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Fault in the system

February 27, 2018

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A FEW years back, I invited an American law-enforcement expert to visit Pakistan. The gentleman had developed police units in the Balkans and the Caribbean. Based on demand from Pakistani police officers, I requested him to study the institution and identify global best practices that could benefit them.

After a couple of visits and numerous consultations with the police, I asked for his impressions. He was clearly perplexed. He hadn’t seen another country where such human capacity existed and yet, collective institutional outputs often tended to be worse than countries that lacked basic infrastructure and capacities (he had most experience with such environments).

His take on Pakistan has never left me. Perhaps because it epitomises the tragedy of our public sector. Individuals who are good enough to excel on their own — and often do when they work in the private sector or in foreign countries — are unable to turn the system around. Rather, the system stymies their growth. There is voluminous literature on the reasons for this failure. But it tends to focus disproportionately on resource constraints, technical deficiencies, and the need for overall structural reforms. This doesn’t explain why many developing country institutions plagued by the same problems are able to perform better.

Looking at comparable cases (and Western systems), I have found three traits that are accentuated in Pakistan’s case. At one level, they are well known. Yet, almost never do you find these being identified as constraints as significant in holding the system back as resource-related and technical issues.

There is no room to think big.

First, the entire system is geared towards and consumed by firefighting. Bureaucracies, civil and military, jump from managing one crisis to the next. They even tend to judge themselves by their crisis management performance. Ask them and they’ll be the first ones to confirm they have zero time and little reward for strategic thinking.

Such an environment leaves little room to think and act big. Most reform-oriented people within the system will tell you that out-of-the-box approaches make one a threat to the prevalent status quo lobbies. Job security and progression benefits from going with the flow and delivering to the liking of the political masters — themselves consumed by firefighting and short-term interests — rather than from pushing the envelope. Hardly surprising then that few people in the system want to take it upon themselves to course correct.

Third, firefighters boxed in by status quo preferences can hardly be expected to evolve. The Pakistani bureaucracy has lost the ability to generate policy solutions in sync with the needs of a changing society and world. Policymaking in the developed world has evolved into a science of sorts that requires an ability to parse out global and domestic trends, and long-term strategic planning. While self-driven individuals offer exceptions, the Pakistani system offers no real incentives for knowledge acquisition by civil and military bureaucrats.

One is shocked at just how much policymaking is based on intuition, partial information, or even conspiracy theories taken as facts. Or you find the public sector contracting out its policymaking functions. Even some basic policy visions for things like poverty alleviation, domestic commerce, etc. are prepared in this fashion.

Finally, the civil-military divide colours everything. The civil bureaucracy feels overpowered by the politicians on the one hand and an overbearing military on the other. The military contends that civilians use them as scapegoats for their failures. When I ask how this disconnect is to be resolved, one hears diatribes against the other that are more suited for enemies at war than for cogs of the same wheel.

My American colleague saw a microcosm of this in the Pakistani police. In many meetings, highly proficient officers talked about their helplessness to change things. There was a reflexive tendency to blame other parts of the system. When asked why they didn’t implement many of the reforms that were totally in their control, it quickly became obvious they had little incentive to do so. In fact, they readily acknowledged that the control-orientation of their institution — preferred also by their political masters who use the police as a political tool — remained a safer career bet than seeking to transform the police to become a truly service-oriented entity.

A turnaround requires dedicated leadership willing to allow institutions the freedom to make hard, reform-oriented decisions. The civilian and military leadership would have to rise above an us-versus-them mindset and deliver collectively. The system also needs policymaking reform. Pakistan needs policy planning units within ministries that are populated by accomplished policy experts borrowed from the private sector/academia (à la the US model).

None of this is going to be easy or quick. But more of the same attitude will only deepen the rot and bring us even closer to a total institutional breakdown. It is no longer an option.

The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, D.C.

Published in Dawn, February 27th, 2018