Out of the box

01 Jan 2019


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 has set up an advisory council on foreign policy under the foreign minister’s chairmanship. Last week, I got myself in a tangle by talking up the council’s creation in the presence of a group of senior civil servants. Most of them saw such bodies as futile and duplicative of the bureaucracy’s functions. They maintained that these efforts seldom deliver, pointing to the lacklustre performance of the several other taskforces set up by the PTI government.

To my mind, however, these bodies fill a gaping hole in the policymaking machinery: the absence of strategic thinking and evidence-based decision-making.

Institutional arrangements are supposed to perform two functions. First, they need to create efficient mechanisms for policymakers to make operational decisions on immediate priorities. This represents the day-to-day tasks public officials must perform to keep the wheels churning in any system.

The second aspect relates to long-term strategic planning. Systems must generate intellectually sound, evidence-based analyses that offer a holistic appreciation not only of the here and now but also of the longer-term opportunities and challenges. This requires appreciation of global and local trends and ongoing innovation in a particular field, forecasting and scenario building, and marrying these with domestic capacities and policy options. This strategic aspect must constantly inform the daily tactical choices.

Taskforces fill a gaping hole in the policymaking machinery.

The strategic function is all but absent. Our civil and military bureaucracy is consumed by crisis management. This isn’t necessarily because we don’t have individuals capable of shaking up the system. Their number may be low but they still exist. The bigger problem is that the system presents no avenues to put their intellect to good use. Bureaucrats are rewarded for playing safe. The most recognised are usually ones most effective at doing so. The individuals who seek to innovate may create some breakthroughs occasionally, but they also find themselves at the receiving end of their peers’ rearguard action.

Beyond this, there are no institutional structures or cadres within the ministries set up to perform the strategic function. Nor do we have a culture of valuing think tanks that perform policy advisory roles in many countries. Our public-sector think tanks have traditionally acted as mouthpieces for the state, and private-sector ones are forced to sustain themselves on short-term foreign funding. The public sector also never created hiring practices or serious incentives to lure independent experts to national service. Even the most developed state machineries recognise the need to do so and have created a revolving-door policy whereby private-sector experts can be brought in to serve for limited periods, often in strategic thinking roles that allow them to inject fresh ideas into the system.

All this implies the absence of a culture in our public sector that values or offers space and time for deeper thinking and analysis. The result is that most decisions are based on institutional memory and past experiences and personal views of those in charge. Meetings of decision-making bodies are usually a mix of punditry and sycophancy. Truly stepping out of the box comes at a cost. Policies, therefore, carry a strong status quo bias. Indeed, what we call reform, a mature system would see as mere tinkering. Yet, improving within our presently defined intellectual bounds is not enough. The result is there for all to see: even as Pakistan has improved against most development benchmarks over the years, our peers who have undertaken genuine reform have surged ahead.

Here is where the taskforces come in. While they can’t substitute for the permanent fix of generating space and capacity for strategic thinking and finding ways to create a revolving door for independent experts to serve the public sector, they do offer a valuable interface between officials and experts with the luxury of regularly indulging in strategic thought.

To be useful, these bodies should be constituted to focus on the larger strategic issues confronting the ministries they serve and offer input that helps them identify their longer-term objectives and choose the immediate courses of action. They should not be forums for punditry or critique of the bureaucracy’s performance, much less an avenue for interference in their daily functions.

Looking at the composition of the advisory council on foreign affairs, it’s got the right mix to make its outputs truly useful for decision-makers in the Foreign Office. The experience of the five ex-officials, each of them thinking individuals, ought to complement the research capacity and interests of the several academics who, one hopes, would produce solid work with practical policy prescriptions on issues of focus for the committee.

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


Published in Dawn, January 1st, 2019