The technocrats' domain Mosharraf Zaidi Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The hope that individuals of competence and integrity that enter government laterally can affect serious and meaningful change, has to be tempered by the structural and institutional realities of the business of government in Pakistan. 

Technocrats are not a new phenomenon in government. As early as the mid 1990s, in order to prepare the Pakistani economy for an era of deregulation and competition, the Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto and the Nawaz Sharif governments brought in outside help to run state-owned enterprises -- both proven champions in the private sector, like finance wiz Shaukat Tarin, and subject specialists of global repute, like oil and gas guru Gulfaraz Ahmed. The Musharraf era saw an unprecedented dependence on technocrats with an economic team made up of World Bank staffers Ishrat Husain and Khalid Mirza, and of course Citibanker extraordinaire, and eventual prime minister, Shaukat Aziz. Musharraf spread the use of technocrats to every aspect of governance -- human development, technology, and even the sciences. The current government has continued the trend, and expanded its application since taking office. After two years in office, no one need be reminded of the extraordinary team assembled by President Zardari to manage key areas of governance -- suffice it to say, bringing in technocrats is neither a new trend, nor one that guarantees any kind of success. 

Whether technocrats are drafted in to run government-owned businesses, or to manage government departments or ministries, if their impact is measured by the short-term benefits they bring to the government because of their competence, independence or their integrity, then they do indeed tend to deliver value -- in the short-term. However, if we're interested in the broader framework within which the government operates, one important measure of the success of the use of technocrats is to ask the simple question: has the use of technocrats made a contribution to an improved system of governance? 

One could make the argument that technocrats inject a professional ethos into the system, and often their very presence serves as an inspiration to others in regular government service. One could make the argument that technocrats are an absolute necessity, are used everywhere, and so to start expecting them to stimulate systemic change is unfair and out of context. Indeed, a whole spectrum of valid points exists between these two reasonable arguments. While it may be true that technocrats inject a different kind of energy into the workplaces they occupy, it is also true that their presence serves as a double-edged sword. For every civil servant inspired by a fly-by expert, a dozen civil servants wonder what crime they committed for having to serve under the shadow of already independently wealthy technocrats, who get paid a boatload of money to do things they could have done with the right training and opportunities. 

Similarly, it is true that technocratic expertise is a necessity, and no government in the world exists solely on the basis of the work of politicians and bureaucrats. Asking questions about the long-term impact of the use of technocrats in government however, is not a criticism of their use. The question of long-term impact is important because the practice of flooding technocrats into the system is expanding, and concurrently, it is quite clear that the quality of governance in the country is declining. Far from making spurious correlations (implying causality that may not exist), it is important to ask simple questions, beyond defending or opposing the practice. What impact does this instrument of governance -- the use of technocratic expertise -- have on the existent systems, processes, and mechanics of governance? 

Without detailed empirical data, we have only anecdotal evidence to go by. The picture is not pretty. The use of technocrats in government has accompanied an era in which the quality of the civil service has dramatically declined. There's a chicken-and-egg problem with this analysis of course. Did the decline trigger the use of technocrats, or did the use of technocrats, beyond a certain critical mass, trigger a decline in the quality of civil servants and their work? 

We can't say for sure. But there are a number of things we can say for sure. An alarmingly large number of the next generation of Pakistan's technocrats are all actually civil servants who are either on a long-leave from the government of Pakistan, or have spent less than fifteen years in government, before leaving the government. Nearly all of the examples of civil servants who have taken long-leaves or left the government, that I know, are currently working, either directly or indirectly for either one of the three big multilateral organizations: the United Nations and its agencies, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank, or the smaller bilateral donors. The overwhelming number of these officers work in Pakistan, on "reform" conceived of, and financed by both grant and loan money from Pakistan's donors. What does all this mean? It means that somehow, in the strange world of governance in Pakistan, a change of employer transforms an entire generation of Pakistani civil servants from being poorly motivated, unskilled, technically inept to becoming motivated, skilled and technically able. How is this possible? 

It is possible because the incentives-structure in place for civil servants working for the government is designed to create total dysfunction. Being a civil servant means you have poor pay, a poor image, poor job security, and that you are subject to deeply embedded and symbiotic rent-seeking with politicians. Simply put, the incentives-structure is designed to stimulate young officers wanting to leave government. Conversely, the overall governance narrative, particularly, a dependence on donors and on Washington Consensus ideas of reform has generated a parallel incentives-structure designed to stimulate those same officers to seek employment in government as consultants, and advisers -- who are paid internationally competitive rates and salaries, not by the government itself, but by donors. 

This systematic decimation of Pakistan's proud tradition of civil-service excellence is at the heart of the growing demand for and dependence on technocratic input. As a frequent consultant and adviser to the government, paid by donors, I speak from first-hard experience. There is almost nothing that a consultant can offer, in terms of skills, knowledge and passion, that does not already exist within the Pakistani civil service. 

No matter how good a technocrat is, she or he has no stake in the system of governance. A good, honest technocrat can fly in, fix what seems broken, and leave. Technocrats are not responsible for sustaining an overarching system, they are responsible only for the small domain they occupy. The sustenance and vitality of change and reform in Pakistan is wholly dependent on this country's civil service. The fact that there is no public discourse, on what changes this essential national resource required to meet today's challenges, should worry us all deeply.

The writer advises governments, donors and NGOs on public policy.

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