Going undercover

Public-sector employees are stuck in moribund entities where service and efficiency have long ceased to be goals.

Robin Fernandez September 08, 2010

Imagine for a while if Pakistan was to have its own version of “Undercover Boss”, a US reality television show, with either the chairman or the managing director of each public sector firm going into the trenches and attempting to learn from what is wrong, or rarely right, in their organisation. Unlikely as it may sound at least in the Pakistani context, the idea of the railway chairman, Samiul Haq Khilji, shedding his three-piece suit for the uniform of a ticket collector or a platform guard at any rail station is bound to prove instructive. Even if he were to spend a couple of days on the platform or on one of his trains he would find out exactly why the Pakistan Railways is a loss-making enterprise. (Assuming of course that he is reform-minded and wants to bring about a turnaround.) And it is likely that he will learn more from that experience than what any probe commission or 100-page sectoral analysis could ever tell him. That is how much local and international bosses are out of touch with what makes their institutions function.

While the original American show offers corporate heavyweights the opportunity to reward the unsung heroes of their businesses, it is likely that the desi version would be preoccupied with lifting the lid on the deadbeat workers and slackers that inhabit offices in the notoriously-inefficient public sector.  So, instead of a chief executive handing out franchises or bonuses to the pride of  their staff, one might see the sight of local top executives  spotting the bad eggs in their organisations and hand them the pink slip. There would probably be an awful lot of workers let go, because of low productivity, poor work habits and chronic indulgence in graft.

This is not to say that all public-sector employees are indolent, inefficient or even corrupt. It’s just that they are stuck in moribund entities where public service and efficiency have long ceased to be goals. While going undercover as low-level employees, a Pakistani executive or the postmaster-general for that matter would also find a fair number of honest and near-indispensable workers (yes, even in the post office). The primary challenge for a local boss is to identify those workers from the rest of the pack, see what it is that makes them tick and ensure that conditions never get too stifling for them to want to quit. Usually such workers display a triumphant attitude, remain unaffected by day-to-day workplace constraints and concentrate on getting the job done to the mutual exclusion of all else — traits that should endear them to their employers.

So the subsequent challenge is to find a pool of staff with similar work habits and attitudes and deploy them in strategic places. There are several other advantages of installing a senior executive in an entry-level position. As uncovered by the producers of “Undercover Boss”, the reality show offers an opportunity to bridge the gap between employees and the senior management/leadership. In the US context, many bosses begin to understand from then on why decisions at the executive level fail to anticipate consequences downstream. Understanding those consequences makes for better managers. Without submitting to the glare of television cameras, local executives could emulate the basic premise of this show and interact with their employees and try and foster deeper, more meaningful engagement in the workforce. While the value of that interaction, even if it translates into mere visibility on the factory floor, is not enough to make a public corporation succeed, it will certainly help reform it and prepare it for success.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 9th, 2010.


Meekal Ahmed | 11 years ago | Reply There is no alternative to letting around 40% of them go with a fair severance package -- in each PSE. We need to stop deluding ourselves into thinking there is another way to restore the PSE's to profitability. No one else has found a way; we are unlikely to do so either.
Dr Qaisar Rashid | 11 years ago | Reply A good article! It is babo-ism vs. work culture. One of the reasons of business success in Japan is that a manager sits among the subordinates/workers in the office.
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