Whether it’s setting up the wealth fund, launching diaspora bonds or improving governance, it will essentially come down to the team entrusted with these tasks. As Imran Khan is gearing up to deliver on his promises, the real question remains who is going to fix the nuts and bolts.

The challenge of hiring the right people will become all the more daunting in the wake of the public-sector companies scandal in Punjab. The Supreme Court case that started with excessive salaries of a few civil servants has now engulfed companies, projects, authorities, foundations and boards across all governments. Even the staff hired from the private sector is being questioned.

In order to fathom the implications of this scandal for the new government, it is important to first understand Shehbaz Sharif’s model of governance that earned him the reputation of a hard taskmaster and delivered ‘Punjab Speed’.

This model was built around a few handpicked young and bright civil servants, who spearheaded the CM’s pet projects and in return were offered autonomy, power, higher salaries, unlimited resources and unfettered access to the chief minister. Private companies were set up to allow them greater flexibility and bypassing the so-called red tape.

While some might be corrupt, majority of these young Turks actually thought that they were champions of change as part of a new governance paradigm, until the whole system came tumbling down.

Three factors primarily contributed to its failure. Firstly, Shehbaz was known to trust his own choice in cherry-picking these bureaucrats and then giving them almost complete autonomy to select their teams and in some cases even the board members. This raised questions about transparency in the recruitment process.

Secondly, the remuneration offered greatly varied across companies and did not subscribe to a government-wide framework, leading to charges of excessive salaries.

Thirdly, these companies worked without an effective monitoring mechanism. Much of the decision-making happened between the CM and the CEOs and in a few cases where boards were more vocal. All the important decisions were later validated by the CM. The public funding provided to these companies was kept out of public-sector project appraisal regime, leading to some poor decisions.

All in all, the system was based on trust in individuals rather than the system. The results are clear. Irregularities in a few companies brought the whole system under intense judicial scrutiny. With many civil servants now returning their salaries, not only has this model failed but it has also left a bitter aftertaste for anyone aspiring to work for the government.

The new government will soon face three fundamental questions. How can talent from the private sector be recruited and appropriately compensated? How to incentivise civil servants to perform better? And how can civil servants’ confidence be restored to work without the fear of undue scrutiny?

There are no easy answers. But firstly, the government will need to revise the MP scales used for contract hiring, allowing higher salaries and more bands. These should then be given a legislative cover, through passing a law.

Secondly, the government should identify the positions for competitive recruitment and adopt a highly-transparent process for induction. Specialised private firms can be engaged to facilitate this process. Civil servants should be allowed to compete for these positions but only after getting leave from the government.

Thirdly, the government will need to undertake civil service reforms, allowing for performance-based promotions and better salaries. Promotions in civil service are generally considered a matter of right based on seniority, which needs to change.

Lastly, the confidence of civil servants can only be improved by encouraging them to fully comply with the law. Any bottlenecks in the system should be removed and not bypassed through creative means, and that is the only way to create a solid foundation for governance.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 14th, 2018.

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