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The PTI government has formed numerous taskforces and advisory councils in various areas - economy, businesses, energy, housing, education, overseas Pakistanis, information technology, civil service and institutional reforms, to name a few. Six months in the office, none of these taskforces or advisory councils has yielded a meaningful impact.
This is not the first time such exercise is being done in Pakistan. For instance, Shahbaz Sharif in Punjab had formed various committees, working groups and commissions in the past, but not much was gained from those. And now many of the same faces are part of PTI's taskforces, and the outcome is no different. The economic advisory council with same set of economists is in action for the past two regimes, but our macroeconomic woes are yet to be over.
The voluntary organizations have their limitations, and ongoing taskforces have apparently fatigued. There are two fundamental issues with these bodies. One is that any volunteer would have limited time and interest in doing tasks - everyone has a day-to-day business to run - be it an economist or businessman, and in the absence of actionable steps taken on recommendations, one may sway from participating.
The other problem is of conflict of interest. A few members in every committee have business interests in the subject they are tasked to reform. It is naïve to expect a genuine input to bring 'change' when they are beneficiary of the status quo. In most cases invariably, personal or family interests have a clear dominance over collective interests.
Seeing that a few are lobbying for their own interests, genuine volunteers may get discouraged and stop attending meetings. This writer talked to a few members of these task forces and some of them have stopped participating as they think it is a waste of time. The model of taskforces is failing and it needs rethinking.
There are numerous examples to illustrate. The taskforce working on civil service reform has many civil servants as members. An outsider who has worked with bureaucracy once said that our bureaucrats are open to any kind of reform if they are part of it. There are talks on austerity, but nothing has been gained other than symbolism - the expenditure for first six months has increased at a brisk pace.
Housing is one of the main drivers for growth and employment generation in PTI agenda, but the speed at which the taskforce is working, one of the members opined that nothing would happen in even five years. There are ABAD members on the taskforce and they would want their share in upcoming housing schemes. There is nothing wrong in it, but they may be more interested in their short to medium-term gains over long-term structural reforms. They may not like a stronger head of the taskforce as they fear that might put builders' priorities at the backburner. The outcome is stalemate.
The most critical area of reforms is energy, and the results are no different from the others. The taskforce is headed by someone who owns and operate companies in the power sector. The real problem in the energy sector is lack of coordination and understanding by two divisions of energy ministry and finance ministry. The taskforce has not been able to work on resolving the buildup of circular debt or on the turnaround of power and gas distribution companies.
The progress of the rest of the councils is not much different. The government has to change the model. The need is to have operational taskforces with clear timelines and term of references to execute. The members should either have the executive power - like government employees in relevant departments, or external consultants paid for their services.
The operational taskforces or committees should conduct consultative sessions with all stakeholders such as business owners in the industry, retired bureaucrats and technocrats, and other relevant associations. Based on the inputs from the stakeholders, workable solutions are to be provided which would be in sync with government objective.
Another important factor is about the age of the taskforce members. There is a need to bring new and relatively younger people in with more energy. Donald Trump's argument against Jeb Bush for Republican presidential candidate was that Bush was a 'low energy' guy. While in Pakistan advisory councils and task forces are full of low energy people.
We need to bring in younger and vibrant people around. Get a bunch of energetic experts in one room and let them come up with a solution - no matter how many hours or days it take. The model of meeting every week or fortnighly headed by old people is not working.
Hire people, give them the money they deserve. PM Imran Khan has to understand that 'Naya' Pakistan cannot be built on charity. If our civil servants are not performing, they might be underpaid. If Singaporean civil servants are the best, they are well compensated too. Allow the lateral entry in the civil service, and more importantly, compensate better to the better worker. The government needs to introspect why it hasn't attracted good talent or upright professionals so far.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2019

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