ON March 25, 1948, the Quaid-i-Azam set the tone for public servants, and in a single breath raised the bar for the quality of public service and public sector governance in Pakistan. The young republic had barely become independent yet, in Quaid’s mind, the spirit of the moment called for a new purpose: “Maintain highest standards of honour, integrity, justice and fair play,” he advised public officials. That seven-decade-old message and the country’s resilient spirit are still relevant and must now drive Pakistan’s vision towards the status of an upper middle-income country by 2047.

Developing countries, the world over, have made progress under far more difficult circumstances than Pakistan. From Singapore and Malaysia to Rwanda and Vietnam, reforming countries have had to overcome significant geographical disadvantage or the effects of decades of debilitating conflict.

Today, these countries have summoned the spirit of nationhood, transformed their governance arrangements and are strategically placed to better turn these disadvantages into forces for healthy transformation. Singapore has now emerged as a growth hub, a pale shadow of its inauspicious start. Rwanda is increasingly shaking its dark history of conflict and turning a corner, largely because of a focus on a developmental state model. In both countries governance and institutional transformation has been a central focus.

Three paths to transformation

If Pakistan hopes to improve its growth prospects, the country must focus on reforming its governance standing, otherwise the road to 2047 will be long and uneven. What needs to be done is clear: to achieve rapid institutional transformation, for instance, Pakistan would have to surmount a few hurdles. Policy makers and political leaders would have to deal with the large government workforce, including many unskilled staff in lower cadres. Pakistan needs a significant effort to improve revenue collection, especially through stronger enforcement of tax policy, to be able to expand the state’s ability to finance its programmes. Altogether, significant reforms would have to be undertaken to improve institutional quality, strengthen business environment and improve accountability.

Pakistan will need to be both accountable democracy, where democratic leaders are held to account for their performance, for delivery and for corruption — and a strong one, where democratic leaders can do their job without constantly being on the defensive

First, Pakistan must deepen devolution. The 18th Amendment provides a strong basis for deepening administrative, fiscal and political engagement at the local level. But the promise of the 18th Amendment is only half fulfilled; federation to province devolution is yet to be matched by province to local level decentralisation. Empowering local level institutions — through stronger devolution — to undertake essential administrative and service delivery functions closest to citizens would help reassert the place of the citizen in the body politic. Devolution would also require facilitating smooth networking across the provinces and among the districts, thereby strengthening the transfer of resources to these levels. For devolution to be successful lingering shortcomings, including capacity gaps, performance management voids, unequal opportunities and political empowerment of local level institutions, must be addressed in the short to medium term.

Because the provinces vary in economic and capacity endowments, progress towards decentralisation of service delivery in some provinces is uneven. Existing institutional arrangements for result-oriented coordination on policy formulation and implementation at federal as well as at provincial level are insufficient and under-utilised. Energising the Council of Common Interests and fully activating the Inter-Provincial Coordination platform between the center and the provinces is required to realise the benefits of devolution and help forge a national consensus for accelerated development.

Second, the quality of institutional performance must improve to support the government’s aspirations and improve efficiency. This would require merit-based recruitment of skilled professionals and commensurate remuneration to attract and retain high caliber candidates into the civil service. Focus should be placed on the performance measurement aspects of civil services. New skills on efficient implementation, performance measurement and citizen interface must be injected into the civil service to modernise the public sector to take advantage of innovative technologies for solving public policy challenges. For example, civil servants need new attitudes of citizen-focused service delivery and management techniques to create more service-oriented bureaucratic practices. Strengthening technical competencies of the public administration through modernisation and technology diffusion is necessary for improving the quality of service delivery and to turn the public sector into a growth driver.

Third, Pakistan must deal with capture of the state by patronage interests. Inefficient subsidies provided to industrial players and lack of enforcement in tax collection as well as inability of the state to shepherd difficult but necessary reforms is a product of state capture. Elites influence public policy choices with significant consequences. Elite capture of various segments of the economy undermines the country’s ability to sustain welfare enhancing policy decisions, tackle the problem of tax evasion, rein in loss making state-owned enterprises and improve public sector performance.

Fixing these problems will no doubt be a difficult task. All these challenges require balancing the desire for political stability while increasing accountability. Pakistan will need to be both an accountable democracy — where democratic leaders are held to account for their performance, for delivery and for corruption — and a strong one, where democratic leaders can do their job without constantly being on the defensive. This is a tricky line, as the history of institutional reforms is replete with reversals. This is however, possible given the experience of other countries that have been able to marshal the support of their political class, policy makers and citizens to generate the commitment for reform and long-term development policy. But, accelerating the pace of growth will require long-term political focus and stability and the kind of ethos that the Quaid-i-Azam imagined nearly seven decades ago.

Raymond Muhula is a member of World Bank staff and Syed Rizwan Mehboob is a consultant

Published in Dawn, March 23rd, 2019

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