IK’s secret weapon to lift governance outcomes

All ministries have set 15,000 outcome-oriented performance targets for the next two years

M Bilal Lakhani August 08, 2021

Something remarkable is happening in Pakistan and no one is talking about it. All 41 ministries have set 15,000 outcome-oriented performance targets for the next two years, which will be reviewed quarterly by the Prime Minister. About 2000-man hours have been spent on this in the last few weeks alone and the climax of this is to come as each minister publicly signs a performance agreement with the PM. This isn’t a smokescreen; this is a paradigm shift on accountability in a way Pakistan’s hasn’t seen before. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. In this column, I’ll unveil the iceberg itself, which hasn’t been done before and it’ll blow your mind.

First, it’s important to understand the challenge we’re trying to solve for. Pakistan’s permanent government bureaucracy is quite talented but focused on process versus outcomes, to put it politely. Even the acronym CSS, which stands for Central ‘Superior’ Services, communicates a world view and an attitude. Political governments may come and go with different visions but ultimately, the bureaucracy holds the keys to whether real change is felt by citizens. How do you transform the entrenched world view of the bureaucracy to make them more responsive to citizens, without smacking them in public so they stop cooperating?

That is the fundamental conundrum at the heart of Naya Pakistan’s governance goals and performance agreements appear to be one answer. These are the kind of performance agreements that are used in developed countries such as the UK and New Zealand. Here’s how the process works: Each Ministry prepares first draft of their goals and presents to a Review Committee who makes sure that the goals are outcome-driven and not process-driven. The final draft is shared with PM Office and feedback is discussed with ministries. A final agreement is then signed by PM and Minister. Quarterly reviews are then held, including summaries reviewed by the PM personally, to make sure delivery for government’s agenda is on track or corrective action is taken.

This may appear to be a fairly standard corporate performance management system introduced by HR or a slightly more structured step up from the current ACR review process for civil servants. But there are some qualitative game changers which are being seeded in this process which over time will result in a paradigm shift on governance.

First, this process structurally solves for dependency. So previously, a Ministry could say the work is done at their end but stuck at another Ministry. Now these dependencies are highlighted at the quarterly review meetings, which are attended by the four ministries where most work gets stuck (for example, finance). In one case, a Ministry had been waiting for two years for an NOC from another Ministry and they got their NOC immediately following the quarterly review meeting. Second, quarterly milestones and reviews ensure that work isn’t hastily and sloppily done in the last quarter but instead the first quarter review sets the tone for the rest of the year.

Third, work doesn’t happen during the year on the whims of a Minister or a Secretary or headline of the day, but institutional focus and memory is created as even newly transferred secretaries receive the same goals as their predecessor.

Finally, new ideas can be proactively incubated into the work plan by political leadership institutionally and democratically versus exerting pressure.

This is the slow burn, unsexy work of governance which happens behind the scenes but is transformational over time. This isn’t just about PTI but for all future political leadership to energise the bureaucracy to deliver on their agenda and vision. It moves our government forward from running on relationships and headlines of the day to structurally lifting governance outcomes.

There are two more benefits to this. First, the accountability narrative is going to pivot away from the controversy around political victimisation to self-accountability. This is a new breed of accountability Pakistan hasn’t seen before and is a welcome change. Second, this is the most democratic way of doing civil service reform in a developing country. To demand a higher level of service and make the bureaucracy responsive through a constant feedback loop is a leap forward for Pakistan’s democratic culture.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 8th, 2021.

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