Insider-outsider syndrome

October 11, 2020

Sometimes mediocre people get to the top and take it upon themselves to block the entry of competent people

In societies devoid of meritocracy, incompetence reigns supreme. Public sector institutions, corporations and departments controlled by the state are plagued by this malaise. The absence of merit and the selective application of justice give rise to mafia-like networks which not only guard and promote their own interests but also make it a point to block the entry of competent individuals in those institutions as well as in the state apparatus in general.

Narratives like yaran da yar (loyal to one’s friends to the point of nepotism) plague social and institutional structures. The institutional manifestation of such a narrative occurs in the form of personal loyalties being preferred over institutional priorities. Such personal loyalties have torn the very fabric of this society. The irony is that such friendships are sustained and nurtured at the expense of merit. Instead of observing some rationality in hiring the staff, public sector institutions have been turned into employment exchanges just to accommodate friends.

On the basis of my personal experiences, I can report that in some university departments, a kind of xenophobia has been practiced in such a way that quality academics with the potential to help the department grow were denied appointment and positions of influence just because the person in charge of the department in that university was utterly insecure and incompetent. Therefore, the in-charge played a game of “insider” versus “outsider”.

For the insider already sitting in a department, a university, or any institution, the outsider does not have any right of entry into the department even if he/she is better qualified than everybody working there. The result is the visible decline in academic standards.

To my mind, these people are criminals. Such criminals have, over the last three decades, mushroomed in every institution and have strengthened their networks of incompetent colleagues who help them maintain their claustrophobic hold over their respective departments and the institutions as a whole. Thus, with such characters holding positions that directly control decision-making, incompetence had been peddled without any compunction.

With such a situation prevalent across Pakistan, I had earnestly believed that the Pakistani diaspora with technical know-how could pull Pakistan out of the morass of incompetence and inadequacies with respect to policy formulation and execution. Since some of them have to put up with intense competition in their professional careers, I believed they could bring that ethos to Pakistani institutions.

The current government has tried to do this, but the move has not yielded the desired results yet. In many government departments and public sector institutions, the “outsider” is still not trusted. “Insiders” are generally preferred simply because they would not resort to out-of-the-box solutions to the problems besetting the institution.

Installing a competent and well-qualified person at the top of a department/institution can thus result in chaos because almost everybody else in the organisation has only limited capacity as a useful human resource for the person entrusted with the task of pulling the institution out of its terrible state. Thus, the new head of the institution is often at odds with the entire organisational structure.

The crisis deepens particularly when the head proposes some changes. I have previously written about the resistance that my team and I had to face from the non-academic administrative staff at my previous university when we ran a campaign to make our systems more transparent by making office work go online. The transparency this would have brought jeopardised the privileges of the administration.

If the “outsider” at the top has such a reformative agenda, there can be two kinds of reaction in the institution. One reaction is in the form of open revolt from the aggrieved section (consisting of the anti-reform group) which is displayed through negative propaganda in the media or putting pressure on the person (with the reform agenda) through powerful and influential functionaries.

However, if people on the lower rungs are smart, they operate differently. They keep working on their boss through mild, if not starkly obsequious persuasion, so that the boss might toe the line of the status quo. On occasions the boss is told about bygone traditions and the sanctity they hold, and that those traditions (however hackneyed they might be) have to be complied with.

If providence relents one “insider” mafia network is replaced by another. “Insider” rumour mills come into action and spread disconcerting (and in most cases fake) news presaging the failure of the administration. Mostly, the failures and shortcoming are given undue projection discounting the positives, which spawns the impression of doom and gloom with no light at the end of the tunnel.

With so many impediments having piled up before the “outsider” head of the institution, institutional amelioration and merit are a far cry despite the change of faces in various positions of administrative hierarchy. The person brought in to carry out reforms keeps ferreting out for want of competent people who can be part of his/her team. In most cases, resigning to his fate, he reconciles and prepares himself to work with the perpetual “insiders” despite their myopic vision, limited capacity to innovate, personal agendas and malevolent intentions.

For most “insiders,” it is the individual personal interest that holds precedence over the interest and wellbeing of the institution. That unfortunately is the mindset which is deep-seated in our collective unconscious as Pakistanis. With a personality-driven administrative setup, loyalty instead of competence becomes the sole criterion of moving up the ladder of success. In academic institutions, independent-minded individuals are not tolerated. Thus, mediocre people get to the top and take it upon themselves to block the entry of competent people.

The situation in several public sector institutions has come to such a pass that well-qualified “outsiders” find it almost impossible to fit in. In some cases, the situation is made extremely difficult for such people to survive. They are constantly treated as “outsiders,” who have committed the great crime of intruding into the space reserved for “insiders.” 

Insider-outsider syndrome