Prime Minister Imran Khan and his party now have the benefit of hindsight gained from two whole years in power. With this benefit, they should ensure that in their third year in government – as well as in the two years subsequent to that – they add to what they have already achieved, do not repeat their mistakes and embark upon some path-breaking initiatives which not only help win them the next election but also address some seemingly intractable problems.
One of the key areas where the government needs to rethink its policies and reshape its strategies is implementation. This government has so many ideas that all look good – at least on paper – but many of them have not been implemented effectively so far. Consider the prime minister’s incentive package for the construction sector and its accompanying idea of providing low cost housing at a mass scale. Or take the case of reforming the civil service. Or the revival of loss-making public-sector enterprises. None of these has even taken off the ground successfully.
This may prompt the government’s political opponents to argue that the failure to make any tangible progress on any of these ideas shows that the ruling party is less serious in putting its ideas into actions. It is, however, electorally suicidal for a political party interested in retaining power beyond its first constitutional tenure to ignore its own flagship ideas or initiatives. So, arguably, it is not for lack of seriousness that the government is failing to provide a befitting momentum to the plans mentioned above. What is it then?
To know the answer, it is important for Prime Minister Imran Khan to analyze whether these initiatives are too ambitious to achieve within a government’s constitutional tenure, or if they require financial resources that the state cannot procure, and how and wherefrom the government can find the right kind of human resources to achieve its objectives – provided it can find them at all.
He should then revisit, review and revise his flagship ideas and initiatives in the light of the answers he gets. This process must include three core components.
The first is a review of policy formulation process and its ingredients. If carried out objectively, this review should apprise Prime Minister Imran Khan if ground realities were really taken into consideration while formulating policies for the implementation of his pet projects. It should also tell him if his aides thoroughly understood the intricacies of the political economy of policy implementation. And, finally, it should inform him if his team identified the potential risks and their possible mitigation measures.
The second component is an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of implementation agencies. This exercise should involve an analysis of their structures, the financial resources available to them and the human resources at their command. If done dispassionately, this should identify gaps in the capacity of implementation agencies.
The third component involves a gauging of governance processes that affect implementation. By governance, I do not mean planning and decision-making. I am, instead, using the notion of governance in a broader sense that includes the way decisions are made vis-a-vis policy formulation and implementation, the capability of the personnel involved in decision-making processes and the relative powers and responsibilities within that personnel, the evidence used in planning and decision-making processes and the mechanism of conflict resolution within decision-makers.
When triangulated, these three reviews should highlight why some of the government’s most important initiatives have not been implemented and what needs to be done to put them back on track again.
Let me explain how this review process should work by focusing on the incentive package for the construction sector and its complementary scheme to build low-cost housing units. In theory, both of these have the potential to kick-start economic activity (read: livelihood security) and resolve the housing problems of the low and middle income sections of society. But one major hurdle standing in the way of the construction sector is that different urban development authorities operating in different parts of the country do not follow a standardized set of rules and regulations.
The greatest obstacle hampering low-cost housing is the availability of bank loans to people. While the government has introduced a number of changes in the way banks assess the prospective house owners and the methodology for the disbursement of loans, the real problem is the need to provide collateral to be eligible for a bank loan.
A tridimensional review of both these initiatives should highlight the lacunae they suffer from. Among many other things, these lacunae consist of gaps and flaws at the policy formulation stage which, for instance, disallowed policymakers from taking into consideration the different rules and regulations concerning the construction sector in different parts of Pakistan. The lacunae also pertain to the lack of executive authority over such institutions as banks which play a crucial rule in both the construction and housing sectors, and the non-existing financial and human capabilities within implementing agencies.
Most importantly, they include the inefficiencies and imperfections brought in by different interest groups who spend time, energy and resources to protect their legitimate and illegitimate interests. The government must understand the importance of avoiding a constant tug of war among different interest groups which is the surest way to ensure any policy’s failure.
To sum it up, the government can start at the very beginning and embark on course correction by putting its own house in order. Without improving the financial and human resources available at government institutions, none of the lacunae mentioned above can be plugged.
But reforming a sluggish, overstaffed and underperforming civil service is much easier said than done. Over the last two decades, there have been two major attempts at reforming the civil service: one under Gen Pervez Musharraf in which lateral entries of technocrats, market competitive salaries and monetization of such benefits as transport and housing were introduced but all that created more problems than it resolved; the second attempt was the 18th Amendment that transferred a huge amount of federal government functions to the provincial governments but even then the size of the federal bureaucracy has expanded since this amendment.
What may give the government some hope in this regard is the fact that it is not alone in the failure to reform the civil service. This, in fact, has become almost a universal problem. In more than 25 countries, governments have established special delivery vehicles called central delivery units (CDU) or prime minister’s delivery units (PMDUs). The most successful among them have clearly defined remits, complete support of the executive authority, a concomitant mechanism for accountability and a lean agenda so that they do not become parking lots for every failing government policy.
In Pakistan’s case, public-sector companies formed by Punjab’s former chief minister Shahbaz Sharif were also aimed at insulating his pet initiative from bureaucratic inertia and inter-departmental conflicts. But he created too many delivery vehicles for too many initiatives which diluted the support of his own office for each of them.
His decision to allow serving bureaucrats to work in these companies on huge salaries created a new set of interest groups which developed their own political economy besides increasing the financial burden on the exchequer. However, Sharif was still able to complete some of his flagship road-building and power generation projects in record time.
While the government can definitely learn something valuable from these experiments, my suggestion is that it should establish a PMDU within the Prime Minister’s Office. The prime minister himself should select a maximum of three ideas/initiatives that this unit should bring to fruition in the next three years.
One of these ideas/initiatives could be to change at least one ministry or department and turn it into a model institution by completely reforming its structure and improving its financial and human capacities. This could then become a precursor for the broader civil service reforms which require a much longer time than this government can spare and a much bigger effort than the prime minister and his party can manage given that there is a lot that they need to fix in many other parts of the polity.
This article was originally published at: https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/707607-rethink-and-reshape
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.