The News on Sunday: How formalised is the policy-making process in Pakistan?
Saeed Shafqat: In Pakistan, unfortunately, policy process is not really institutionalised. Decision-making is highly personal whether we’re transitioning to democracy or there is a dictatorial regime in place. In both cases it is the person who becomes more important but that does not mean that institutions do not exist. They do exist but are constrained to play an optimal role.
It needs to be recognised that public policy originates and resides in the domain of public sector or the government whether it is at the federal, provincial or local level. There is the parliament which is required to make laws and provide regulatory framework, etc. Legislators are required to pass legislation that gives direction to the kind of policy that representatives of the public will make and the people will own and abide by.
For practical purposes, policy-making is largely done by the executive branch, i.e. the bureaucracy. In our case, bureaucracy has assumed a larger-than-life role, hence it is under public gaze and criticism. For any system, democratic or authoritarian, professionally competent, well-trained and appropriately compensated bureaucracy is imperative.
In a democratic system, the political leadership plays a key role in designing any policy and the participative political process gives credence and a sense of ownership about the policy. But if the political bosses are relatively weak, if the legislature is incompetent and devoid of public good then regulation of the bureaucracy will not take place and without regulation, policy-making will be usurped or taken over by the bureaucracy. Thus, in Pakistan’s case, both policy formulation and implementation roles have been assumed by the bureaucracy. This needs to change.
TNS: Would you agree with the notion that in our country, there is lack of discussion and debate at policy level?
SS: For a sustainable policy, consensus among the policy-makers and ownership by the citizens is a prerequisite. Consensus does not mean uniformity; it demands consultation, deliberation and debate among all the stakeholders. In our case, invariably consensus is compromised by highly personalised decision-making. For instance, you look at this case of Metro Bus in Lahore. Who was consulted? Was there public debate on its costs and benefits? How long will it be subsidised? What would be its impact on the ecology of the city? These are difficult questions, but they are critical for devising a sound transport policy for Lahore.
In order to develop a policy which will be owned and accepted by the people, it should be supported by sound professional intake and credible research. That is a serious gap between policy-making and evidence collection. In a culture where research is not valued, whimsical, personalised and interest-driven decision-making becomes a way of life. Thus, uncertainty looms large on the continuity of policies.
It is a sad reality that the limited consultative process we have in this country is cosmetic; it is not substantive. Unless we make it substantive, policy-making will remain weak and un-enforceable.
In policy making, universities have had no role to play so there is an adversarial relation between the government i.e. bureaucracy and the academia. In this age of globalisation, we need to harmonise this relationship because without credible research and broad consensus, judicious decision-making will not be possible.
TNS: As you said, policy-making is a process largely executed by the bureaucracy. Is this a process limited to developing countries?
SS: It is not limited to developing countries. In fact, one of our key problems is that since the process of elected public officials as key policy makers has been shaky it has yet to gain ground. On the other side, the political leadership has not acquired the kind of respectability which, for examples, is given to a bureaucrat or a general, because of their institutional and educational background. But in that sense this problem has continued to persist. In advanced industrial states where democracy is well-rooted, the role of legislature is very clear and the supremacy of elected public officials is very well-established.
The task of regulation and giving direction on policy should be the job of the elected public official. In our case, that line has remained diffused. The political leadership did not have the commitment, vision or courage to do what they were expected to do. Therefore, what happened in our case was that the bureaucracy, being established and more organised, was able to play the role of not only the implementer but also the formulator. This was not their real task: their task is primarily to implement the policy the elected public officials formulate.
The other part that one has to really recognise is that the first contact of people with the government is either with an SHO or a sessions or civil court judge or a patwari. These are the three key public officials and the impression that they make on the public is not very welcoming. Then at all levels, the attitude, conduct and arrogance of bureaucracy becomes an overwhelming concern. In turn, when the public reaches higher bureaucracy, they are reminded of policy as an unalterable commandment. These spheres have to be clearly defined.
TNS: Can our return to democracy bridge the gap between the will of the people and policy formulation at a political level?
SS: As we move towards consolidating democracy, it is imperative to redefine the politician-bureaucrat relationship. The politician’s attitude is to have a loyal bureaucrat; therefore they have indulged in seeking loyalty by politicising the bureaucracy. Thus, they have violated the principle of merit, as well as the principle of hierarchy. So it is about time we began to strike a balance between the spheres of decision-making of the elected and unelected public officials.
It must be taken into cognizance that Pakistan’s bureaucracy is one of the most qualified in terms of having foreign degrees. I would argue that in the last 25 years or so, if a thousand officers were recruited in the higher civil services, at least 40 per cent came with or acquired a foreign degree. However, the critical question is; has it really changed their attitude or improved the content and process of policy making? Has it improved their ability to provide better services? That is tied with the culture and structure we have. They work under a culture and structure in which even your qualification and degrees don’t matter.
In a similar way, I would make a case that a lot of our young qualified officers have either taken long leave or joined multilateral organisations, such as USAID, World Bank, Asian Development Bank or the UNDP. After 9/11, all these institutions would not have been able to run if these civil servants had not joined them.
In other words there are competent, qualified, professional and skilful officers but they are leaving the public service as a career. So, retaining competent officers in the service is a serious crisis emerging within the bureaucracy but our political leadership seems oblivious of this.
Again, the political leadership and parties have to recognise the gravity of the situation: they should allow bureaucracy to function respecting the principle of merit, tenure of term and also, to a certain degree, the principle of seniority which is very important in the bureaucracy. In an age of globalisation, hierarchical relationships are changing, and Pakistan cannot escape this process and must re-train and professionalise bureaucracy for the challenges and opportunities that globalisation offers.
TNS: Protests and vigils are becoming popular tools to pressurise the government. How effective are these in terms of influencing the formulation of public policy?
SS: My own assessment is that if I were to look at the period from 2009 to 2013, there has been a protest almost on daily basis, on one issue or the other, especially on energy. Did the wide protests on energy have any impact on policy makers? It remains a question mark. Similarly, if you think of inflation again people have protested but nothing has happened. Part of the difficulty is that protests are becoming meaningless because urban areas are becoming too large. Let me put that in a different way; in governance our basic and core problem is demography — the size of the population and the cities are becoming ungovernable. What happens in one part of the city does not affect the other part; therefore, it seems as if nothing has happened.
Over a period of time, it is the under-privileged who have had to suffer more and the privileged remain protected. This is yet another dichotomy. Why do the protests not succeed? Because there is dearth of leadership that can mobilise and build a sense of community consciousness and rally the people. So protests are becoming a social event unless it is some form of sectarian violence or terrorist killing and that also hardly leads to a policy change.
TNS: How important of a tool is social media when it comes to gauging public opinion?
SS: Social media is still confined to a relatively small number of people. Yes, mobile phones are easily accessible and their number is on the rise and people feel connected and that is a positive development. Their social media usage is still confined to the educated and upper middle classes and not the ordinary people. In cases the interests of the relatively prosperous sections are harmed, they will be quick to communicate with each other. It did happen in the case of Lawyers Movement and Imran Khan’s youth mobilisation.
Social media can be used more effectively to communicate with people in case of certain warnings about floods or traffic blockade.