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Committee reform

November 25, 2018


The writer is a freelance contributor based in Lahore.
The writer is a freelance contributor based in Lahore.

OUR nation faces arduous challenges. To address these, the government is assisted by committees and taskforces. On the Senate’s website, there are 52 committees. The issues they address affect national security, the economy and our daily lives. Sound decisions can drive Pakistan’s progress exponentially; ineffective ones could continue to jeopardise the well-being of millions.

A cursory look at how Senate committees are formed and function suggests that the procedures followed often ignore research along modern principles of team effectiveness.

One theme that emerges from such research is that high-performing teams focus on direction, team size, member skills and stability, work structure and team leadership. Our committees portray a picture of dysfunction in light of these principles. Let’s see how.

A senator should be a full-time member of a single committee.

Highly effective teams have a compelling direction. Committees must have measurable goals, reasonable expectations, clear boundaries, and direction. I couldn’t find such information about our Senate committees. Even the Senate’s Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business, 2012, doesn’t discuss these things.

As for team size, as notable team researcher Richard Hackman suggests, it shouldn’t exceed single digits. Large teams tend to divide themselves into sub-teams working on their own agendas. They can also promote a phenomenon called ‘social loafing’, in which inactive members take refuge behind active ones.

However, as per Rule 165, each standing committee must consist of a minimum of 10 members. Clearly, the rule itself is not conducive to team effectiveness. (Many Senate com­m­ittees consist of more than 10 members.)

Another critical issue is skills of team members. Belonging to a Senate committee requires exceptional understanding of the challenges and problems that citizens face, the implications of legislation, and how relevant ministries and federal institutions work. One can easily imagine it requires strong domain-specific knowledge, and analytical, communication, coordination and decision-making skills.

In analysing committee member profiles, one finds competent people, but one sees too many with irrelevant expertise. It is unclear that the latter can help create effective policies to address pressing national issues. Moreover, it is important that even if members have the relevant skills, there is no conflict of interest. (Such information is not listed on the website). A ship cannot weather a storm if people without expertise are put in charge.

Stability is also key to a committee’s performance. As already explained, the committees’ job is daunting; this places extraordinary demands of focus, time and commitment on the members. These demands warrant that a person should be a full-time member in a single committee only. It appears, however, that many Senate members belong to more than one committee. We have a senator who belongs to all of the following committees: defence, aviation, water scarcity, cause of decline in tax collection of the tobacco sector and narcotics control. How one member can give meaningful input on all these fronts is beyond me.

Committees’ work structure is another factor. The frequency of meetings and reports, follow-ups, meeting minutes and decision-making methods are all important. All of this information should also be made transparent.

Team leadership is highlighted by modern team effectiveness research. A competent leader can help extract the best from a team. Unfortunately, the lea­dership of many committees ignores the principles of merit. Some senators chair more than one committee, without relevant expertise in any, which is a recipe for mediocre group performance.

Bloated Senate committees that ignore empirical evidence and modern team research are prevalent in other patronage-based democracies as well. One may also point out the abundance of human aid available to our committees; this, however, cannot bring success. At the end of the day, it is individual members who need to strive and achieve results together.

I chose Senate committees as an example. Federal and provincial cabinets and even taskforces recently formed by our government mostly follow the same patterns. Rules and procedures of these should be revisited and they should, instead, be formed following the guidelines of modern team effectiveness research.

One way to judge the seriousness of any government about its citizens’ welfare is how it forms groups responsible for taking major decisions. For the purpose of reform, our government is setting up committees and taskforces. But we must first start with reforming the process of creating and operating these groups.

The writer is a freelance contributor based in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, November 25th, 2018