Technical experts

November 16, 2019

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THERE is little doubt that the government is in dire need of technical expertise to help navigate decision-making in an increasingly complex world. The case of LNG imports, to take one example, clearly demonstrates that there is a great deficit within the bureaucracy of the kind of technical knowledge required to effectively enter and operate within global LNG markets. The examples are, in fact, innumerable. From effective design of a policy framework to attract investment in petroleum exploration to management of public health hazards, the list of areas where the government requires specialised technical skills is very long indeed. That is why a new plan to induct technical experts into government service effectively as a layer above the Grade-22 federal secretaries has garnered much attention. There can be no doubt that the plan aims to plug a real deficit, but the question is, whether this is the right way to go about it.

Some questions immediately arise after even a cursory look at the proposal. How will these ‘technical experts’ interact with the federal secretaries and the larger bureaucracy that is already gearing up to resist the move? It is one thing if their input is given directly to the minister concerned. But if they are expected to have command over the bureaucracy below them, then the plan will clearly struggle to find traction. That is how it is in the US from where this particular idea draws its inspiration. In the US, the undersecretaries of state are brought in by the presidential administration as technical experts who work directly in policy implementation. Transplanting that model over here, though, has its own problems — as the government will soon learn if it works to advance the proposal.

The biggest weakness of the plan, however, is in how it seeks to create a shortcut for what is a deeper problem. We have an outmoded bureaucracy whose very training runs against the grain of specialised, technical knowledge. This was alright in the colonial era, when the chief task of the district collector was to keep the peace and ensure the collection of revenue. It does not work in the 21st century where the government has to increasingly operate in specialised fields. Creating an additional layer, Grade-23, above everybody else will not address the fact that below the technical experts will be the same people. In many cases, above the technical expert will be ministers who are also clearly unfit for their post. One wonders what sort of contribution a technical expert will make in the railways, to take one example, without any change at the top. In essence, the plan tries to address a real problem, but does so in a purely cosmetic way. Perhaps a little technical expertise could be helpful when drawing up such proposals in the first place.

Published in Dawn, November 16th, 2019