PML-N VS The Channels Of Non-Delivery

One of the starkest differences in the pre- and post-election scenario is the sense of urgency and hunger for action that comes across from the key actors in government. Former prime ministers Gilani and Ashraf may have had their strengths (including their loyalty to their party) but only a most imaginative and generous person would mistake them for statesmen that ever conveyed a particular keenness to seize the day and actually deliver.
There is much to take issue with in the PML-N government, but urgency of action is not one of them. One of the reasons Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif enjoys a comfortable majority in parliament is because he and his brother, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, enjoy the confidence of many, many voters who feel that – win or lose – the Sharifs’ intent is to solve the problems that affect ordinary Pakistanis. Having voters trust your intentions is pure gold. You cannot buy that kind of political capital.
This image that the Sharifs have built was constructed by the performance of the Punjab government during 2008-2013. In those five years, CM Shahbaz Sharif repeatedly invested in big-ticket projects that had both big political muscle and at least a defensible developmental argument. Politically, some projects were hits (like the metro bus and the laptop scheme), while others were misses (sasti roti). Perhaps the most important were the ones that garnered local, rather than provincial or national, headlines – roads, bypasses and interchanges on major highways today dot the Punjab landscape much more richly than they did in 2008.
A two-thirds majority in the Punjab Assembly points clearly to the political success of the Shahbaz Sharif development model. However, legitimate questions do exist – both about the developmental impact of the model and the value for money propositions that have shaped the investments of the Punjab government. Though technically legitimate, these questions have limited bearing on the politics of ‘outcomes’.
Politically, this model of ‘delivery’ has worked – insofar as it has produced, in large part, the impression that a PML-N proposition of delivery is a viable one because it produces outcomes. This has one very major implication for the way forward in this crucial stage of Pakistan’s effort to be a democracy. PM Sharif, his cabinet in Islamabad and the provincial apparatus in Punjab, led by CM Sharif, all have a logical and politically defensible disincentive to reform the channels of delivery within the edifice of the public sector – ie the bureaucracy, local government, and the public financial management system.
The disincentive to reform the channels of delivery in government (bureaucracy and structures) is arguably the single-most dangerous threat to Pakistani democracy today. And so it begs explanation.
As we see today in Turkey and Egypt, in post-military authoritarian states, democratic longevity requires the actual delivery of outcomes. The AK Party in Turkey delivers jobs and growth – so jailing errant generals in not a big issue. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt fails miserably to deliver jobs and growth – so firing Field Marshal Tantawi is a big issue, which haunts a democratically elected president and the largest party in that country. It is no wonder the Sharifs are infatuated by Turkey. It is important to note, however, that Turkey’s success story is as much a story of democratic delivery as it is of systems that work and a state that is functional.
Pakistani politicians, unlike their Turkish brothers and sisters, are not dealing with a wholly functional system or state structure. The very basic foundational writ of the state is, to put it magnanimously, weak. Increasingly, ministers, chief minsters, chief secretaries, provincial secretaries, and other principals in government find that their orders are not carried out. They also find it difficult to track their orders or hold anyone to account for failures.
The outcome-oriented management philosophy of the PML-N has produced political success – in limited measure. Increasingly, the ruling party is discovering, and will continue to, that the good old days of the 1990s are over. Loadshedding, terrorism, illiteracy, inflation and joblessness are not products of individual problems, but of systemic breakdowns in state and society. The only way to fight these problems effectively is to address the system and procedures that make up the channels of delivery – the bureaucracy, local governments and the public financial management regime.
In decision-making processes dictated by outcomes, the methodology and procedural aspects of how those outcomes are reached is secondary, even tertiary to the actual delivery of the outcomes. Since the channels of delivery within the edifice of the public sector are proven to have failed, outcome-oriented decision-makers are predisposed not to worry too much about the edifice. More generally, when an outcome-oriented chief executive meets the public sector one of two things happen. Either the chief executive fails to deliver, or the chief executive delivers by bludgeoning and bypassing the edifice.
The risk of blasting your way through the dead ends of our public sector, or manoeuvring around it, is that over time, the default setting of those political leaders who are interested in actual delivery of outcomes, will be to bludgeon through or bypass around the structural challenges thrown up by the public sector system.
What is wrong with bludgeoning and bypassing the channels of delivery in government? After all, if it produces outcomes, then who cares?
The truth is that it is not producing outcomes because it cannot. Provincial and municipal brick-and-mortar projects are not the same as national issues like counterterrorism, or 100 percent school enrolment. The outcome-oriented approach of the PML-N will deliver functioning infrastructure – on occasion. It may even reduce loadshedding – to an extent. But the state of law and order, mass illiteracy and disease outbreaks – from dengue to measles to the sustained nightmare of polio – tell the real story.
In that story, sincere outcome-oriented politicians are captive to a disabled and dysfunctional public sector edifice. They are constantly being made to struggle to contain problems. You fix dengue, and then measles pops up, you fix that, and there’s a cholera outbreak, and on and on. Outcome-oriented management will address the problem today, rather than addressing the system and processes that created the problem.
If the PML-N is serious about sustaining democracy, it has to deliver sustainable change. To do so, it needs to invest heavily not just in the big-ticket outcomes it needs for re-election, but crucially in the procedural coherence and integrity of government. Dramatic reforms in the civil service, in local governments, and in public financial management are essential to the outcomes politicians seek.
Without such reforms, any outcomes Pakistani democrats achieve will be difficult to come by – they will be temporary, and they will be unsustainable. In the medium- and long-term, failure to reform Pakistan’s channels of delivery is the single most dangerous threat to Pakistani democracy.