Mar 18, 2009

Good governance

Random thoughts
Dr A Q Khan
When I headed the Laboratories at Kahuta I had made it a point not to hold meetings/conferences with large groups. I knew that where many people are present discussions wander away from the main problem. All heads of departments and I had lunch together. Even if someone did not want to eat, I still asked him to join us. We were colleagues and friends – worked together, ate together, joked together, laughed together. It often took away the tensions of work and left us fresh, to tackle problems with renewed enthusiasm. If there was a particularly important point to discuss, I would request the relevant DG and any other colleagues to stay on after lunch, have coffee and find a way to resolve the issue at hand. I also always made a point of making a round of the whole plant (nine or ten buildings) every day. Nobody, even the most junior of staff, ever hesitated to talk to me on work-related matters. I made it a point of never raising my voice, never criticising and never reprimanding staff. Once, Mr Nasim Khan, then DG of Control and Automation Division, a very capable and competent software expert, came into my office to brief me about a project he was working on. He walked into my office unannounced, a practice I had encouraged. I offered him coffee and jokingly said: "Nasim Khan Sahib, if you want to tell me you are unable to solve a problem, then there is not much to talk about, but if you want to tell me how you solved it, I am all ears." He laughed and said that he had come to explain how he had managed to solve a complicated and difficult problem. We had a good discussion.Meetings with large groups of people and lengthy debates rarely solve problems or offer quick solutions. More often than not, they lead to more discussions, delays and confusion. Can you even imagine a meeting of 70 or 80 people having a focused discussion on any one issue? They may be suitable for imparting information, but not for solving problems. This holds true for cabinet meetings and meetings of commissions, organisations and institutions. A more pragmatic approach to solving problems would be to hold meetings with small groups, thrash out solutions and then inform the larger group about the discussion held and how the solution was reached. In this way, problems would be solved faster and things could move forward. We have a surplus of geniuses. There seems to be no other country that has so many people who are good at producing feasibility reports and recommendations, and who spend a lot of time and money in preparing these wonderful reports full of data, figures, graphs and numbers that end up in some cupboard, collecting dust. Those competent and pragmatic experts who have worked abroad and have proved their worth are not heard and their suggestions sand recommendations usually not heeded. The root cause of the malaise is that our civil service system is inefficient. People with no more than a BA degree take part in competitive examinations and many of them succeed in getting selected through a system that is corrupt. There is a general feeling, and not without reason, that children of senior bureaucrats and army officers are usually selected. Children of serving or retired officers hardly ever fail, whereas good candidates are often unable to pass. Concerning good governance, we all know that there have been hundreds of reports on this topic and many commissions were established to advise us on how to reform our civil service and mode of governance, the latest being the one set up by Gen (R) Musharraf to accommodate Dr Ishrat Hussain, who had retired as governor of the State Bank. The problem with such efforts is that those selected to prepare the reports are usually not qualified to propose a pragmatic and practical solution. As Mr Ghulam Ishaq Khan used to say, such exercises are never more than a collection of unreliable statistics and fudged figures. If the report were prepared by a government organisation, everything would be rosy and if by the opposition, everything would be black. International organisations usually did not accept any of these reports, terming them unreliable and biased. In countries where civil servants are experts in their fields, especially the advanced countries, they are selected according to their fields of specialisation and placed in the relevant ministry. They grow in their professions and careers and know their jobs inside out. The ministers, who are political figures, do not interfere in the work of the experts and only see to it that government policy regarding their ministry is being implemented. The overall result is that a change in government never results in disruption or discontinuation of policies and the system continues to function smoothly. Coming back to our own system, if people with an unrelated BA or MA are recruited, the calibre of their work can be imagined. Some training is required for senior officers but promotion is usually a question of time, pulling strings, sycophancy and manipulation. It is rare for anyone to reach the top – i.e., Secretary to the Government of Pakistan – solely on efficiency. As a matter of fact, an efficient civil servant with no connections usually gets nowhere. Some officers are lucky to get an opportunity to go abroad for short courses. This is how things go wrong. Generally speaking, we now have a person with an unrelated, general education, groomed in an inefficient and defective system, having hardly any extra academic exposure or experience burdened with a highly responsible and demanding job. Now, in accordance with the defective system and through no fault of his own, our civil servant is shunted from one ministry to another. One day he could be Secretary of Health, the next day Secretary of Science and Technology, and so on – jobs that are highly specialised and require solid backgrounds and experience in that particular field. If posted between administrative slots, the position is not so bad. However, transfers between scientific, educational, health, agricultural, trade, etc., are catastrophic and have produced the position we are in today. The only cadre somewhat safe from this mauling is the Foreign Service, where specialised professionals carry on their duties. Even their system is sometimes disrupted by the appointment of non-professionals – i.e., politicians and/or armed forces personnel. The result of all this shuffling around of bureaucrats leads to, in George Bernard Shaw's words: "He knows nothing and he thinks he knows everything." All this leads to the following advice:1. Let professional personnel be recruited by the ministries concerned. Their cadre should be highly trained and promoted strictly on merit. This will lead to qualified, knowledgeable professionals who know their jobs. Learn from China, where this practice has yielded good results. Gen. Ma Sen, Corps Commander of Sinkiang District, was there for 30 years. He once told me that he could walk around with his eyes closed, he knew his District so well. 2. The Police Service must be locally recruited. The tradition of posting police officers from one province to another is faulty. An officer who has no roots in an area and knows that he is there for a short stint, is more interested in obtaining political favours and making some money than in serving the people there. Under the British there was one senior British officer to supervise the law and order situation maintained by local staff. Familiarisation with the workings of the department in other provinces can be achieved by short-term postings to Headquarters in the various provinces. Finally, I would like to repeat an invaluable quote by Einstein: "No amount of experience will turn a person of mediocre talent into a genius."

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