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EDITORIAL: Speaking at the groundbreaking ceremony of a 200-bed trauma centre at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) in Islamabad the other day, Prime Minister Imran Khan raised an issue of deep interest and concern to him as he averred the heads of state institutions should be appointed on the basis of merit not seniority – a significant anomaly in the present system. He advised the PIMS Board of Directors to ensure meritocracy on the lines of the private sector and induct people only on merit. “If a senior is not eligible to become chief executive,” he said, “the second best should be made the head of the institution.”

Turning to his pet subject, he added, that the government system does not follow merit, the result is “unbridled corruption” in the country. Indeed, non-applicability of the principle of merit is a major issue of contention. Morality and talent, nonetheless, are not synonymous. There are always people who have merit but are unscrupulous, and vice versa.

Both seniority and merit have their merits and demerits. Proponents of the seniority principle contend that individuals appointed as heads of public sector institutions on this basis have experience on their side, and hence are better positioned to understand the demands of their work, set goals and lead their organisations in the right direction. Experience, however, may not be useful if it does not meet the needs of a job.

Promotions and appointments purely on merit, on the other hand, can put an organisation on the road to progress with innovative ideas and better management skills. The downside, as has been witnessed in the not-too-distant a past, is that under this cover chief executives of important organisations are inducted by reason of political considerations or favouritism and nepotism rather than impeccable professional credentials, thereby undermining the interests of the institutions they lead. A combination of both the principle of merit and seniority seems to be the better way forward.

It’s been a while since this government approved a new policy for the appointment of chief executives and managing directors of public sector corporations and other entities, proposed by the then Adviser to the Prime Minister on Institutional Reforms, Dr Ishrat Hussain. As explained by Dr Hussain, under this policy two new streams were introduced “to attract specialised and technical skills of high order from among the private sector and overseas Pakistanis” offering attractive pay and benefits packages.

Presumably, these positions were/are filled purely on the basis of merit through an open competition process, which sounds great, at least on a conceptual level. But past examples also show that, more often than not, the merit criteria are set to suit the qualifications of pre-selected candidates. Fairness, therefore, demands that an independent body should be formed for the selection of heads of public sector institutions.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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