Oct 31, 2010

Leaner and cleaner

A study advises Punjab government to cut its size and move out of businesses best suited to private sector

By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed

In Pakistan, the word reform has always been a misnomer and synonymous with breaking the status quo. Any one propagating change, especially in the working of the government and its infrastructure, has faced resistance of all sorts. And those who have succeeded in breaking this status quo to some extent have seen their successive governments (obviously formed by their rival groups) undo all that they achieved, in a single go.

The Punjab government has also expressed, repeatedly, its resolve to remove inefficiency, duplication, and overlapping from its ranks, cut down its expenditures and make reforms public-centric. Though the situation on the ground does not seem rosy and the process of change is not that visible, an encouraging factor is that the government has succeeded in getting a comprehensive review of its working and infrastructure done by a set of highly qualified professionals.

Working under the umbrella of UK Department for International Development (DFID) funded Technical Assistance Management Agency (TAMA), they have pointed out the problem areas, criticised mismanagement wherever it is and also suggested solutions. The results of the project titled, High Level Government Review (HLGR) were discussed by different stakeholders who had gathered at the Center of Public Policy and Governance (CPPG), Forman Christian College (FCC) University earlier this month and participated in a policy dialogue titled, "Creating a Leaner Government."

The event, held jointly by CPPG and UK Department for International Development (DFID) funded Technical Assistance Management Agency (TAMA), gave the opportunity to speakers to highlight the need of revising the government structure and making it more efficient and responsive to the needs of service delivery of the people.

No doubt, the cash-strapped Punjab government needs immediate steps aimed at improving its efficiency and decreasing its financial dependence on the federal government.

For example, the study proposes some departments, having similar area of operation may be clubbed together for more coherent policy and planning e.g., Departments of School Education and Literacy, Department of Health and Population Welfare. "Some departments having similar functions may be merged to form new entities with some additional functions assigned to them, e.g. Departments of Social Welfare and Zakat may be merged to form Department of Social Protection with common databases to ensure delivery of targeted subsidies to the needy," it says.

The HLGR was launched in 2009 and its first task was the desk study which was intended to identify previous efforts to restructure federal and provincial governments in Pakistan. The study found that virtually all previous reform attempts have targeted the federal government. "These interventions have focused on changing the way the civil service is structured and managed, neglecting the wider service delivery and public management agenda, the study found."

The HLGR team also found that many departments were established either at the time of independence or in the two decades which followed. 1997, however, the number of new departments which have been established has escalated. One third of the departments which currently exist were created in a little over 10 years. According to the review, the provincial government is substantially larger than state governments in Malaysia, Canada and the USA. Indeed, there is no central government which has more than 38 departments.

It has been suggested that the government bring the number of departments to 21 and merge the functions of more than one department in different cases to end duplication or ambiguities. For example, farmers should be given a single government window for all farming related matters, including cropping and livestock.

Similarly, it is proposed that the functions of the Home Department should change. It must retain the responsibility for public safety and security functions, with prison and probation services being transferred to a new Justice Department. "Having a narrower mandate would enable the Home Department to focus more effectively on the urgent public safety and security needs of the province. A similar structural change was adopted in the UK immediately following the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London," the study suggests.

Besides, the government has been advised to leave certain functions to the private sector as, "Running livestock/poultry farms and tourist resorts in prime commercial locations, undertaking mining activities and developing sites and services for housing schemes, are all functions in which the private sector is already playing a vibrant role and in which the government does not have the requisite competence and motivation to manage these services and facilities efficiently and effectively."

The Punjab government has also been advised to suspend its credit subsidy scheme for small-scale industry managed by Punjab Small Industries Corporation. What normally happens is that the government ends up bearing a cost considerably higher than the interest subsidy, because of loan defaults resulting from poor borrower identification/selection procedures or from changing economic or other circumstances.

Fingers were also pointed at the functioning of the government printing press at a time when the use of information technology in government departments is increasing and e-governance is the order of the day. Hence, the need for printing and publications, and, therefore, the role of the government printing press, has become increasingly marginal in nature, especially with a private sector actively marketing and providing the associated services.

Education and social protection departments were the ones discussed the most and those where reform are needed on a priority basis. It is also proposed that Punjab Sports Board should be established as a funding entity under the Education Department. Under this option, a dedicated Sports Department is unnecessary since the policies for the major sports are established by their respective federally-constituted bodies and sports associations, whilst sports as a function has been devolved.

The above-mentioned are a very few of the suggestions out of an exhaustive list prepared under HLGR. It is hoped the government takes them seriously and has the will to implement most of them, if not all, and more importantly that the successive governments do not undo all the good done by the predecessors, as has always been the case.

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