By Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
Making bureaucracies work has always been a challenge the world over. Even developed countries face this uphill task and continue to devise ways to improve the performance of bureaucracy and its political bosses including cabinet ministers. Successive US presidents had been recording conversations with government officials and cabinet ministers to keep a record of their commitments so that they could be held accountable if they were unable to deliver on the agreed commitments or, worse, deny that such commitments ever existed. President Nixon, who was extremely skeptical of bureaucracy and considered it left-leaning and therefore untrustworthy, had put in place an elaborate system of recording almost all such conversations taking place in the Oval office. It is besides the point that this infamous recording system eventually became the key instrument of Nixon’s undoing.
The Imran Khan-led federal government seems to be currently experimenting with a totally innocuous but innovative system of making the million-strong federal work force perform. Although the system is currently focused on the federal government, eventually the system of ‘Performance Agreements’ may be extended to cover about a 3.2 million strong work force of both the federation and the four provinces provided, of course, the experience at the federal level proves successful.
The initial results seem to be encouraging as the average percentage of initiatives completed by the divisions included in the system had been steadily increasing from a paltry 49% during the pilot stage to 62% in the first quarter of the current year to 79% by the second quarter of the year.
The system, led by a former senior bureaucrat and the Prime Minister’s Special Assistant on the establishment, Shehzad Arbab, is based on ‘Performance Agreements’ which each Federal Minister or in-charge of a federal division signs with the Prime Minister following a detailed discussion on the initiatives which each division has to complete during a financial year. The list of initiatives and the underlying targets is very minutely reviewed by Shehzad Arbab’s team and the Peer Review Committee (PRC) headed by one of the senior-most and probably the ablest serving bureaucrat, Jahanzeb Khan who is also the Deputy Chairman of the country’s prestigious Planning Commission.
After the ‘Performance Agreements’ are signed, the system doesn’t wait till the end of the year to ascertain the results; Quarterly Progress Review meetings are regularly held between each division’s team of senior officials led by its Federal Secretary and the PRC sitting across the table. This writer was invited to observe one such progress review meeting where the progress of the aviation division was reviewed. The atmosphere in the committee room was electric and action-packed. Each minor detail was discussed threadbare and, more importantly, a substantial number of bottlenecks created because of lack of action by other divisions of the government were resolved there and then. The progress review meetings are also a test of how much the bureaucratic leadership of each division is on top of their mandated tasks and the challenges faced.
While the grey-haired senior bureaucrats ascertain the performance and advise on how to expedite the progress, a group of young dynamic professionals, mostly graduates of prestigious local or foreign universities, compile the scores quantified on the basis of the targets achieved and initiatives completed. All targets of an initiative have to be fully achieved to qualify for a score. The exercise is not entirely a quantitative process as 30% scores depend on qualitative aspects such as complexity of an initiative.
The first set of performance evaluation for the period July – December 2021 has just been made public identifying 10 top-performing divisions scoring 80% or higher. Five of these divisions achieved ‘distinction’ by scoring more than 90%. Prime Minister Imran Khan, whose personal commitment to the process has been critical to bring it to the current level, presided over the awards ceremony in Islamabad and announced that each employee of the division scoring 90% or more would be paid three extra salaries as bonus while the staff whose division scored 80-89% would be paid a bonus of two extra salaries.
As the country is moving closer to the next general election scheduled for next year, progress on the initiatives to be completed during the last two years of Imran Khan’s government may prove decisive for his re-election. 41 federal divisions are committed to complete 1090 initiatives by June 2023; half of which are scheduled for completion in the next 4 months. The completion of the initiatives is critical not only for the PTI Government but also for the country. Good governance has been an elusive national objective during 75 years of its existence. The success of the ‘Performance Agreements System’ may make the dream of good governance come true.
(Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT.