RED ZONE FILES: Can PTI audit the bureaucracy?

Published July 29, 2021
In this photo, Prime Minister Imran Khan chairs a meeting of the federal cabinet. — Photo courtesy PMO
In this photo, Prime Minister Imran Khan chairs a meeting of the federal cabinet. — Photo courtesy PMO

There is a sense of muted elation among the PTI high command. The comprehensive victory in Sialkot on Wednesday and in Azad Kashmir elections, while not really surprising, has provided the party an optical booster shot at a time when it needed a politically virile adrenalin hit. Somewhere deep in the bowels of the Red Zone, some very powerful people are sporting some very big smiles.

The source of these smiles is not just one event, or one electoral victory, or one growth figure, or even one popularity survey — no, none of these on their own — but in fact the source is an organic mushrooming of perceptional belief that PTI is finally ascendant as a government. It is a belief rooted partly in the leader’s destiny, partly in the series of fortunate events that have enabled the unstable ship to navigate into calmer political waters, and partly in the inability of the opposition to present itself as a viable alternative.

Beliefs are hard to challenge, even if they are nourished by weak evidence. PTI today feels its ascent is being fuelled by both: the belief itself, and the evidence of it. Which may or may not be true, but it has over the last few months started to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The PTI believes it is back on a winning streak — perish the thought of the Punjab disaster — and it has started to act as if it is almost near the victory lap. This has injected an element of vigour and enthusiasm in its performance. The party is catching its stride and visualising another term in office. The thinking men and women in the PTI have dissected the ingredients of their present confidence. Discussions with numerous such people distill into the following reasons for PTI’s revised swag: 1) Prime Minister Imran Khan is the ‘only option’ for the top office; 2) PML-N is in a leadership mess; 3) Establishment is not flirting with anyone else; 4) Governance woes are subsiding, and; 5) Allies have no real reason not to remain allies for the next term.

Delusions? Perhaps. But what matters the most is that these perceptions — cemented further by the victory in Sialkot and AJK — are making the PTI ratchet up its act of governance and amplify its image as a party that is best suited to win the next elections. A glimpse of this uber-confidence can be seen in big event that is going to take place in August.

Read: 'Absolutely not' is not just a statement, it is an attitude that the PM is wearing on his sleeve

Shehzad Arbab is the architect of this event, and of the policy that is the foundation of this event. As special assistant to the PM (SAPM) on establishment, this former bureaucrat wants the work of all the federal ministries to be measured in targets and outcomes. No more vague commitments and no more lofty promises wrapped in good intention and not much else. He is having none of that. So in the August event, Prime Minister Khan will sign an agreement with all his cabinet ministers on a document listing specific performance targets to be achieved in the next two years. A grand total of 41 ministries and divisions have committed to these targets. The work that has gone into preparing these documents has been rather intense — nearly 2,000 hours in the last ten weeks.

It is an interesting project, and it reveals various contours of the approach that the PTI is adopting to showcase its performance at the end of its current five-year term. Last year all the ministries had set one-year targets that totaled a little more than 6,000. This year the two-year targets (2021-23) will number nearly 15,000. Shehzad Arbab has stitched together an elaborate structure for the workflow in order to lock the ministries into performance commitments. It looks something like this:

All the 41 ministries are required, through the minister and the secretary, to list out specific performance targets they plan to achieve. The secretary and his team then present these targets in front of a high-powered committee. Called the Peer Review Committee, it is supervised by Arbab, chaired by deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, and includes secretaries of finance, establishment, cabinet and planning. This committee gives the approval for the list which is then shared with the Prime Minister’s Office. The current process will end tomorrow (Friday).

A key element formally identified, recognised and acknowledged through this project is the multiple ‘dependencies’ that ministries have on other ministries to get work done. So in typical fashion, the ministry justifies the lack of work, or the slowness of it, by saying that the file is stuck with the other ministry for approval. As it turns out, the level of these ‘dependencies’ has now been quantified and the numbers say that more than 30 per cent of all these ‘dependencies’ relate to five key federal ministries: Law (9pc), Finance (8pc), Cabinet (7pc), Planning (6pc), and Establishment (3pc).

The Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) recently had an interesting meeting to present targets in front of the Peer Review Committee in the PMO. Arbab chaired the meeting while deputy chairman of the Planning Commission Jahanzaib Khan reviewed the FBR targets with a sharp eye. The Excel sheet of targets was displayed on a projector screen and an SAPM aide kept updating the listings and comments as the meeting progressed.

FBR Chairman Asim Ahmed went through the initiatives one by one and faced cross-questioning both from SAPM Arbab and Jahanzaib Khan. Dawn was specially invited to sit in the meeting. One FBR target said the project would be “rolled out” by a certain date. Jahanzaib interjected: “Roll out is not quantifiable,” he said. “It needs to be ‘implemented’ by the date.” The wording was changed. The FBR official then mentioned plans for an “E-Hearing room” to be launched one-by-one at various locations. Jahanzaib asked why it could not be launched simultaneously. The FBR official gave some explanation which was not found satisfactory. The target was changed for simultaneous launch. Yet another initiative revolved around improving a certain in-house process. The deputy chairman of the Planning Commission objected with a relevant point: “Back-end process should not be a target, end-user facilitation should be.”

Only a bureaucrat can detect bureaucratic jargoning. One FBR official said 20pc of corruption complaints against the FBR were pending while the others had been addressed. This may have sounded impressive to a layman but Jahanzaib asked what the actual number of complaints was. Turns out it was 127. “That’s it?” he asked. “The volume is too low.”

At 15,000 though, the list of targets compiled for the next two years is anything but low. Shehzad Arbab believes the ministries will have no choice but to deliver on these targets because they are now documented, agreed upon and will be signed between the PM and the minister. “The PM will take action against those who do not achieve what is committed,” says an official involved in the process.

Getting the bureaucratic machinery to start churning out result-oriented work is not easy. But with no real pressure from the opposition, and growing confidence from its stable position, the PTI government seems confident it can actually show the people that it can — contrary to popular perception — actually govern.

Published in Dawn, July 29th , 2021

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