The institutional imperative

Article by Maleeha Lodhi published in “The News” on 28th January, 2014.

The eroding institutional capacity of the state has emerged in recent years as one of the most critical challenges facing the country. This has affected the performance of the core functions of state and is most tellingly reflected in deterioration in the delivery of basic public services to citizens. It is also indicated by Pakistan’s tumbling position in the global rankings on governance indicators. 

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would have discovered by now that while he enjoys substantial political power, his governing ability is constrained by weakening of the instruments of governance, which has taken place over decades. This means that even the most well thought out policies cannot be effectively executed at a time when the government is confronted with imposing, multiple challenges but also growing public impatience.

Institutional strengthening and civil service reforms should be an integral part of his agenda if governance is to improve and be upgraded. Dr Ishrat Husain also persuasively made this point in a recent article in Dawn. Husain headed the National Commission for Government Reforms (NCGR) set up in 2006 and which submitted its report in May 2008. Its wide ranging and sensible recommendations remain unimplemented.

So far reform of the apparatus of governance has not figured high on the government’s agenda. Yet the ability to enforce policy goals requires enhancing the capabilities of government institutions and equipping its personnel with the skills, expertise, professionalism and competence necessary in today’s complex setting. It also requires addressing long-neglected issues of training and morale in the public service.

Nothing makes this more compelling than the government’s goal of achieving an economic recovery and setting the country on a path of growth and investment. This is critically dependent on a robust institutional and implementation capability that can meet challenges to law and order, raise resources efficiently, ensure service delivery and establish an environment in which rule of law is enforced and a level playing field is assured to encourage investment.

It is hard to see an economic turnaround materialising in the absence of these inter-connected variables. Lectures and admonitions cannot talk government machinery into shape any more than exhortations can cajole the business community into investing. Similarly, toughly worded directives to law-enforcement personnel will not restore order.

The country’s systemic problems need systemic responses. Today this challenge manifests itself in many ways: in the state’s weakened capacity to raise resources, guarantee security to all citizens and impose its writ in every part of its territory. In other words, the performance of the most fundamental functions of state has come into question. Urgent corrective actions are needed when the state cannot effectively exercise its unique powers to tax, to prohibit, to deter, to punish, to uphold the law, maintain a monopoly over the means of violence and to promote public goals.

A vicious circle seems to have taken hold: declining public confidence in the effectiveness of state actions has led to greater non-compliance with laws and tax measures and mounting challenges to the state’s writ. This has resulted in further shrinking of state authority.

The state’s declining ability to deliver basic services has inevitably led to crumbling public faith in state institutions. A series of public opinion polls have indicated how people’s confidence has continued to plummet. In its report the National Commission for Government Reforms acknowledged the rise in negative popular perceptions of government departments and personnel. It referred candidly to the “negative image of civil servants in Pakistan” and “a high level of dissatisfaction with the functioning of the ministries, departments, corporations and agencies of the different tiers of the government.”

The compromise of merit and professionalism in the civil service has over the years corroded its morale, eroded its authority and sapped its capacity and energy. All this is the cumulative consequence of a number of factors. This goes beyond the failings of any single government, but to which successive administrations may all have contributed in some measure, either by exacerbating institutional weaknesses or ignoring the need for reform.

Two sets of factors have been responsible for driving the country to this sorry state of affairs, which began to take hold from the early seventies onwards. The first has to do with the consequences of postponed reforms. Unwillingness to transform what were essentially colonial administrative structures to those responsive to the changing needs of a developing society, made this machinery increasingly ill equipped, out of touch and even dysfunctional to the needs of modern governance.

Moreover while society underwent profound changes, the instruments of rule remained in the hands of those who sought to uphold the status quo, skewed the system to privilege entrenched elites and used state assets as patronage to distribute to networks of their supporters. This hobbled the capacity of the state to respond to the needs of the wider public and set limits to the administrative structure’s ability to keep pace with changing realities.

The second set of factors emerged during the seventies and eighties and continued thereafter when successive governments sought to put the state machinery to political uses. The prolonged politicisation of the administrative and police system to serve partisan ends distorted its functioning and brought about damaging erosion in its authority, efficiency and morale. The compulsion to please political patrons rather than perform their real task seriously undermined merit and professionalism in the system.

All of this spelt disaster. But both civilian and military administrations who practiced this failed to see that persistent manipulation of what once provided the ‘steel frame’ of reasonably effective administration would ultimately give governments less rather than more control. It was a matter of time before the inescapable consequences of these deleterious practices caught up with the country.

In the absence of any institutions of restraint, another pernicious process set in motion was the utilisation of state resources – land, credit and ‘development’ funds – to set up venal networks of dependency between those who ruled the country, politicians and the administrative apparatus. State patronage drained the public exchequer and also spawned an official culture in which such malign conduct was tolerated, even deemed acceptable.

Today the weakened capacity of the state apparatus has reached crisis proportions. Acknowledgement of the urgency of reform is the first part of a solution. Rebuilding capability and restoring public trust is no easy process. There are no short cuts or quick fixes along the way. Institutional reforms entail wrenching changes in the way government agencies think and act and a complete overhaul of entrenched systems of patronage. It involves the virtual reinvention of the administrative and law enforcement system. There is much to draw on from the 2008 report of the NCGR to launch such a process.

Even small steps to initiate this process can build public confidence and set off a virtuous circle. A reform strategy has to involve framing and enforcing rules and norms that create incentives for state organs and officials to operate in the public interest, while establishing institutional restraints on arbitrary executive actions.

Devising reforms is only part of the challenge. The other, while instituting these reforms, is countering the opposition of those concerned with preserving the administrative status quo. That is why a comprehensive approach has to integrate a re-empowerment strategy with policy reforms to neutralise the power of interests likely to oppose reforms.

The price of postponing reform of the state machinery is blindingly obvious. But even bigger costs may loom: lawlessness and disarray jeopardising prospects of both economic revival and restoration of domestic peace and security. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif must know that while the power he has offers an opportunity, it does not guarantee success.

The best of intentions and the most wellcrafted policies can be thwarted by institutional weakness and the lack of a competent and responsive civil service. That is why the government should review the recommendations of the NCGR and prioritise key ones for parliamentary debate as a serious step towards their implementation.

The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.

Twitter: @LodhiMaleeha

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