Treadmill doctrine

Published July 19, 2021
The writer is a student of global public policy issues.
The writer is a student of global public policy issues.

THE framing, advocacy, implementation and oversight of public policy is a primary governmental responsibility. One would think that with all the institutional machinery and resources at their disposal, governments would shoulder this responsibility to good effect, yet globally, governments of all ilk find this a heavy cross to bear. Pakistan is no different.

Pakistan’s public policymaking has long festered amidst an insalubrious mix of weak capabilities and weaker institutional linkages; jurisdictional turf battles; and a polity consumed by a misplaced sense of prioritisation that places policy below expediency. The latter has led to political leadership ceding power and responsibility for policymaking — at various times and in varying degrees — to a coterie of bureaucrats, development partners and IFIs whose influence on public policy is often disproportionate to their capacities and invariably shaped by their individual and collective biases and motives.

In the absence of political leadership, technocratic preference for a reductive, ‘projectisation’ approach prevails, substituting policy with projects, and cladding nearly all policy space in security narratives. The result is a litany of policies sans resources; reforms anchored neither in conviction nor vision; and a sapping, persistent tension between political responsibility and realpolitik.

The 18th Amendment has added a layer of complexity, empowering provinces to frame policies across a vast domain, and leaving the federal government forever scrambling to claw back control over policy mandates. The provinces, meanwhile, habitually struggle in their policymaking role, finding refuge in adopting or adapting federal policies both old and new, either because the intricacies of crafting policy are beyond their institutional capacities, or simply because it’s convenient.

The circular path of Pakistan’s policymaking is worrying.

In a country whose political and governance structures are complex as they are large, and where legal clarity over functional jurisdiction is often besmeared by administrative fiat, achieving coherence and coordination on policy issues is difficult at best. Devolution has heightened this challenge. Conflicting policy signals and weak policy advocacy therefore abound. Exception to this scenario exist but are rare.

Grave as all the challenges are, they pale when weighed against two other failings that befall Pakistan’s public policy space: one, it is exclusionary; and second, it is circular. A policy emerging from a process deliberately bereft of the perspectives of stakeholders who stand to be impacted by it and which intentionally shrinks the scope of discussion, puts into question its legitimacy, severely reduces its credibility, and casts a shadow over its intent. Diversity of views, deliberation on content, and debate over direction lie at the core of a good policy development process. Their disavowal perpetuates the elitist hold over the nation’s fate.

The circuitous and circular path Pakistan’s policymaking takes is even more worrying. The continuous dash for ground zero once a policy has been framed, is akin to running on the treadmill: you expend energy, believe you have covered distance, but you are actually in the same place. This ‘treadmill policymaking’ and the suspended reality it represents, vitiates the effort and expenses made, and the public expectations raised.

The ongoing moves to shred the 18th Amendment and NFC Award, and the persistent schemes for disembowelment of autonomous local governments, are just a few examples of this treadmill policymaking doctrine. It also foments institutional inertia, kills initiative, and shuns innovation. Economy struggling? IMF-bailout time, plus calling in more favours from friends. Institutions failing? Twiddle with their structures, rather than their functions, even though it did not work the previous 10 times. Exports uncompetitive? Renew and exp­and crutches such as GSP-Plus. SOEs haemorrhaging even more heavily? Patch them with even more subsidies. The list goes on.

This treadmill effect of never moving forward; deploying rusted ideas on repeat; focusing on process rather than outcomes; and the inability to keep pace with the dynamic contexts in which public policy is framed, is a betrayal and violation of public trust. If citizen’s aspirations, potential and expectations are to be addressed, leveraged and met, Pakistan’s policymaking has to untether itself from security-focused narratives and wriggle out of the yoke of the technocrat; link to more progressive, people-centred agendas; create more spaces for civic engagement; practise more cooperative federalism; and its political leaders need to stop playing the same anthems on loop. Sounds like a wish list, but a start has to be made.

It is time to get off the treadmill.

The writer is a student of global public policy issues.

Twitter: @fbmoriani

Published in Dawn, July 19th, 2021

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