The vision given in the manifesto of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) mentions effective government with merit and responsiveness as one of the guiding principles of the party. The former chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), in his maiden speech, had vowed to improve governance by setting out clear goals, timelines and key performance indicators for public servants. He was vociferous in declaring that processes would be shortened so that people could see their jobs accomplished within the minimum possible time. As a fallout, many civil servants who were perceived to be hurdles for the promised brave new world were transferred every now and then. Similarly, when Mr Arbab Shahzad took over as chief secretary of K-P, he in his maiden speech, had also declared to his secretaries that he needed flyers and not mediocre ones for ushering change, though ultimately he himself became a casualty amidst his charge sheet against the then chief minister. In his enhanced role as one of the pivots of the civil reforms committee and the author of PTI’s 100-day action plan, Mr Shahzad vowed in his interview on a TV talk show to steer the ship in the right direction. Mr Azam Khan, another chief secretary, also expressed almost similar resolve and even linked terrorism with governance problems in the anti-terrorism strategy. Interestingly, all three gentlemen are occupying policymaking level positions of the highest level with the collective power of transforming the administrative machinery for the good of the people.
Governance has, no doubt, assumed central position in the discourse about public administration in the contemporary era. It is defined as the capacity of the government to make and implement policy, in other words, to steer society. Good governance means efficiency and effectiveness, better living conditions, access to basic social needs like health and education, social justice, respect of merit, transparency and accountability. While governance related problems are well documented in the case of developing countries, Pakistan stands out prominently in terms of the magnitude of the problem. As PTI had made good governance its highest priority, everyone had rightly associated very high hopes in witnessing dramatic changes.
The popular perception generated by the general public’s interaction with government officials in various departments is rather of disappointment and disillusion. Things appear to be more or less the same or have even further deteriorated. Almost all departments are suffering from inertia, irresponsiveness and adhocism. This is something that I am not stating on secondary evidence but rather I have myself witnessed firsthand by my interaction with the Cantonment Board spanning almost a year. What I have learnt is that in this age of information technology, the government offices still work without the use of Management Information System of any sort. Correspondence and files are moved at the whims of the lower ministerial staff. The movement is conditional upon physical contact of the applicant, while the file takes months to make its journey from one table to another. The heads of officials appear to have neither set any goals, timelines or key performance indicators nor do they carry out any inspection to check the performance of the subordinate offices.
Within the governmental structure of Pakistan, Cantonment Boards appear to be separate islands. Fifty years ago, like other cantonments of Pakistan, areas falling within the limits of Peshawar cantonment were simply eye-catching, whetting the aesthetic appetite. Today, unfortunately no such areas exist. Apart from the vanishing greenery, constructions in parking areas and conversions of parking basements into commercial buildings, no area of administration can boast of any meaningful output. My experimental knowledge suggests that in cases of the transfer of property either from an old grant to new lease, it takes a long process of about two years. The general trend is that an applicant has to run from pillar to post in the various offices such as those of the surveyor, tax collection, engineer, etc. At no stage can the file move without making endless visits to these offices.
I have experienced the same sloth-like behaviour in the maze of a plethora of offices which one finds in government departments that have civilian bosses. Stories of officers misplacing files or sitting over them are often heard and I experienced it firsthand in my interaction.
If the government really wants to improve the quality of life of the citizen, the advisers and team of reformers must conduct a few case studies at the grassroots level. No meaningful change will occur unless the quality of the ministerial staff is improved, and an integrated system of computerisation is in place to digitalise maps and surveys, and file tracking is augmented with a robust system of inspections. Strict timelines for completing a task must be given to the officials in all government departments.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 25th, 2020.