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Pakistan is facing a bizarre conundrum. On one hand, it’s the 5th most populated country in the world with over 210 million souls; on the other, it’s facing serious headwinds in finding good quality people, particularly in the public sector. This is a classic case of quantity verses quality which gives birth to various socio-economic problems, including unemployment (thus, law and order), shrinking of professional & trained work-force, etc. The situation becomes more complicated when we look at the population demographics of Pakistan: 43% of the population under the age of 15 years (and 16 to 64 years of age: 53%) with a questionable figures of official literacy rates of 58% and unemployment rate of ~6%, leaves Pakistan still with big numbers of educated people without jobs. Whilst sociological challenges of these facts deserve a full discussion and thesis; however, this write-up is confined to cover this dilemma in the context of human resource availability for public sector in Pakistan.
Several surveys and studies have been conducted to find the most educated countries. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, has made a list of world’s most educated countries based on the number of adult residents between the ages of 25 and 64 that have received a two-year or four-year degree or have received an education through a vocational program. Based on this information, Canada is the most educated, where over 56% of adults meet the criteria used by the OECD. Coming in as the second most educated nation is Japan with over 50% of the adult educated population. In third place with 49.9% of its adult population considered educated is Israel. The number of educated individuals in Pakistan, based on the criteria defined by OECD, will be most depressing and probably rate it at the lowest ebb. Good professionals in Pakistan remains a rarity, fundamentally due to quality of education supplemented by substantial brain-drain over the years owing to lack of enough attractive opportunities within the country and/ or limited exposure and grooming circumstances for local professionals. Whatever the case maybe but the situation stays grim on the valuable professionals front.
One thing is for sure that there has been an across the board sectorial decay in the society, and education has not been spared either, resulted in compromise over the available professionals, both in public as well as private sectors. This situation is, however, totally precipitated in the public sector which was further aggravated due to faulty compensation and invisible merit-oriented culture and performance management system. Furthermore, current environment in the Government is keeping the professionals away and the good quality civil servants are most reluctant to take decisions in the day-to-day workings, let alone bold ones required for some principle changes.
As one has been stating in the past that any measure on monetary and fiscal policy fronts will have limited impact until they’re complimented by structural reforms pursued simultaneously with them on a war-footing basis. Pakistan is presently standing on the cross-roads where there’s no other way out to address peoples economic miseries, and brought them out of the poverty line, but to religiously undertaking structural changes which means taking difficult, or rather courageous, decisions remaining, of course, within the confines of law and ethics (something which is indeed a given). Out-of-the-box and aggressive decision-making are the prerequisites to achieve structural changes which, unfortunately, have limited allowance under the current public sector environment. While lack of available human capacity is an issue across the board; however, the prevailing system needs a shake-down, and in fact may required to be erased, and start afresh, in some cases. This also leads to a big deficiency on the ownership of affairs and problem-solving approach within the public sector officers and professionals which has become more pronounced of late.
The World Bank’s most relevant index, in this context, is “Government Effectiveness” which captures perceptions of the quality of public services, the quality of the civil service and the degree of its independence from political pressures, the quality of policy formulation and implementation, and the credibility of the government's commitment to such policies. The rating scale ranges between -2.5 weakest and 2.5 strongest. The global average for 2017 was -0.02 points. The highest value was in Singapore: 2.21 points and the lowest value was in Somalia: -2.21 points. Pakistan was ranked at 129th out of the total of 194 countries with embarrassing -0.58 points.
This makes it very obvious that the availability of quality personnel is the key issue and is a real crisis that the Government is confronted with at present and this shall be addressed ahead of anything else to improve the Government’s effectiveness, delivery for the masses and to undertake the much needed structural reforms, to ultimately help lift masses out of the poverty line. While this is an extremely complex and sensitive matter to be taken care of but working on a couple of angles could immediately help address this “elephant in the room”. One being, and perhaps most importantly, “indemnifying the decision-makers” against genuine professional/ business judgement calls. There must be a process in-place whereby accusation against any public servant shall either be cleared by the related regulator (in the case of regulated body corporates) and/ or the highest authority within the Government. To assist them, the Government may consider setting-up a commission of serving high-court and/ or supreme-court judges which will evaluate each request received from law enforcement agency for investigation against any civil servant for misconduct. This will create some sort of buffer (mitigate harassment) and inspire confidence against the public servants to make legitimate aggressive decisions in the best interest of the nation. In addition to this, exclusive courts, like banking courts, maybe introduced which would immediately be available to public servants for hearing their plea, if they’re charged for wrongdoing, and to dispense justice on priority. There may also be a negative accountability element to be introduced whereby at the end if it is proven that the indictment was frivolous then the individuals involved in false allegations and investigation shall be taken to task. These amendments are required in law and maybe given legal cover through an act of parliament.
Apart from bureaucratic process, hiring through a process of advertisement, etc., attracting professionals from the market is a challenge for the Government due to lack of cover to them vis a vis genuine business decisions and facing possible intimidation. The good professionals are always solicited and pursued; they’re generally reluctant to applying for jobs. The Government has to do necessary enactment through the federal cabinet (or maybe through the parliament) to ensure employing top-notch professionals from the market on commercial terms. The legal cover, in this context, is necessitated to avoid any uncalled for litigation in the courts which, unfortunately, comes concurrently with the insecurity that the induction of professionals breed, with the implied mandate to undertake the required structural changes, amongst various groups in the organizations with vested interests.
For the existing career civil servants, the introduction of bell-curve at all levels on a stand-alone basis and overall for each division/ organization must be made mandatory. Currently, this concept is non-existent and in fact the existing system is misused to the extent that perhaps 90% of the officers are rated above par while only those are rated at par or below who’re being penalized on account of personal vendetta and settling scores, etc. Whatever the statistics and reasons maybe but the situation is dismal in terms of award of ratings within civil service and this is the core problem to ensure delivery and Government effectiveness. The bell-curve discipline will ensure that performers and non-performers are clearly identified and rewarded or penalized, as the case maybe. Coupled with rightly planned compensation packages (as existing packages are misunderstood and miscalculated), bell-curve approach will surely ensure better performance and meritocracy within the Government set-up which is totally missing at this stage - as horses and donkeys are treated the same way. The training and retraining of the public servants within the country and outside shall be made more robust with the assistance and support from international donor and multilateral agencies, particularly in specialized areas/ jobs. This most critical area has currently being taken flippantly in the Government and remains a core predicament.
The above proposed reforms are the possible immediate fixes and are in no way an exhaustive list. In fact, it’s merely a starting-point for a long and windy road, whereby these changes will be fully embedded with the merit-oriented culture within public sector. Having said that embarking on these steps will ensure prompt improvement in delivery and successful execution of reform agenda of the Government which is becoming increasing inevitable. The economic crisis or any other crisis that has been debated in the country are shackled due to Human Resource related issues which remains the “Biggest Crisis in Pakistan”.
(Author is Board Member of National Bank of Pakistan and Port Qasim Authority; Former, DG National Savings, Board Member State Bank of Pakistan and Monetary Policy Committee)