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Power politics: 3 serious governance issues nobody is talking about

September 05, 2014

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We are having all the wrong discussions, and then have the audacity to ask why we're not seeing progress. -Photo by AP
We are having all the wrong discussions, and then have the audacity to ask why we're not seeing progress. -Photo by AP

The game plan is public knowledge now.

The audacity of the coup makers, this time, is flat-out impressive. There is no longer a pretense of ‘reforms’ or ‘cleansing of the system’.

Instead, it is a straightforward attempt at ridding the ruling party of its founders. It is a shame that this occasion has been robbed of the opportunity for a genuine discussion on sweeping reforms in favour of something as impudent as leadership change.

We need reforms, badly. The way the system currently operates is not fit for the world around us and cosmetic changes will not cut it anymore.

Serious reform issues have been lost in this political theatre put up by the business and bureaucratic interests within the establishment; which makes sense from their point of view, as any serious reforms would bite them the most in the long run as opposed to any politician.

Also read: Islamabad protests: Govt tries to woo back ‘upset’ opposition in House

So what are the reforms that we should have been talking about and need to take up seriously?


1. Governance reforms — more power to the people


To start with, we need governance reforms, especially in the local body system, which has been in cold storage for over seven years now. One of the problems with the current system is how pathetically it fares in terms of access-to-power: only about a thousand people in a country of 190 million, have access to political power through provincial assemblies and the national parliament.

Most of these people have held on to these positions for years, and the barriers set up against entry into power are extremely high. This frustrates the newer lot, who wish to have access to power at some point, and the right set of resources to do so.

Plus, the power spread under the current system is very concentrated. A local body system would open up the political space to a much wider audience and drastically increase the number of stakeholders in the system. It would become much easier to protect a system when thousands of people are a part of it on several levels, instead of just the current one thousand.

The other side of this argument is that local body elections would create a new cluster of power sources that is much closer to the end user i.e. the public. Consider the government as a service delivery system — the closer it is to the end user, the better it can serve them; so district-level service providers would be much better than ones installed at a provincial level.

Unfortunately at this point, demand for meaningful reforms has been brushed aside in favour of the trivial rigging issue in specific constituencies, which will have no long-term impact on the way our system works.


2. Civil service reforms — more power to the right people


There is also an urgent need to launch expansive reforms for the structure and recruitment practices of the civil service, which happens to be one of the state's dirtiest secrets and has resisted nearly all reform attempts by multiple governments.

Dr Ishrat Hussain (now at IBA Karachi), led the National Commission for Government Reform (NCGR) to come up with reform recommendations during the Musharraf era. His recommendations aimed to make the system more transparent and remove the current special consideration for the DMG and other preferred groups in our civil services.

Read on: Bureaucracy needs reforms

The rationale behind these proposals can easily be explained through the example of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra), where the board happens to have at least two members who originated from the police service.

Think about it: what are two policemen doing in Pemra? And how did they even get there? How is the system supposed to work when people who specialise in one thing end up taking deputations in departments they have no expertise in?

While Dr Ishrat’s reform recommendations are detailed and should have been implemented years ago, even the simplest recommendations — which nearly everyone agrees upon — are yet to be enacted; these include removing the concept of ‘deputation’ and the Civil Service Examination in favour of direct recruitment by various services.

That's how it is in most countries. Instead of taking a generic exam and then waiting to be allotted to a service based on your merit and preference, people take specific exams tailored differently for each individual government service, e.g. trade or foreign office.

Take a look: Plagiarism detected in CSS paper

This way, each service gets to pick their recruits from a pool of people who are genuinely interested in that area. With the practice of deputation out of the window, candidates hoping to get in through one service and then take a deputation to a more lucrative one are filtered off.

It is astounding that so far, we have been unable to push through even something as simple as this to the end of improving the bureaucracy. And then we wonder why they are unable to deliver!


3. More provinces — uniformly distributing power


My final point is: Pakistan needs more provinces. That's the discussion we should be having, and yet it keeps getting buried under irrelevant demands every single time.

We all know where the problem lies: over 60 per cent of Pakistan’s population lives in Punjab, and so, a party that can win over most of Punjab is free to form a government without winning anywhere else. And when that happens, other provinces are effectively told to go fend for themselves.

Punjab has always been the bone of contention, and the reason why the powers that be are trying to dislodge this government. It worries them to see PML-N with an iron clad majority of 312 MPAs out of the total 371 in the provincial assembly. On the national front too, 147 out of 272 contested seats are in Punjab.

So, as long as a party wins in Punjab, it runs the country. How is that fair?

How is this a federation if the winner of just one province gets to rule over everyone else as well?

In my opinion, we need at least four more provinces. We need a better spread of power so that one province does not rule over others.

Know more: Bill on new provinces referred to PAs

More provinces will also cut down the number of coup attempts we keep having. Agree or not, this latest attempt is practically based entirely on issues in Punjab. The whole country has been held hostage because a few powerful people in Punjab do not like the other powerful people in Punjab, who are also running the federal government.

A third argument for more provinces is — and it goes without saying, really — that smaller units in a federation improve governance. More provinces means a smaller distance between the end user and the power source.

The government’s job is to improve service delivery and improve access to power. Local body elections and more provinces address this. Civil service reform ensures that the system works properly and effectively, given that the people on the job want to be there and are specialised in what they are doing.

In the aftermath of all the nonsense we just had in Islamabad, the subjects detailed above are what we should be having discussions about.

But none of this stuff is sexy, none of it gets TV ratings and none of this will get Punjab from one group of really powerful people to the next group of really powerful people.

And, the height of absurdity is, that after ignoring all the core issues, we still have the audacity to ask why we do not see rapid progress in Pakistan.