Written By: Dr. Sania Nishtar
The government has a key role to play in addressing the plethora of challenges faced by the country – but systemic challenges pose significant performance constraints. Recognition of these constraints is the first step to mitigation. However, there is a general tendency to overlook the difference between 'manifestations,' 'causes,' and their 'determinants'. In Pakistan’s context of governance, the latter often remain unrecognized and therefore, unaddressed.
Pakistan's issues – extremism, militancy, terrorism, sectarian ethnic strife, organized criminal activity, informal economy, cycle of debt, societal polarization, energy crisis, widening inequalities, poor economic and social indicators – are all ‘manifestations’; just as a person with cancer will have fever as a symptom of underlying disease.
The actual cause is the systemic malaise, which undermines prospects for improvements: poor governance, eroded capacity of institutions, institutionalized corruption, and lack of attention to accountability and transparency. With a view to outlining ‘determinants’, I am offering some reflections from my tenure as Federal Minister in the 2013 Interim Government. These reflections relate to the systemic constraints, which in my opinion, stand in the way of effective governance and hence hamper the government’s performance. The frame of reference is government ministries and the issues highlighted are of a long-standing systemic nature.
My key observation relates to expectations regarding the government’s performance, which matters deeply since it determines the context in which all societal actors operate. Paradoxically, I noted that governments are simply not set up to perform. In setting up and running the government, the focus is on all attributes – elections, installing leadership, cabinet selection, and key appointments – except those that matter for its performance. As a result the government’s wide ranging strategic functions, which could provide a scaffold for national progress and development are compromised. In this regard, I found three key features missing from the performance equation – incentives, accountability and performance metrics.
Lack of appropriate incentives leads to underperformance. Rigidity of compensation is one aspect but perverse incentives, illustrated for example in the tendency to reward bureaucrats for furthering political allegiances, are more damaging. Additionally, there are serious gaps in performance and decision-making accountability. Functionaries are simply not answerable for performance. As a result, policies have limited grounding in evidence, priorities are determined by political expediency, the policy-action disconnects remain unaccounted and unnecessary policy vacillations, detrimental for reform, go unchecked. Many upright government functionaries of integrity navigate this space with great difficulty. The system just does not empower them to take control fully. On the other hand, corruption, collusion and arbitrage have become deeply entrenched. In many cases these have become the system itself. Many government departments extract rents and distribute them according to well-established shadow ‘rules’, which now govern the de facto functioning of departments.
These performance distortions get compounded by human resource competency and capacity constraints. Ministries are meant to formulate policy, set strategic direction, establish enabling frameworks, exercise impartial oversight, evenly regulate, and provide a level-playing field for private actors. Where policymaking is concerned, governments are not fungible. Policymaking and public interest are their core roles, but they must have capacity to take stock of the full range of responsibilities inherent to their mandate. Competency is crucial at the leadership level to comprehend this mandate.
How is it then that the system often places a leader in a public agency without appropriate understanding of these stewardship roles? Imagine a company with a CEO who doesn’t know the job, one who doesn’t have goals to deliver on and one who is also not accountable. What simply never happens in the private sector is the norm in the public system. With policymakers unable to understand their mandate, functionaries tangled in tactical decision-making, information systems underutilised and pervasive perverse incentives, we set government up perfectly to fail.
Another performance distortion is the absence of objective performance metrics – these are simply not part of the organizational culture in ministries. Government functionaries usually do not have a clear sense of delivery with no clear terms of reference and measurable operational targets in the context of overall goals for a sector. The lack of accountability for actions or inattention to needed actions within the system is most damaging. The central thread in each of Pakistan's problems is rooted in lack of accountability – because individuals and institutions have deliberately been inattentive to oversight and/or have opted for policy directions to the detriment of desired outcomes.
Compounding these performance distortions is another unrecognized factor. A popular misconception is that the government is one entity, which is not the case. The government (even at one level – federal or provincial) is an archipelago of many ministries, agencies and departments, with overlapping jurisdictions and / or competing interests. There is little incentive to work together, share resources and exploit synergy. Ironically, solutions to most public sector problems lie in intersectoral action. This creates a twofold imperative.
On the one hand governments need new competencies to tap the potential within intersectoral collaboration – such as intermediary agencies. On the other hand, new instruments and incentives are needed which can enable asset allocation mapping and foster collaborative division of labour. It is within this frame that metrics for whole of government performance assessment should also be developed with clarity on the manner in which sectors contribute to overall performance.
Unfortunately, the deepest governance reform to date, the 18th Amendment to the constitution was unable to address most of the causes of government’s underperformance despite the broad-based changes it introduced in the entire state system. Some urgently needed next steps are an imperative to enhance government performance. These should focus on institutionalising rule-based control on government functioning and rooting out politicization and arbitrariness.
There are three potentially important immediate entry points: respect for merit, close attention to conflict of interest and a shift towards e-filing in the government’s documentation system.
First, integrity in public service forms the bedrock of good governance. Although integrity is envisaged to be an attitude, there are means of structurally inculcating it such as by developing systems of compensation adequate to sustain appropriate livelihood, systems for transparent hiring and promotion, and mechanisms to provide appropriate oversight of discretionary decision-making. While it is important for the government to work towards strengthening these systems, some urgent actions are needed. Merit-based hiring and intolerance for nepotism, cronyism and patronage are important measures.
Secondly, in the affairs of the state, conflict of interest matters deeply and is one of the key ethical questions in governance. A conflict of interest is a situation “that has the potential to undermine the impartiality of a person because of the possibility of a clash between the person's self-interest and professional interest or public interest.” It is well recognized that often policymakers have business relationships in sectors where they are charged with policymaking responsibilities, raising conflict of interest concerns. These need to be actively regulated and managed. However, as opposed to this, I noticed that rules regulating conflict of interest are not explicitly defined. The code of conduct for ministers alludes to the need for separation, but exact modalities need to be established and enforced.
Thirdly, transparency in government documentation can be an important entry point to reform government functioning. The government's e-office suite, which is a customized application for management of the government's existing filing system, has existed for over eight years. It has met all the scrutiny criteria, including audit and was previously used by many ministries and attached departments. Not only can this system make the government's process of moving files more efficient and tamper-proof relative to the current system being used, it can also help to gauge workers' performance and help institutionalize accountability by virtue of its time stamping features. Despite its potential, the e-office suite is not optimally used. One of the most straightforward measures the government can take is to mandate its deployment in all government departments. This will be a significant step in promotion of transparency.
Collectively these measures, along with a culture of evidence based decision-making, electronic public expenditure tracking and procurement, better oversight of discretionary powers and effective use of existing audit tools are critical entry points to reform which could enhance government’s effectiveness. We must also appreciate that democracy, understood in the conventional sense – popular vote – is not a sufficient condition for good government, per se. In order to be truly democratic, elected governments need to embrace democratic values, doctrines, and behaviours. Institutional democratic attributes, which promote checks and balances and rule-based control on government functioning along with individual democratic behaviours – participatory evidence guided decision-making – are critically important in this respect. Majority rule without these attributes is likely to be abused, as has been witnessed in the past. We must set the building blocks right, so as to pave the way for tapping the country’s inherent strengths and unlocking the potential of its people.