Reform the bureaucracy to save Pakistan

Reform the bureaucracy to save Pakistan

Pakistan’s new Prime Minister, Shehbaz Sharif, has outlined two key areas of focus to address the country’s economic challenges:

Economic stability: He has acknowledged the need for another long-term bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to stabilize Pakistan’s fragile economy. However, he also vowed to eliminate Pakistan’s dependence on the IMF and work towards economic self-sufficiency.

Immediate economic recovery plan: He has prioritized Pakistan’s economic revival, focusing on tax relief, fiscal policy and business support.

This plan reflects the prime minister’s commitment to address Pakistan’s economic and security challenges. However, the success of this initiative depends on the effective implementation and cooperation of various stakeholders.

To begin with, the new government has set up a number of high-powered committees tasked with developing a plan that will eventually become the road map going forward. Committees are often not the fastest and most optimal way to achieve a plan.

As the American humorist Milton Berle said, “A committee is a group that keeps minutes but loses hours.” Let’s hope the PM committee doesn’t lose too many hours as the clock is ticking for Pakistan.

Even so. When this plan appears, it must be implemented. And here is the problem. The executor, of necessity, must be the Pakistani bureaucracy. The way this building is currently structured puts the task of execution far beyond his ability, or for that matter, his desire. So perhaps the first order of business is to reform the bureaucratic setup.

There are two basic problems with this setup. One of them 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 the brightest.

So who is a generalist? In our public service, you will meet people from different backgrounds. They have various educational qualifications; arts, science, engineering, medicine, education, economics, and so on.

Applicants must pass a difficult exam. A few who passed the test were inducted into Pakistan’s civil service and sent for training at government-run institutes. Here they receive a fairly general education that focuses on how government works. They are told that when 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. One day he may run the finance ministry and next the petroleum ministry, or health, or transport or aviation.

None of which he knew much about but had been tricked into believing that he did. This is a generalist. He may have had some relevance in the past but today he has become a dangerous anachronism that stands in the way of good governance and progress.

Contrast this with the private sector and you will see that it is a mirror image. Applicants are recruited whose educational qualifications match the discipline in which they will work throughout their career.

he enables them to know their particular field from the inside out. And to keep up with the current of rapid change in today’s world. This is an expert.

So the first change that must be made to the public service is that it must recruit and train specialists for each ministry. Those who will work, for example, in the ministry of finance, must have finance, economics or business as their first degree.

Their training, once they are recruited, should focus on finance. And then they have to spend their entire career in the finance ministry. This way government people will know as much about finance as the private investment bankers sitting across 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 brightest from Pakistan’s colleges and universities would be at the top of their list of employers of choice, believe it or not, the Government of Pakistan.

Those who cannot cut government jobs find work in the private sector. Could Pakistan have progressed the most in those halcyon days because we had the best and brightest running the country?

Here’s the basic principle: If you want the best people, you have to pay for them. The best and smartest reason we now go to the private sector is that they get paid more. Much more. Sometimes the difference can be confusing.

The Secretary of the Ministry of Finance may have a package that is sometimes a tenth or a twentieth of that of a bank CEO. Why then would any smart and intelligent finance graduate want to work for the government?

So here’s what needs to be done: The salaries of government employees must be increased tenfold or more if necessary. This will come at a high cost. Some would say too high for a poor country like Pakistan. But the fact may be that the costs will be dwarfed by the gains in good governance and the elimination of incentives to engage in corrupt practices.

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

The recipe for Pakistan’s success and stability is simple: Find the best and brightest for Pakistan’s civil service, make sure they are experts, and that they spend their entire careers in the ministries they are trained in, and pay them on par with the private sector.

In the end it’s really 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, no number of committees will save us from ruin.

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