Able ministers?

December 11, 2018

Email

The writer is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia.
The writer is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia.

THE prime minister is evaluating his ministers’ performance. Before the July 25 elections, I was convinced that the PTI’s obsession with the 100 days was mere sloganeering. Judging by the effort that has gone into showcasing the government’s achievements in the first 100 days, and the importance being accorded to this portfolio review, it’s clearly much more than that. But if so, there are several problems with this mindset.

For starters, it seems to suggest that the prime minister believes that 100 days is long enough to measure discernible change. Or worse, that he doesn’t recognise the contradiction in forcing his team to show meaningful activity in this short time frame and in taking steps that ensure sustainable change.

One hopes that his constant reference to corruption and insincerity of previous governments being the reasons for the country’s problems is clever politicking, not genuine belief. The latter would imply a gross underestimation of how deep and structural Pakistan’s most critical problems are, and how real this tension between short-term tactical gains versus long-term progress is.

There’s no better example than the economy. Sure, the government has inherited serious problems. But today’s economic crisis isn’t novel. It occurs every five to seven years, not because previous rulers were sellouts, but because we confront a fundamental problem that no one could fix in decades: the economy does not produce enough to be able to pay for national expenses.

The stars exist, but their efforts are drowned out in a sea of incompetence.

The solution is not banking on Saudi, Emirati, or Chinese largesse, but the clichéd structural reforms that the IMF wants to impose. We must take that route, with or without the IMF. It will be painful, and things will seem to fall apart before they come together again. Importantly, the finance team will come across as a failure in the interim.

The story is much the same in every sector. Institutions have decayed to the point that anyone looking to make a real difference must shake things up big time. Of course, anytime you do that, you are going to experiment, hit and try, challenge entrenched interests, and have your share of failures.

To be able to do that, you need stability of tenure. Even if the prime minister does not replace any of his ministers, the message he has sent is that everyone’s job is constantly on the line. This runs smack in the face of an increasing body of research that links good performance to stability of tenure in bureaucratic systems.

The problem is compounded because the expectations Khan seems to have communicated to his team at the outset were not based on any serious analysis that sought to first identify long-term strategic priorities of each sector and then work backwards to determine what specific steps his ministers should be taking in the first three months to pursue the desired long-term course.

Under these circumstances, the natural inclination of any ministry would be to pile up as long a list of activities and projects as it can to show outputs. How relevant or effective these initiatives may be to long-term strategic goals becomes secondary in this exercise. Instead, there is a perverse incentive to focus on impressing the boss — even at the cost of structurally oriented changes.

Why can’t ministries do both: make short-term improvements even if they are not linked to long-term strategic gains, while separately focusing on durable strategic change? Answer: capacity constraints.

There was a time when Pakistan’s public sector fit the quintessential prototype of weakening, but still functional, institutions. The capacities were mediocre, but you’d always have 20 to 30 per cent of the workforce dedicated to higher outputs. Any time you got a capable minister/head of institution, he’d be able to galvanise these shining stars. No more. The stars still exist, but their efforts are drowned out in a sea of indifference and incompetence. Able ministers and bureaucrats spend all their time picking up the slack and firefighting, with little to no space left for conceiving and implementing transformational changes.

The ultimate fix lies in civil service reform, more modern training of public-sector officials, provision for a cadre of independent experts to join public service to provide strategic thought and underpinning to policies, and a culture of vibrant think tanks to create another avenue for deep policy input. Meanwhile, reducing artificial pressures like proving their worth within 100 days may allow ministries to pay greater attention to the structural problems that beset their respective sectors.

The prime minister has every right to evaluate his ministers regularly. But the exercise needs to be more holistic, with an eye on the ultimate strategic victories, and not just short-term tactical gains. And it should be driven by pos­i­tive incentives for good performance ins­tead of the threat of being shown the door.

The writer is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia.

www.moeedyusuf.net

Published in Dawn, December 11th, 2018