies of legitimacy. There is a wide gap in theory and practice so far as implementation of this system of governance is concerned.

Almost all governments have made efforts to reform the bureaucracy, but the bureaucratic reform process has been in limbo for quite some time now. If we look at the history of such reforms, we find that various committees and commissions have been working in the past. The largest such reforms were during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s time, when the Civil Servants Act, 1973 was introduced and Common Training Programmes of all occupational groups started as a symbol of the equality of the civil service to provide relief to the people of Pakistan. Since then, the reform process has been stalled.

The Musharraf government initiated a reform process to reform the bureaucracy and the political system through the National Reconstruction Bureau (NRB) under Gen Naqvi and the National Commission for Government Reforms (NCGR) under Dr Ishrat Hussain. Dr Ishrat Hussain, also engaged by the present government, has been working on this project and gave recommendations like the creation of a National Executive Service with a specialised cadre of services. However, those reforms have yet to see the light of day. However, the Police Order 2002 is still intact, which is a contribution of the NRB under the Musharraf regime.

There have also been efforts in the past to achieve growth by the reform process but they could not be realised. Pakistan Vision 2025 was a very fine document, ensuring sustainable economic growth and development. Pakistan in 2030 was another vision to realise the reform process through a growth-led approach. Unfortunately, the reform process could not move forward.

The present government has also constituted a Cabinet Committee for Institutional Reforms, under Minister for Education Shafqat Mehmood to achieve the goal of good governance promised by Prime Minister Imran Khan. The committee is meeting regularly, and we can expect some positive reforms in the coming days.

Public-sector reforms are the key to a country’s success. Take the case of government owned companies and corporations, where reforms are needed more than any other sector. Most such public-sector enterprises are in loss and are in fact a burden to the exchequer. The Economic Reforms of 1992 were the first big step towards the liberalisation of the economy. The concept was to get rid of loss-making entities by privatising them and the government should be the only main regulator collecting taxes from the business entrepreneurs.

The reforms were on track till the Musharraf regime but the process was interrupted owing to multiple reasons – from some of the decisions of the higher courts to the prevailing situation regarding NAB. The whole process of decision-making is choked, resulting in more losses burdening the taxpayers of Pakistan. The need of the hour is to speed up the process of privatisation of loss-making PSEs and companies – the sooner the better.

There are also other sectors and institutions that need immediate attention of the government. Reforms are needed in the services sector, agriculture sector, aviation sector, and the large-scale manufacturing sector along with monetary and fiscal policies by rationalising the taxation system. Covid-19 has already disturbed every sector. The government is already cognizant of the fact that people are facing the worst sort of inflation and price hike, especially in food items. Food security has become a prime issue in these days of the pandemic, where job loss is rampant and inflation is skyrocketing. There is thus a need for a robust regulatory mechanism and state intervention to ensure maximum relief to the people.

So, how do we bridge the gap between theory and practice in and between institutional reforms and their implementation by the state and government of Pakistan? Political reforms can only be ensured by an inclusive approach involving political parties through a grand dialogue between state institutions, as envisaged by former Senate chairman Raza Rabbani and lately endorsed by none other than Chief Justice Khosa during his tenure in office. It is a considered opinion that, besides other political and constitutional reforms, implementation of the local government system in true letter and spirit is absolutely necessary for the overall development of the country.

There is a serious need of bureaucratic reforms to get rid of the logjam of the present mess. These reforms must start from inductions of civil servants, to their capacity building via training to make them an effective executive arm of the government ensuring service delivery. This can only be done through an inclusive approach by involving the people and the stakeholders in the decision-making by the field officers of the administrative services. So far, the approach is totally exclusive; this is one of the major reasons that the people at large have no say in the decision-making and rather possess contempt for the civil services. This is the area where reforms are immediately needed to achieve the goal of good governance. Intra-civil services reforms are also necessary to get rid of the domination of one group over all others, which also leads to discontentment and frustration.

PSE reforms are of prime importance to address issues of state-owned entities. The main focus should be to privatise loss-making PSEs and the government should assume only the role of a regulator to ensure service delivery for the benefit of the people. There is a need for immediate action, as the slow pace of privatisation has marred all accruable benefits besides loss of revenues and taxes supposed to be collected from private businesses out of their profits. Fiscal and monetary policy reforms are also very necessary along with tax reforms to provide relief to the people for the common goal of good governance.

Good governance is an inclusive process involving the public through institutional reforms ensuring all segments of society to participate in the overall development of the country. This is also strategic in nature, as the public and private sectors as well as the corporate sector thrive in a growth-led approach. For now, institutional reforms are elusive and effective reform process is still a dream.

The writer is an economist.