Institutional strengthening?

Updated 17 Dec 2018


The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

A RECURRING theme during the PTI’s seven-year-long election campaign was the importance of strengthening institutions. The accusation was that overt centralisation, rule by fiat, and failure to accord autonomy in decision-making were hallmarks of the last two governments, and in particular of the PML-N in Punjab. The outcome is hollowed out structures, which remain deeply politicised and dysfunctional. In other words, there is a crisis of state capacity perpetuated by overt politicisation.

The PTI’s diagnosis of Pakistan’s ailing state capacity is largely correct. Decision-making is often beholden to political (rather than a needs-based or planning) calculus, which, in turn, is tied to electoral or rent-seeking considerations. This is true from taxation policy at the federal level, to how land is used and allocated by provincial governments, to how local community infrastructure is planned by district governments.

Years of compromised logic dictating government functioning have eroded bureaucratic capacity in myriad ways. Foremost, civil servants have become wilful (or unwilling) collaborators in various rent-seeking projects. In many instances, they even become pioneers, using policymaking levers to accrue personal enrichment and other advantages for themselves.

Years of compromised logic dictating government functioning have eroded bureaucratic capacity in myriad ways.

The other major indicator of institutional decay is the general decline in quality and coherence of state functioning. In an ideal-type Weberian bureaucracy, an order issued from the top would be implemented as is by, to borrow a phrase from Joel Migdal, those in the ‘trenches’. For example, if the secretary of the irrigation department wants to enforce strict penalties for water wastage or theft, these would be implemented wholesale by the field staff. Fair to say Pakistan is many degrees away from any such ideal type. At various points in the bureaucratic chain, a simple lack of competence and technical know-how, or the encroachment of private/political interests at various tiers of the bureaucracy, would undermine the process of implementation. This is one of the main reasons why a considerable gap exists on what’s promised or conceived on paper, and what the state actually does.

On paper, the PTI government’s stated response to such deep-rooted problems has been somewhat incoherent itself. In one of his first interactions of any kind, the prime minister promised a large assembly of senior bureaucrats that he would protect them from political interference and the egregious excesses of the National Accountability Bureau. They would thus be given autonomy to carry out their jobs unhindered. This is the model that was apparently adopted in the much-heralded police reforms for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as well.

On the other hand, various arms of the PTI government have also issued statements talking about grave consequences for bureaucrats who do not comply with government orders. There has also been talk of summary removals from service and other forms of punitive action, which do not seem to be in line with existing rules and procedures.

The picture becomes murkier when the government’s actual track-record in office is taken into account. Just in the first four months or so, there have been several major instances of bureaucratic shake-ups on what are ostensibly non-policy related grounds. These most prominently include the DPO Pakpattan, DC Gujranwala, and IG Islamabad cases, as well as a host of others that have not commandeered national media attention.

Also missing from the conversation is a discussion of how wide the institution-building net should be cast. Publicly saying that bureaucratic capacity will be improved by providing autonomy is an important first step, though one that has yet to see any action towards it. However, what happens to institutions that are designed to provide political decision-making, oversight and accountability? Contemporary thinking in economic and social development is clear that institutions need to be inclusive and responsive to public needs. In Pakistan’s parliamentary system, this is designed to be done through institutions of representation — elected bodies at different tiers, and elected decision-makers. What is the PTI’s plan on that front?

So far, it seems those are the kinds of institutions that have not come up on the strengthening agenda. The most egregious case is that of the National Assembly, where government indifference and intransigence have led to zero progress on any formal legislative agenda. Four months into its term, standing committees still stand vacant, which means there is no formal mechanism for the opposition or non-cabinet government legislators to provide their input in law or policymaking or hold government functionaries accountable. If a small coterie of political elites were running the show in the last government, the situation does not appear to be that different now.

The second case is that of the office of the chief minister in Punjab. Here we have an example of a party that promised institution strengthening, only to appoint a chief minister who party supporters and functionaries often publicly state carries no independent say or political authority. He is said to be beholden only to the prime minister, which suggests overt centralisation and an undercutting of the institutional mandate of the office. Simultaneously, a collection of shadow chief ministers who hold a range of other offices are busy setting up their own fiefs, telling everyone willing to listen that they’re the ones running the province. This is as clear-cut an example of institutional muddying and incoherence as any that one can find in the country today.

PTI partisans will argue that a political government should have the right and the flexibility to push through its own development agenda and utilise any means necessary for it. However, for the purposes of institution strengthening, the grounds for such flexibility need to be made clear in terms of governing principles rather than on the basis of as-yet opaque preferences and the whims of one leader at the top. Otherwise, while their rhetoric may be distinctive, their actions would be a repeat of what the country has seen under nearly every previous government.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, December 17th, 2018