The rusty cogs of policymaking process

BR Research July 24, 2019

Pakistan’s Fisheries Exporters Association is unhappy with the “sudden implementation of fisheries policy without consultation with stakeholders”. According to a report published in this newspaper yesterday, the association’s chairman said the policy implemented without stakeholder consultation has led to fall in seafood exports. This is a recurring complain over at least the last two decades. And while the governments, current and former, are responsible for this, other stakeholders are not exactly exempt from faults.

There is no doubt the state’s machinery is rusty. The capacity of bureaucrats who ought to make policies has been systematically eroding over the last few decades due to reasons both political and institutional. Recall that soon after winning last year’s elections, PM Khan expressed his disbelief over the fact that the finance ministry has been working without a solid team of macroeconomists.

Similarly, insiders at Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) have told BR Research that the last population census was supervised by people who were survey specialists rather than census specialists. Recall also how recent bloopers in the measurement of consumer inflation unveiled the overall poor capacity of the PBS, where institutional knowledge has eroded as old staff has retired without being able to train the new staff.

And this is top government wings; one can only imagine the quality of staff at other government wings, especially in provinces that are tasked to supply the bulk of public goods since devolution. Dr. Qaisar Bengali who has worked closely with Sindh government once told BR Research that the staff at Sindh’s planning department couldn’t even calculate net present value.

But other stakeholders are equally at fault when it comes to policymaking process. When think tanks hold consultative workshops or when universities hold roundtable seminars, the panelists and the discussants from business community and universities do not even come prepared for such moots. Most of them don’t even read the concept note or the purpose behind such consultations. Lunch, networking, and public rants about the issue are perhaps the only motivation.

The organisers, including international development partners, are also guilty of poor organisation of such events. The moderators at such events like to listen to the sound of their own voice more than listening to the participants. The invitees are also poorly selected.

Organisers’ idea of consultation is usually just to tick mark it as a formality that public consultation process was followed. Who to invite and why – are not deemed important. Consultations for decades-old complex issues are to be considered done in a single round of two to four hours – an exercise mostly marked with rhetoric and political statements rather than data and reason. Lots of photos are taken; attendance sheets are signed as evidence of consultation. Mission accomplished!

The private sector is equally ill-organised. Notable players of the sector are not active members of associations and chambers; those who are active – mostly from the SMEs – act more like tribes. If last year, daddy was the chamber president; this year would be his son. And a few years later, ‘chotu’ will take the hotseat. The rents must remain in the family. Who cares whether or not these people are able to effectively contribute to the sector they have been chosen to represent.

The real work is supposed to be done by the secretariat, which is a usually a parking lot for retired private or public sector old hands whose only strength is the knowledge of how the system works. Why invest in research at all; and why make an effort towards a holistic policy when they can protect their rents without it. Then again, how can they research when government data is patchy and poorly kept behind the walls of red tape or national interest.

The academia too lacks a culture of citation – as former Planning Commission head Nadeem ul Haq frequently highlights. It also lacks incentive to conduct sectoral research that can feed into policymaking process. The media on the other hand thinks that they have done their job by filing a press release of the event or taking a politically controversial sound bite from the panelists in such consultations and conferences.

How to fix the cogs of policymaking process? There are no perfect solutions. One very detailed set of recommendations is provided by Haq and others in their recent British Council-funded report on ‘The university research system in Pakistan’. There may be other solutions and models too. But let the debate begin and let’s start cleaning the cogs. Failure will be costly! (See also BR Research’s ‘Everybody knows’ & ‘Living with others’ published Jan 7 & 10 2019).

Copyright Business Recorder, 2019

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