PAKISTAN is a classic example of dichotomy. And the social sphere is not beyond the same reproach — we treat others as we ourselves don’t want to be treated. This is true for all strata of society — from immediate family to clans to national leaders. Two recent examples push this notion firmly into the spotlight.

The first incident took place when Special Assistant to the Chief Minister (Punjab) Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan was visiting a Ramazan bazaar in Sialkot. She got angry with Assistant Commissioner Sonia Sadaf after some buyers complained about the poor quality of food that was being sold and the administration’s lack of interest and intervention in the matter to make things better. The grapevine suggests that it was also due to missing protocol for the special assistant. Words were exchanged with the assistant commissioner getting the sharp end of the sword. Every adjective was captured by news channels and put on social media.

The second event occurred when Prime Minister Imran Khan took the whole foreign service to task at a virtual meeting of envoys — which was broadcast — for the poor performance of certain embassies and consulates. This videoconference had been preceded by some diplomatic staff — including the ambassador and six other officials — being recalled from Saudi Arabia. The prime minister stressed on the need for change and the fact that such a system could only work in the colonial era of the British Empire and not in the current era of Pakistan. He further said that the two big roles of embassies and consulates abroad were to serve the Pakistani diaspora and to bring foreign investments into Pakistan. On both counts, they were found lacking!

It is a given that the bureaucracy is there to serve the best interests of the people. After all, they are called public servants. Any remaining ‘babu mentality’ of the British Empire needs to fully change in order for public servants to start serving the people efficiently. But is it fair to tar every public service officer with the same brush of incompetence and arrogance? No, it is not. Just as it is not fair to tarnish the image of every politician by accusing the latter of being foul-mouthed and of indulging in vile conduct. There are able and compassionate persons on both sides of the aisle — in the bureaucracy and government — who strive hard to work for the benefit of the public. Admittedly, things can always improve. But even if there are certain cases where a rebuke may become necessary, it need not be done in plain sight. Doing that — humiliating officials in public — reinforces the paradigm of missing the forest for the trees because it negates the same behaviour that is being encouraged widely and also because it ignores the majority and focuses on the minority.

Even if a rebuke becomes necessary, it need not be done in plain sight.

The rationale behind censuring someone behind closed doors is rooted in the old English adage to ‘praise in public, criticise in private’. Any leader worth his or her salt needs to bear this in mind. While there can always be a reason to scold people in public, it should always be used as a last resort because history has shown that it will almost always be counterproductive. It is more so true because motivation born out of fear — for example, the threat of dismissal or public naming and shaming — can perhaps stop bad behaviour occasionally but it will never encourage good behaviour perpetually.

Handling performance-based issues is always a difficult balancing act. And the latest examples are no exception. The PTI government has come in with a mandate for change and it needs to ensure that its policy of managing the bureaucracy — and any other entities for that matter — is different from that of other administrations of the past.

For that to happen, a three-step approach is to be heeded. One, as much as possible, scold faulty performances in private and only go public when all else fails. Two, stop bad behaviour using fear motivation but in parallel encourage good behaviour using reward motivation ie use the stick and carrot in equal measure. Three, be wary of stereotyping a community such as the bureaucracy. These people go through a lot of hoops to get to where they are. Do all of them work with a ‘public servant mentality’? No, and that is where improvements are needed and should definitely be sought.

Moreover, the ‘forest for the trees’ paradigm requires a holistic approach. Something that should not be limited to the scuffles that have been described above. It needs to be evolved and extrapolated in every facet of government because only then will Prime Minister Imran Khan be able to claim that he is indeed different from his predecessors.

The writer is an author and director programmes for an international ICT organisation.

Published in Dawn, June 9th, 2021

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