It’s the season of strikes. Traders in Karachi; APTMA; Faisalabad textile mill owners; Karachi transporters; and a few others have either already announced their dates for strike, or are threatening to do so, or have been temporarily convinced by the government to call off their strikes. Then again, no reform process would be without vexing someone, especially in a country like Pakistan, marked by poor governance machinery and a history of nepotism. Much depends on how the governed and government deal with reforms.
Rent seekers or not, budget FY20 and the ensuing tax reforms has irked a lot of those who fall in the category of governed; individuals and businesses alike. Save for exceptions like the Pakistan Business Council, so far in the country’s history the governed mostly react to government policy rather than engaging with the government in a proactive fashion.
The nature of reaction is also mostly confined to strikes, being preferred measure to influence government policy, or other confrontational approach such as going to the court. Some chose the time-tested method of under-the-table palm greasing. Civil society organisations like think tanks, business chambers or university research clusters remain underfunded and poorly organised to move towards more formal and cooperative approach of influencing policy.
Is it not strange, for instance, that the automakers association in Pakistan does not represent the interests of Chinese automakers in Pakistan? Or that textile – the country’s biggest non-farm employer and the biggest forex revenue earner - does not have one single voice for advocacy. Or that nearly all industry associations don’t even have their basic numbers right – numbers such as the market size of their industry, employment, estimates of informality, a basic document showcasing the policy troubles they face, and so forth. (See Textile troubles: size matters; so does organization, Mar 20, 2019)
This must change. The private sector ought to take a lead on this, but the government too must take a look at relevant regulatory framework to promote a properly organised and effective representation of the voice of governed.
At the same time, the government also needs to rethink its reform communication strategy. Having a mere minister of information and frequent press conference at various chambers of commerce doesn’t suffice in this day and age. This is the age of communication complicated further by fake news, and viralability that both political and economic opposition utilise well.
It is further complicated by the fact alongside the economy, reforming which irks various interest groups, the government itself also needs reforms. For instance, in a not so distant past, a change in system to accelerate the refunds of zero-rated sector, agreed to by members of the cabinet, several federal secretaries and the Governor State Bank was held up for months by a junior functionary in establishment division.
Various ministers and advisors to the PTI government have also acknowledged (albeit behind closed doors) that their government failed to have an effective strategic communication that resulted in a lot of bad repute above and beyond what was perhaps due for the delay in going to the IMF. That should have been a learning experience; a trigger to lay out an economic reform communication plan, broad contours of which were discussed in this space in autumn last year (Read: PTI must communicate better Oct 17, 2018). But so far there is nothing to show for.
That the government has released a big chunk of pending textile refunds – one of the biggest releases in recent memory; that it has stood by its decision and rescinded the SROs related to zero-rating; that it is rolling out an unprecedented level of shuffling at the tax department are some of the feats that will cause both pain and pleasure to different sections of the society, and at different times.
It’s premature to say whether or not the government will actually be able to successfully roll out reforms. Excessive focus on corruption and ignoring other aspects of governance isn’t the only ingredient to bake a developed economy. The government needs to adopt a variety of communication techniques with human interest framing to build consensus and cooperation among key stakeholders within and outside the government.
It should also be cognisant of the fact that merely raising awareness is not sufficient; unless strategic communication has been able to influence opinions, attitudes and ultimately the behaviour, the task is not done. The communication strategy should also have a pacifying tone of a surgeon who is about to take you to his theatre for an operation that may not be necessarily successful. Perhaps it’s about time to hire the services of professional strategic communication managers because ministers of information in Pakistan usually lack necessary imagination for effective reform communication.