The institutional imperative

Published May 10, 2021
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

THERE is national consensus that the institutional capacity of the state has eroded over time and consequently the delivery of public services has deteriorated and fallen short of people’s expectations. Weakening of the instruments of governance has meant that even the most well conceived and crafted government policy cannot be robustly implemented.

A case in point is the challenge of raising government revenue on which hinges the country’s ability to address its chronic budget deficits and establish sustainable macroeconomic stability. Almost every government has declared this as its priority goal. But it has always remained elusive. Lack of political will has of course been a factor but also important is weakness of the apparatus charged with performing this task. Achieving economic recovery and setting Pakistan on a path of growth and investment depends critically on strengthening institutional capacity that can competently raise resources, ensure efficient service delivery and create an environment in which a level playing field is assured to build business confidence.

Transformational change in the apparatus of governance is an imperative, not a choice.

The declining capacity of the state machinery is the cumulative result of several factors. Among these two stand out. One, postponed reforms and two, politicisation of the civil service. Governance after independence required transforming the colonial-era administrative structures to those responsive to the needs of a developing country. For decades this was ignored which left the state machinery poorly equipped to deal with new challenges and out of sync with public expectations. Moreover, the elite that ruled the country had little incentive to reform as its power and privileges derived from maintaining the status quo. Lack of reform meant that the administrative system was unable to keep pace with a changing society and the complex requirements of modern governance.

Read: What does the state really want?

Worse, in the seventies, eighties and nineties, protracted politicisation of the bureaucratic and police system distorted its functioning and involved a number of damaging consequences — erosion of authority, undermining of efficiency and draining of morale. For these reasons the civil service ceased attracting the best and the brightest as it once did. Merit and professionalism were cast aside as both military and civilian governments used state machinery for political ends. Ruling elites failed to see that this kind of sustained manipulation would ultimately leave governments with less rather than more control. Over time the consequences of these actions caught up and left the country with a weakened, unreformed state apparatus unable to efficiently perform its core functions.

This created a compelling need for institutional reform involving a comprehensive approach rather than piecemeal efforts. A systemic problem needed a systemic response. Several commissions for government reform were set up and measures announced at various times but they were isolated steps in select areas and not what was required to make the civil service fit for purpose and people-friendly. Recommendations by the National Commission on Government Reforms, appointed in 2006 during the Musharraf era, remained unimplemented under subsequent governments.

Fast forward to 2018 when PTI came to power pledging to make reform a priority. Its election manifesto acknowledged that past civil service reform efforts were not “able to depoliticise the service, or attract bright young talent on merit, and technical expertise”. The government appointed Dr Ishrat Husain as adviser for institutional reform and set up two task forces on civil service reform and restructuring of government.

This was encouraging and showed serious intent. Dr Husain did an impressive job in casting a wide net for consultations with stakeholders. But subsequently announced measures did not translate into systemic reform. While acknowledging that an integrated approach was needed as different components of reform were interrelated, a patchwork of steps was taken. These addressed some training and performance aspects while other issues, including recruitment and induction, as well as compensation and benefits, are said to be a work in progress. The expectation that provinces would pursue their own reform effort was never realised; no province has undertaken such an endeavor.

The limits of such reform measures were also illustrated by the lack of impact on a key ministry — the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose requirements have changed significantly over the years as foreign policy has become more complex and needs specialised knowledge and new communication skills. It is unclear how many of even the modest proposals accepted by other federal government branches have translated into changes at the Foreign Office. There is little evidence of any change in the training, skill development, working methods and outlook of the foreign service, which needs its own set of reforms to make it fit for purpose.

In March more changes were announced by the government but these did not go beyond dealing with efficiency and discipline rules. What were billed as ‘new’ measures simply converted existing promotion policy into promotion rules. This did not add up to the transformational civil service reform pledged by the PTI government.

Instead of this piecemeal tinkering a comprehensive approach is needed which transforms state institutions to respond to the requirements of modern governance. The interlinked elements of reform should involve the following: fundamental changes in recruitment and training that are predicated on an understanding of the complex nature of contemporary governance, professionalising the service by acquisition of specialised skills and technological know-how, incentivising performance by clear criteria, spelling out measurable deliverables, streamlining decision-making processes to ensure quicker decisions, promoting only the most competent to higher grades and weeding out deadwood and poor performers by severance packages.

Above all, the aim of reform should be to depoliticise the civil service by ensuring merit in postings and transfers, a key element that remains conspicuous by its absence so far. Frequent shuffling of top personnel by ministers and chief ministers exemplifies this. Civil servants should be free of political influence to perform their job rather than be expected to do the bidding of political patrons.

Surveys show that public confidence in government institutions has been in long-term decline. If this is to be reversed governance has to substantially improve and make an appreciable difference in the lives of citizens. Transformational change in the apparatus of governance is an imperative, not a choice.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

Published in Dawn, May 10th, 2021

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