Taken to task

September 30, 2018

PTI government is forming one task force after another. How effective they can be is the question

Taken to task

Since the PTI government has assumed charge in the Centre, it is under the scanner and progress on its 100-day reform agenda is being questioned by different quarters. A general perception in this regard is that though the government has widely shared its targets with the general public, both before and after the elections, the strategies to achieve them are not clear or totally missing.

For example, the PTI government intends to make five million houses for those in need of affordable housing and create ten million new jobs but has not yet come up with a clear cut plan on how to go about things. How will the funds for this mega construction project be managed and which sectors will consume such huge workforce is not in anyone’s knowledge.

However, those in the government camp claim this aspect is being taken care of now and soon well-devised plans and strategies will be in place to implement government agenda. The brainstorming exercise, they say, is in full swing at the moment and the government will enter the implementation stage once it has the work plan with it.

What the government is setting up task forces to look into the state of affairs in different sectors, identify the existing loopholes and come up with suggestions on how to reform them. These task forces, comprising experts in the relevant sectors, government representatives and stakeholders, must perform within a defined period.

There are task forces in abundance, in reforming of civil services, accountability laws, health services and energy sector, building consensus on creation of South Punjab province, creating ten million jobs, building five million houses, bringing back "looted money stashed abroad" and what not. It seems the government has faith in task forces, as a panacea to problems facing the country.

Looking back at the reformist agenda of previous regimes, it becomes clear that task forces are not a new phenomenon. They have proposed comprehensive plans, but, for some reasons, could not be pursued. So, one asks, are the task forces useless in Pakistan?

A senior public policy expert, who has been part of government sector reforms processes, believes there is nothing wrong with the idea of forming task forces because the purpose is to bring best minds together to work out implementation plans. "No doubt these are formed by executive orders and do not have constitutional sanctions like those enjoyed by parliamentary committees, their members are expert on the subject. Parliamentary committees, on the other hand, comprise parliamentarians who are not necessarily experts and must depend on expert advice."

He adds that a task force is a larger group of people who use their expertise as well as that of others to present a study in a ready-to-implement form. In our country, he says, "the reformist agendas have faced a dismal fate because it becomes a battle of survival for rival groups who do not want their interests become victim to institutional reforms".

There are task forces for anything one can think of… from reforming of civil services to building consensus on creation of South Punjab province.

A relevant example here is the constitution of the task force on civil services reform headed by Dr Ishrat Hussain. Hardly a few days after its formation, it has become controversial because one of the stakeholders -- the members of Pakistan Administrative Services (PAS), formerly the District Management Group (DMG), is over represented. Members of the provincial services group in different provinces have pointed out they are not represented in the 19-member task force whereas 13 members are from the PAS and DMG group.

Another clash of interests is about the concept of lateral entry into civil service on the pattern of judiciary where practising lawyers can join as additional sessions judges after taking an exam or high court judges without taking any exam. It is very unlikely that the powerful PAS/DMG officers will give the provincial government much say in the matters and endorse the concept of lateral entry that loosens their control on power.

Similarly, the criticism on the task force on health is that it has three members from the board of Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital & Research Centre (SKMCH&RC) -- an institution too close to the PM’s heart.

Further, some task forces have been formed to work out plans that do not seem workable in the existing scenario, like formation of the South Punjab province. Quite understandably, members of this task force will not be much clear about this task in a situation where the PTI government does not have enough numbers in the parliament and Punjab Assembly to let it happen. Expecting opposition parties, especially the PML-N, to cooperate in an adversarial political environment is like asking for too much.

Many task forces in the past were efficient in the start but with the passage of time their enthusiasm faded away. The general skepticism that existed about the acceptance of their suggestions among the forces of status quo resulted in loss of interest among task force members working on voluntarily basis.

Naveed Cheema, an Islamabad-based public policy adviser having experience in economic governance and development, says that previous governments set up task forces as well but "very few reforms recommended by them were really implemented in Pakistan. There are many decisions that need to be taken by political leadership instead of forming task forces and waiting endlessly for their recommendations."

He believes task forces are often too large to propose concrete agendas and "they do not have any say in decision-making". Besides, he adds, "the government does not have in-house capacity to analyse the reforms proposals".

Cheema points out the government has not yet appointed anyone as Deputy Chairman Planning Commission while more than two dozen professionals have been appointed members of task forces. The Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) makes key economic decisions but there is no economist or independent professional as member of ECC. "The government should have started restructuring of the planning commission and other key ministries immediately after coming into power but no steps have been taken in this direction so far," he adds.

With a declared aim to avoid a repeat of this, PM Imran Khan says he will monitor the working and progress of task forces on a regular basis to ensure they remain productive and on track. He also vows the fate of these task forces will be different from those in the past and their recommendations will be fully owned by the government.

Sarwat Ali, a former civil servant, says that to make task forces effective several necessary factors must be considered. "First, the tussles between the direct stakeholders, like government servants, and independent experts, who do not stand to lose or gain from the reforms, make it a non-starter".

Second, he adds, "it’s a privileged few who become a part of task forces because they can afford to stay away from their personal work whereas many others with the required expertise cannot spare time from their work. So, this exercise is not that exclusive."

Third, he elaborates further, "the expectation of a unanimously agreed upon work plan from a task force leads to exclusion of the weaker groups’ suggestions and domination of the thoughts of the powerful group".

Fourth, says Ali, "the task forces have a toll on the national exchequer even if its members are working on a voluntary basis. The expenses on paying of honorarium, travel, food, accommodation in case of outstation participants etc. have to be made by the government".

Ideally, a government going to polls and then assuming power with such an ambitious reforms agenda should have done this research work beforehand from its own expenses, and right away started implementation of these plans after taking the oath.

Taken to task