Pakistan has witnessed numerous government regimes during the country’s 74 years of existence. Amongst the differing ideologies, priorities and approaches, a common agenda stands out: the goal of reforming, or overhauling, the country’s government machinery—and the bureaucracy at the heart of it. The result of these endeavors has been common: most of them have failed to bring about significant impact through sustainable reforms.
Resultantly, the status quo continues to permeate in practice, with the subject of reforms an endless conversation with a seemingly unattainable conclusion. The reasons for this are varied, and debatable. Whether this owes to a general unwillingness to change the status quo, or stems from a fear of the unknown, or can be attributed to acceptance of systemic inertia learnt on the job from a very early stage - is once again, debatable and may all be partially true.
Most of the reforms that were introduced in the past were driven by motives of down-sizing or rationalization of current expenditure. The prioritization of cost-cutting measures led to the unfailing perception that reforms meant reduced incentives, leading to internal resistance within the bureaucracy. Though the consequence on good governance was uniform across all government regimes, but Pakistan kept faltering on good governance indicators. To date, accepted standards of government responsiveness, equity, public participation, transparency and accountability, effectiveness and efficiency, and strategic vision have never been fully achieved.
With overall capacity diminished through ill-planned or poorly designed reforms, and the politicization of ranks and institutions in the public domain, acceptable standards of transparency and accountability remained out of reach. The resultant lack of public trust in institutions overall and the civil services of Pakistan in particular, has led to the perception that the country’s civil servants are unresponsive, and their processes bureaucratic.
All this is now finally changing.
The current government has embarked on an ambitious but holistic reforms agenda, which emphasizes a shift away from simplistic cost control towards optimal efficiency of government processes and governance outcomes. The new system has introduced Performance Agreements between the Prime Minister and the Ministers in charge of Federal Ministries, assigning objectives to each ministry and evaluating its performance against these pre-defined targets.
This initiative has been supported by UNDP’s Democratic Governance portfolio (Reforms and Innovation in Government for High Performance Project) funded by the United Kingdom Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). Introduced as a pilot in 2019, 11 ministries were initially brought on board for a contract between the Prime Minister (PM) and their respective Minsters. The pilot proved a success and has been replicated across all 41 ministries this year.
Each performance agreement flows through three stages. At the first stage, the ministries/divisions draft their performance agreements and set up their targets for the year. This serves as an internal stocktaking of performance within divisions and departments, facilitating the development of an accountable and transparent framework that is fully owned by the ministerial structure.
At stage two, the performance agreements are presented to a Peer Review Committee (PRC) comprising of key government institutions responsible for institutional management and development planning, namely Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Establishment, Deputy Chairman Planning Commission, and senior officers of Establishment Division, Cabinet Division, Finance Division and Planning Division. The PRC reviews the draft performance agreements presented by each ministry before submission to the Prime Minister’s Office for final clearance.
The third and final stage involves quarterly reviews of the ministries’ performance against the signed agreements, a summary of which is shared with the Prime Minister.
The ministries' targets are primarily based on four categories of initiatives: including administrative and internal financial matters, key initiatives under Public Sector Development Programme (PSDP) and key policy/ reforms initiatives. The ministries are required to furnish the status of their targets in their performance reports which will include completed targets, partially completed targets, as well as initiated and pending targets.
The Performance Agreements initiative is a step in the right direction which will lead to improved public sector accountability and performance. It has institutionalized a strategic management framework for improving government performance and holding ministries accountable for achieving their mandates. It has also shown promise for transforming internal accountability, within the ministries, towards measuring performance of their employees as well as aligning individual employee performance with organizational goals. Performance Agreements and the allied peer review mechanism democratizes both the reform process and internal accountability of the civil service.
By addressing structural bottlenecks that impede prompt decision making and fast track service delivery like inter-ministerial dependency and cutting down on procedural sludge, it will improve efficiency and effectiveness of the government departments.
While rooting for this ideal scenario, we also have to be realistic to realize that the initiative’s success depends upon its actual implementation and ownership. It is yet to be seen how the federal government perceives and responds to this initiative: this factor alone will be extremely critical in determining the incumbent government’s strategic positioning in the next general elections.
Leveraging inter-departmental dependencies for improved coordination, enhanced accountability for results, and treating performance agreements as a policy instrument to ensure better public service delivery, will be key determinants of the success of this initiative. The system is brand-new, and the actual measure of success in the longer run will be the fundamental cultural change in the functioning of the federal bureaucracy.
This understandably requires time and sustained efforts.
As all change processes go, the required shift in employee attitude towards individual performance expectations, their understanding and ownership of individual contributions towards organizational strategy and goals, and cascading accountability across the organizational hierarchy are all interrelated.
No reform effort can succeed without the ownership by the people it affects - the civil servants themselves. Incentivizing them to embrace change as co-owners and co-architects will be the only way to ensure sustainability of the initiative.
An inclusive approach that promotes stakeholder interests and voice and provides them with intangible incentives such as more effective accountability mechanisms, requires patience, consistency and a willingness by the Government and development partners to remain supporters of this critical process.