The case for planning reforms in Pakistan

Published: March 31, 2015
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The writer is a Cambridge graduate and is working as a development fellow at Ministry of Planning, Development and Reforms. He tweets at @c1ue

The writer is a Cambridge graduate and is working as a development fellow at Ministry of Planning, Development and Reforms. He tweets at @c1ue

The task of infrastructure planning in Pakistan that is performed by the Ministry of Planning, Development and Reforms requires dealing with considerable uncertainty arising from complex interactions between stakeholders — with different and sometimes conflicting political, social and economic agendas. As many megaprojects have long time frames (five to 10 years), the scope of these projects often has to change due to emerging social and technological requirements — not to mention changes in priorities of the next elected government.

Unfortunately, the Planning Commission’s current project management methodologies (PC I-V) do not account much for scope creep, which is a very common phenomenon even in corporate projects, where often multiple disrupting factors that planners do not account for, arise and which later contribute to the development programme’s failure. Even in case of an early scope creep problem, the project manager is forced to rewrite the entire PC-I or somehow ignore the changing dynamics altogether. When the next regime takes over with its own vision, the project is put on hold as even small changes in the original project plan means going through this hectic exercise again.

What is the unintended result of this? Ministries are reluctant to take on new project initiatives unless there is a push from the top. Every year, millions of dollars meant for development are left unspent by government institutions. Governments like to pursue only those short-term projects, which they can complete within their tenure. With such a mindset, Pakistan can’t expect to achieve the targeted GDP and development goals set in its Vision 2025 document.

Federal minister Ahsan Iqbal has given his team members the mandate to revamp the Planning Commission’s processes as well as initiate civil structure reforms to remove the obstacles which impede growth. The infrastructure planning department is looking into the success stories of planning processes in the UK, such as the newly established Major Projects Authority in that country. The Planning Commission is keen to adopt a portfolio approach towards planning and project management in the public sector and is considering the best practices in project management. However, the ministry should be cautious that it does not merely ‘copy-paste’ a successful foreign model. It should adopt an incremental approach towards reforms with a stakeholder consensus on a ‘common denominator’.

Clearly, project digests (PC-1) do need to employ sustainability assessment frameworks as policymakers want to know the cause and effect relationship between actions — projects or policies — and whether the results move society towards or away from sustainability. Project outcome benchmarks need to be significantly improved with a holistic view. They should be oriented towards performance and not effort. For example, the project board should not be measuring a school’s expenditures to assess its performance but rather it should measure student achievement. The quality of risk analysis has a lot of room for improvement as even for billion-dollar projects, the project managers are not required to include best/worst case scenarios and sensitivity analysis of any sort.

In a nutshell, stakeholder management and a bottom-top approach remain critical challenges in project management processes of the Planning Commission. The nature of the problem should be treated as dynamic instead of viewing it through an old-fashioned static prism and modern project management best practices (such as PMP, Prince2, NASA/ESA models, CMMI) should be made part of the ministry’s process suite. For performance benchmarking, the ministry may consider opting for Minnesota Milestones, which is a citizen-based planning and accountability tool with a scorecard containing 20 broad goals and 80 specific milestones. This model was a huge success in the state of Minnesota, USA. Online publication of project contracts and a quarterly report on the progress of major projects is imperative to ensure transparent reporting.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 31st, 2015.

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