Building competence

August 09, 2019

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The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

A WHILE back, Princeton economist Dr Atif Mian, through a Twitter poll, had asked people if they thought corruption or lack of competence was the bigger issue in developing countries. Sixty per cent had said corruption was the bigger issue. Dr Mian, though saying that a competent world without corruption would obviously be the best, had cast his own vote in favour of lack of competence as being the bigger issue.

I take this as a point of departure for this article. Competence is not just about individuals. It is about organisations and institutions as well. Having the right and most competent person at the right place is clearly very important. But having systems around people that provide them with the right laws and frameworks and align their incentives in the right way is also very important. In fact, it might be even more important than individual issues.

A recent recruit in one of the tax departments of the country was complaining to me that she is embedded in a system where she has no degree of freedom to do what is right. Irrespective of whether the system is corrupt or not, though it is, her entire effort is aligned towards meeting her tax collection targets alone. This, on the face of it, would seem to be the right alignment but actually it is not. Tax collection is a target for sure. But the bigger target, for the government and the country, is growth and expansion of businesses in the country. Extracting the target amount, by hook or crook and by using all sorts of coercive means, is not going to set up the optimal tax collection system and tax machinery in the country. Her incentives as well as the incentives of the tax machinery are misaligned. And though her competence is being judged on whether or not she is meeting her targets, it is leading to an extremely incoherent and misaligned tax machinery for the country.

Take another example. What do we want our schools to do? Teach children and to ensure that when these children leave schools they have certain skills, certain knowledge, understanding and abilities. Are the incentives offered coherent when it comes to learning? Clearly, they are not. Our assessments (examinations and tests) do not test for understanding. The incentives offered to teachers are not about learning. They might be coherent regarding attendance and fulfil a whole lot of bureaucratic and administrative requirements, but they are certainly not so where learning outcomes of children are involved.

Competence is not just about individuals. It is about organisations and institutions as well.

In the past 15-odd years we have implemented deep reforms in education systems across the country. Corruption and nepotism have been minimised in teacher recruitment in at least two provinces. Teacher salaries and career paths have been improved. Rather strict and comprehensive monitoring and accountability systems have been introduced. There have been changes in curricula and books too. We have introduced new examinations at various levels. Governments are claiming that, again in most of the provinces, the problems of ghost schools and ghost teachers (corruption) have been addressed. But learning outcomes, according to most datasets that are available to us, have remained more or less flat. What explains that?

Organisational and institutional coherence and competence might be a major explanatory variable here. For the school education departments, there is no coherence around learning — just as for the tax department: there is no coherence around facilitation.

In a recent conversation, Dr Asim Khwaja, who teaches at the Kennedy School at Harvard, suggested that we should think about productivity more seriously. We should make ourselves and our organisations and institutions coherent around productivity gains. This, it seems, is again a nice point of departure. We need to think deeply about what productivity and gains in productivity mean for each individual, department, organisation and institution.

For a business, it might mean expansion in production, given resources, higher quality, more variety, innovations, higher exports, and so on. For a school or education department, learning outcome gains clearly need to be included as a major element. For a tax department, there will be revenue targets but these will have to be medium- and long-term goals with regard to business facilitation so that revenue growth becomes a focus area as well.

Competence of an individual, organisation or institution could be judged through the lens of productivity enhancement. But this requires deeper discussions of what higher productivity means for each unit, individual or organisation, and what we want to increase productivity for. If this could be achieved then competence could be judged in ensuring there is coherence around productivity enhancement of that objective. This would, as an aside, reduce the space for corruption too, but the main objective will remain productivity enhancement.

If schools are what we are talking about then student learning is important. Department rules and regulations should be changed to be coherent around learning. Teacher recruitment, posting, transfer, career paths, and incentives should be aligned around this. Head-teacher responsibilities and powers will have to be aligned with the objective in mind. Assessments have to be about learning competencies, and so on for the entire system and environment in and around schools. Competence can only be judged effectively if the entire system is configured in this way. Otherwise, it is hard to see what the conversation on competence can be about.

There is definitely a need for a new narrative in Pakistan. I feel the narrative cannot be about the corrupt practices of all past and present politicians, generals, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs, farmers and so on. Each of them stands implicated, and there is no way forward from there. Competence of individuals, organisations and institutions, built around productivity enhancement, might be a better way forward and a better narrative. Hopefully this is something useful for the powers that control narratives in Pakistan to think about.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, August 9th, 2019