Is PTI able to manage its shop?

BR Research September 2, 2019

In October 2018 PM Imran Khan said he “was surprised” over the absence of macroeconomic experts and other subject matter specialists at the Finance Ministry. Ten months onward, the situation is little changed. Except for overnight hiring of the finance minister himself, who is a trained economist, important offices at the finance ministry, planning commission (and its think tank PIDE), commerce ministry, and FBR are still lying vacant. This is just one of the many examples that the PTI is unable to manage its shop so far.

If the finance ministry still does not have professionals in its budget and external finance wing, then the commerce ministry lacks economists whose input can be fed into trade policy decisions. Likewise, the seat for economic policy member at the FBR is also vacant, and so is the seat of chief economist at the Planning Commission.

Recall that the position of chief economist was first advertised as a one-year contract post and later advertised again on a two-year contract, without giving due consideration to the fact that no competent economist, of which there is a shortage in Pakistan, will leave his or her current job for a two-year contract in an environment where people could be fired overnight. The story of overnight removal of chairman SECP, which should be a tenured position, and chairman SECP’s policy board (albeit the latter has been reinstated) serves as a discouraging reminder for market professionals that the government needs to attract to public service.

Consider also the case of the hiring of VC of Pakistan Institute of Development Economists (PIDE), Planning Commission’s think tank; the position is also an ex-officio member of Planning Commission. Not only the selection process of VC PIDE started late, but after the selection was finalised by the selection committee, the final approval was left pending for months at Prime Minister’s office, and then at President’s office.

BR Research’s sources say that now after about six months of delay, that job will be advertised again since there were some legal issues in the selection process. This makes one wonder how could a search committee comprising of ministers, chairman HEC, and PM’s advisor on institutional reforms, couldn’t spot the legal issues at the very outset, and likewise how could the PM office not spot those issues before approving the file and forwarding it to the president office. This series of blunders demands an explanation from the search committee.

When the PTI came to power, its leadership sold the promises of good governance to be brought about through civil service reforms, and by putting an end to corruption. A year later, despite repeated advice and warnings by PTI’s friends and foes alike, they have remained gung-ho on the anti-corruption drive, as a result of which both businesses and civil servants have been hesitant to take decisions.

Thankfully, though it is still soon to place all bets, a principle decision has recently been taken to amend NAB’s laws so that they can’t use the hard hand of the law on businesses. Law Minister Farogh Naseem is also reported to have yielded to the requests to protect civil servants from unnecessary accountability by NAB. Reportedly, there will now be a separate mechanism routed through a high-powered committee that will act as a wall of insulation between the civil service and the NAB.

As for civil service reforms, there isn’t much of progress to report. That’s partly because the PM’s task force for civil service reforms isn’t exactly a well-oiled machinery mechanism. Two senior members have not been attending the task force meetings for months on account of serious agreements with the ideas on the table, whereas another senior member was against its very terms of reference.

Other reasons for want of progress include resistance by mid and junior level bureaucrats from whom the government has been unable to gain a political buy-in. As a result, the cabinet has decided to let go of the idea of whole scale reforms and instead resorted for piecemeal tweaking through notifications.

This includes changes in selection process of CEOs for key public sector enterprises; a secretaries committee for inter-ministerial coordination; appointment of technical advisors to ministers; and a roadmap for e-governance. However, fundamental areas such as change in organogram to decentralize or to reduce the power of secretaries as principle accounting officers haven’t been rolled out as yet. Nor has a clear roadmap of civil service reforms with key milestones been presented by government or by its task force on civil service reforms.

Civil service reforms are absolutely critical to bringing change in Pakistan. Poor civil service machinery is the reason why the government is forced to form a CPEC Authority because it could not ensure better coordination between relevant ministries and departments in the current framework. It is also the reason why the minister of energy Omer Ayub frustratingly said last week that there are “black sheep in the ministry” as an excuse for slow pace of reforms. And it is also the reason why a small time official at the FBR blocked textile refunds in late CY18 despite a clear decision by the cabinet to make those refunds.

It is often said that a good politician is one who can sell promises to the public at the time of elections, and then later sell the reasons why he wasn’t able to keep those promises. A party that has come to power on huge promises with a holier-than-thou approach, would need to have really great politicians if they are unable to keep their promise come 2023.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2019

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