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Pakistan should overhaul bureaucracy to bring change

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By Nadeem Qureshi

Imran Khan was sworn in as Pakistan’s prime minister last month. No one will disagree that he has been handed a poisoned chalice: a ballooning budget deficit, collapsing exports, depleting foreign exchange reserves, raging unemployment, and spiralling inflation. The Prime Minister has inherited a set of problems that will test his mettle to the limit.

These are early days and it is of course too soon to expect results. But by this time some broad outlines should have emerged about how he’s going to remake the country to emulate the Riyasat e Madina (the promised land).

This has not happened yet. What has happened is that the new government has set up a number of high-powered committees tasked with developing plans that will eventually become the road map to the promised land. Committees are often not the quickest and most optimal way to get to a plan. As the American comedian Milton Berle put it: A committee is a group that keeps minutes but loses hours. Let’s hope the PM’s committees don’t lose too many hours. Naya (new) Pakistan is earnestly awaited.

Be that as it may. When a plan does emerge it must be implemented. And here there is a problem. The implementers, will of necessity, have to be Pakistan’s bureaucracy. The way this edifice is now structured puts the task of implementation well beyond its capability, or for that matter, its desire. So perhaps the first order of business is to reform the bureaucratic setup.

There are two basic problems with this setup. One is that all our bureaucrats are ‘generalists’. And the second is that they are not compensated at a level that would attract the best and brightest.

So who is a generalist? In our civil service you will find people with varied backgrounds. They have a broad range of educational qualifications: Art, science, engineering, medicine, education, economics, and beyond. Applicants must pass a tough examination.

The few who make it through the test are enlisted to the civil service of Pakistan and sent for training at a government run institute. Here they receive a fairly general education focusing on how the government functions. They are told that once they graduate they can run any government department. This is the crux of the problem.

In our system a civil servant is rotated over his career from one ministry to another. First he may be running the ministry of finance and the next may be the ministry of petroleum, or health, or transport or aviation. This is the generalist. Such practice may have had some relevance in a bygone age but today such practices have become dangerous anachronism that stand in the way of good governance and progress.

Contrast this with the private sector. Applicants are recruited whose educational qualifications precisely match the disciplines in which they will work for the rest of their careers. This allows them to know their particular field inside out. And to keep abreast with the rapidly moving pace of change in today’s world. These are the specialists.

So the first change that must be made to the civil service is that it must recruit and train specialists for each ministry. Those who will work, for example, in the finance ministry, must have finance, economics or business as their first degrees. Their training, once they are recruited, should focus on finance. And then they should spend their entire careers in the finance ministry. This way the government man will know just as much about finance as the private investment banker sitting on the other side of the table. He, or rather Pakistan, will not be taken for a ride.

The second problem is compensation. There was a time in the 1950s and 60s when the best and the brightest from Pakistan’s colleges and universities preferred to work for the Government of Pakistan. Those who couldn’t make the cut for a government job sought work in the private sector. Could it be that Pakistan progressed the most in those halcyon days because we had our best and brightest running the country?

Here’s the basic principle: If you want the best people you have to pay for them. The reason that our best and brightest now head to the private sector is that they get paid more. A lot more. Sometimes the difference is mind-boggling. The Secretary of the Ministry of Finance may have a package that is sometimes a tenth or even a twentieth of a private bank CEO. Why then would any bright and sensible finance graduate want to work for the government?

So here’s what needs to be done: Salaries of government servants must be raised ten-fold or more if needed. This will come at a high cost. Some will say too high for a poor country like Pakistan. But the truth may well be that the cost will be dwarfed by the gains in good governance and the removal of incentives to engage in corrupt practices.

And if proof is needed look no further than Singapore. The government there pays its bureaucrats at par with the private sector. Its bureaucrats are recognised as the best in the world. And this is why Singapore, once a shabby, dilapidated backwater port, has now become a shining city upon hill.

The key to achieving naya Pakistan is simple: Seek out the best and the brightest for Pakistan’s civil service, ensure that they specialise and spend their careers in the ministries for which they are trained, and pay them at par with the private sector.

In the end it’s really all about people. Put the best people in charge and step out of their way. This is what we in Pakistan have failed to do. And until we do this, there will be no tabdeeli (change).

(Nadeem Qureshi is the founding member of Mustaqbil Pakistan politicial party-Courtesy Khaleej Times).

This has not happened yet. What has happened is that the new government has set up a number of high-powered committees tasked with developing plans that will eventually become the road map to the promised land. Committees are often not the quickest and most optimal way to get to a plan. As the American comedian Milton Berle put it: A committee is a group that keeps minutes but loses hours. Let’s hope the PM’s committees don’t lose too many hours. Naya (new) Pakistan is earnestly awaited.

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