The case against technocrats

Published December 19, 2022
The writer is an economist at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. The views here are his own.
The writer is an economist at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. The views here are his own.

IT’S a simple argument: Pakistan’s problems emerge from leaders with poor skills — people who simply lack the knowledge of how to ‘fix’ the various issues that keep Pakistan poor. The solution is to bring people who are experts and give them the power to undertake reforms.

In come people with fancy degrees and years of experience. In 1993, Moeen Qureshi, who hadn’t lived, voted, or paid tax in Pakistan since 1958, was flown in from the United States to lead a technocratic government.

An economics PhD, with an accomplished career at the World Bank and no partisan affiliation within Pakistan, he fit the technocratbill perfectly, but the reforms his administration championed were unable to shift Pakistan’s economic trajectory. Many reforms he did undertake, such as the State Bank’s independence from the finance ministry, were overturned when he left.

More recently, Imran Khan appointed several technocrats, all impeccably qualified, to lead key policy areas: finance, tax, digitalisation, investment and civil service reforms. None could deliver. Some resigned, others stayed in the room but had little impact.

While this wasn’t a ‘technocratic set-up’ like the Qureshi administration, it borrows from the same logic that the key knowledge that matters most to drive reforms is subject-specific (it is theoretical, technical) rather than about the underlying political economy that leads to certain policy choices in the first place. Knowing how to build a data system is prioritised over understanding the incentives of people to use or not use the data.

Outsourcing reforms to technocrats takes away the incentive for political parties to build up capacity to lead key reforms.

But in practice, reforms are a political process, rather than a purely technical one. Technical appointees often lack the necessary knowledge of the coalition building needed to navigate a reform process or have the political capital to push a reform agenda.

Politics is neither random nor secondary, but the principal factor in any public policy reform process. Imran Khan’s tax reforms would have been more likely to be successful if led by Nadeem Afzal Chan, rather than Shabbar Zaidi.

It isn’t the lack of technical expertise that restricts Pakistan’s economic growth or governance ambitions. It is because politics doesn’t allow for pro-growth policies. Technical expertise can be built where politics is conducive to reforms, but where politics isn’t conducive — technical expertise can’t achieve much.

Take tax reforms: for decades we have broadly recognised that we don’t raise enough taxes to pay for public services. Research has been done, commissions have been set up to recommend changes, but without any improvement in the system.

It is because the government’s inability to expand taxation is political. Whenever there has been an attempt to expand taxes to retail or real estate, it’s the political cost that has been unable to manage, not that it is technically impossible to do so.

The obsession with outsourcing reforms to technocrats also has wider implications. First, it takes away the incentive for political parties to build up capacity among their political leadership to lead key reforms. If politicians are going to always relinquish their seats on the table, how will they learn the basic technical aspects of various reforms?

Second, it undermines the democratic control over public policy, even during the years when Pakistan is a nominal democracy. It takes away responsibility from elected governments and gives it to unelected officials, who can ignore or override public preferences while politicians can delude accountability.

Third, as Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson point out in an excellent 2013 article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, seemingly technical policy choices often have unintended political consequences — for example, when even well-reasoned policies end up strengthening an already powerful group or lead to instability. This demands a wider understanding of the politics of the country, rather than a narrow technical lens.

One example they discuss in the paper is of president Joseph Saidu Momoh of Sierra Leone, who, on the advice of experts, undertook reforms in the 1980s which included austerity measures.

While this was the right technical policy, it undermined the president’s ability to maintain stability as the country’s system of distributing benefits, such as through government jobs, weakened. He changed strategy in the early 1990s by moving to directly take over the diamond mines in the country’s east. This, probably, helped fuel the subsequent civil war in Sierra Leone.

Fourth, when technocrats drive reforms, it is natural that the reform process would end up focusing on technical aspects of reforms instead of the underlying structural issues that create the incentives for poor policy choices in the first place — treating symptoms, rather than causes.

This doesn’t mean that technocrats don’t have a role in public policy. They do. The government should leverage technical expertise to shape effective policy design, critically learning from the evidence of what is working and what isn’t.

One way to do this is by bringing in technocratic expertise specific to policy levers, such as has happened in the central bank, where such expertise can be recruited where needed. More useful would be reforming the bureaucracy so more technocratic expertise is built in-house.

But reforms must be fundamentally owned by politicians themselves, who understand how political coalitions can be built, can be held accountable for their actions, and can put policy advice in a wider social, political and historical context.

When Moeen Qureshi was asked about why he accepted the premiership, he said: “There were things that I could do for the country which were difficult to do from a political point of view — and people had not done them for many years.” But ignoring the political point of view didn’t work then. It won’t work now. The technocratic dream is what the name suggests — a dream.

The writer is an economist at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. The views here are his own.
Twitter: @ShahrukhWani

Published in Dawn, December 19th, 2022

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