Thursday Jan 06, 2022
How do you transform traditional government machinery that is shackled by complex processes into an effective, outcome-driven vehicle?
Those were the thoughts in my mind when I joined Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government – a government with an ambitious reform agenda – in August 2018 as an advisor on the establishment. I was just over one year into retirement, having bid farewell to a bureaucratic career spread over 36 years.
I was clear on the fact that introducing any structural change without due attention to changing our behaviour within the bureaucracy will only get us so far. During my service, I saw a gradual decline in the overall sense of responsibility of officers – in the responsibility towards the office, they were occupying and, more so, towards the citizens we are meant to serve. If somehow, I could rekindle that sense of responsibility, all other reforms were merely a matter of time.
Three years later, as I look back at the journey my team and I have undertaken, one particular initiative that I have led in my capacity as the special assistant to the PM on Establishment stands tall. Performance agreements are a sign-off between the prime minister and his federal ministers on a set of initiatives their respective ministries commit to delivering over a specified period of time. On the face of it, performance agreements sound technical and unexciting, but this was a necessity. The platform holds government officers accountable and introduces transparency in a way that will improve government performance and efficiency. It is a sophisticated governance tool that will introduce change that is not just specific and measured, but citizen-centered.
All divisions of the federal government have not only listed the initiatives they aim to achieve by the end of each fiscal year, but have also broken them down into quarterly targets. The entire federal government is now on one single digitised portal that captures a total of almost 1100 initiatives, which range in issues – from achieving quarterly export targets, to the progress of Bhasha and Mohmand dams, to rolling out e-offices across all ministries. The system does not only require ministries to list their initiatives, but also allows them to identify which ministry, province or any other entity the delivery of their initiative is dependent upon. Listing out these details in one format intrinsically creates a sense of responsibility amongst all involved.
While governments may be credited for rolling out new plans, they are surely to blame for losing focus during implementation. This causes more harm than good. In this case, once the agreements are signed between the prime minister and his ministers, a review is carried out on a quarterly basis to gauge progress across the entire federal government. Institutionalising this routine is providing officers much-needed predictability, in turn improving public service delivery.
The other action that is also improving delivery is the attempt to address the age-old siloed approach. Ministries not only have to achieve their own targets, but have to help other ministries as well. For example, the Establishment Division is not only being evaluated for ensuring that rotation of officers is implemented as per policy according to the timeline in its agreed target, but is also responsible for helping the Ministry of Industries and Production deliver its target of developing an Internal Audit Plan for the State-Owned Enterprises by appointing a chief internal auditor in consultation with the auditor general of Pakistan.
When the cabinet approved the development of the performance agreements in September 2019, sustainability was the prime concern as the rollout was being designed. A pilot was run with a limited number of ministries first. The process was refined along the way, tailored exactly to our actual requirements. The aim consistently has been to integrate this tool such that it results in improving the overall management of ministries. While our government may still not be fully implementing its manifesto promise of tenure protection of officers, the regularity of review is surely helping officers protect the continuity of key initiatives. The secretaries may change, but it is clear that they have to deliver against the targets set out for their specific ministries.
The performance also needs to be rewarded. As we evolve the system, we are looking towards introducing a performance bonus for the top-performing ministries. Criteria and methodologies are being drawn out, but for the first time in Pakistan, an attempt is being made to distinguish between the achievers and the laggards within the bureaucracy – a behavioural shift, paving the way for continuous improvement in the public sector. Similarly, while performance must be rewarded, non-performance should entail consequences. In this spirit, as a first step, the performance of all ministries against their agreed targets will be made public this month (January 2022).
Transforming deep-rooted archaic governance structures into efficient delivery systems is no easy task. Transformation of any nature requires two key ingredients: strategic direction and operational clarity.
While performance agreements as a governance tool may have seemed perfect on paper, pushing our process-based system into action without any strategic direction and ownership of Prime Minister Imran Khan would have been a futile effort. For the first time, the performance of ministers – and by extension, their entire teams – is being measured against an agreed baseline, in clear numbers. Taking a keen interest in the quarterly assessment, the prime minister is personally reviewing the performance of his ministers.
The operational clarity to implement a reform of this scale has been led by a small dedicated team brought on board from the very beginning. Consistently improving the system, this team works closely with each ministry, facilitating quarterly review and helping them highlight key problems to the review committee headed by the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission for a quick resolution.
As a system that has evolved significantly over the last two years, it is my hope that our performance agreements will genuinely take root within the governance structure of not only the federal government, but at the provincial level as well. Without a doubt, the performance agreements are making a transformational shift from a mere process-oriented approach to an outcome-based, time-bound delivery mechanism – one that is so dearly required by all governments that attain power through an electoral process and bring with them ambitious agendas to implement.
The writer is a special assistant to the prime minister on establishment and a retired civil servant.
Originally published in The News