People are totally confused about the economy. One way of looking at the economy is that it is the aggregate of all economic decisions taken during a certain time period. If the government is run on archaic principles with poor decision-making, don’t expect great outcomes for the economy. The process of human resource management in the government is at the heart of the slow growth in our economy.
All appointments in Pakistan’s public sector are highly centralised. The refrain is that we cannot trust appointments to be decentralised as this may result in poor quality appointments and possible corruption. Meanwhile, the principle accounting officer of all governing bodies of public sector enterprises remains the secretary, who meddles in and vitiates the authority of the board and the chief executive. The result is that we have a system of diffused responsibilities and as a result, no clear goals or business plans emerge in any organisation.
Why, then, do we cling to this system when its results have been atrocious? Public sector enterprises have been badly managed and are bleeding at over Rs500 billion annually. Educational institutions continue to be poorly managed and most government non-profit organisations, as well as regulatory agencies, are treated as parking lots for retired bureaucrats. All board and senior appointments everywhere are made directly by the prime minister (PM). Positions lie vacant for months, even years. Files are sent to the PM’s office, where they wait for months.
Then there is the fiction of advertising and interviewing candidates for all positions. Who conducts these interviews? The secretaries. It is not surprising that these advertisements produce no serious appointments. Serious professionals do not want to be treated poorly; to be subjected to an interview by non-professionals, to wait to hear from the PM’s office for months and then learn that some retired bureaucrat was preferred for the job. And if you do get the appointment, you will never have any independence, since the secretary and all manner of people will interfere in your work. And, of course, the PM has arbitrary authority to fire you at will.
The fiction in all countries is that we serve at the whims of the chief executive. But in reality that is not true. President Obama cannot fire people at will or transfer them from Utah to Nebraska on whim. Recall when his administration was being set up, there was a panel of staffers who were ‘recommending’ serious candidates and if commentators are to be believed, Obama had a limited say in the process.
There are some appointments the chief executive does not even get into. Prime among these are vice-chancellors and professors who are appointed through systems in academia without involving the government or its functionaries. Public service entities should be run like any other company by their boards and held accountable to their bottom line.
It is time that the human resource management (HRM) of government jobs was taken seriously. The fiction of the PM making all appointments may be preserved, but the PM must not get involved in anything beyond choosing his ministers. The rest of the system has to be developed such that serious professionals can be brought in and not be totally subservient to secretaries. Indeed, the secretaries’ grip over the system needs to be loosened.
Better HRM is the key to development and we must learn that. The US has led the world by developing an HRM system that attracts the best talent from all over. It is ready to pass a new immigration bill primarily for this purpose. Our archaic system must change!
Can we expect good outcomes from a system that is so poorly managed?
Published in The Express Tribune, December 13th, 2013.