Saturday, January 1, 2011

Public service in Pakistan

Richard Holbrooke died after major surgery. Most Pakistanis know him for being the person in charge of the US policy in AfPak. Holbrooke had a long history in US diplomacy, his highest position in the US diplomatic hierarchy being his appointment as the US ambassador to the United Nations (UN). He never attained the one position that he probably deserved and wanted most, that of being the US Secretary of State (foreign minister) losing out to two women, first Madeleine Albright and more recently to Hillary Clinton.
Ambassador Holbrooke represents the best in the American tradition of public service, people who have made enough money in business and yet return to serve the country. The US has a long history of such people, and even if we exclude those who use their wealth to run for elective office, there are still many who choose to work in the appointed bureaucracy or as diplomats.
Joseph Kennedy, the father of President Kennedy, was the US ambassador in the UK before World War II. Averell Harriman, an heir to a railroad fortune, served as a Secretary of Commerce and as a diplomat, William Scranton, whose family has a town named after them in Pennsylvania, served as US ambassador to the UN. The first President Bush who became a millionaire by the age of 40 subsequently served as the US ambassador to the UN and then China and also as the head of the CIA. Excluding some career politicians, most secretaries are taken from the private sector.
The US system is different from the UK system that we have inherited. In the US, members of the top tiers of the federal bureaucracy are political appointees and not career civil servants. The secretary who is equivalent to a federal minister in our system and other senior bureaucrats are all appointed by the president from members of the business community, think tanks or academia, but they have to be approved by the US Senate. Most ambassadors are career foreign service officers but the president can appoint anybody he wishes as an ambassador and he often does in particular positions.
Many of my American friends who had done well in business had the same desire. They wanted to work in any government position where they could use their expertise to help the country. As a matter of fact, my oldest son and his wife hope that some day they will be in a position to do the same. With their last name they might have a problem but having a president of the US with the same middle name they might have a shot at getting there.
In the history of Pakistan, independently wealthy figures often embodied a similar sense of public service. Even today, two of the most important people in Pakistani politics, the president of Pakistan as well as the leader of the major opposition political party, are both independently wealthy and yet devote their time to public service. However, once we exclude the heads of Pakistani political parties and ‘hereditary’ politicians, we find very few independently wealthy people going on to work in government.
Perhaps a major reason why successful Pakistani businessmen do not participate in government is that before taking on any important position they first have to win an election, either to the Senate, the National Assembly or else one of the provincial assemblies. As far as the senior bureaucracy is concerned, this is obviously staffed only by members of the permanent bureaucracy.
In essence there is very little crossover from the private to the public sector and not because of a lack of desire but rather the difficulty of first winning an election. Many of the successful business families in Pakistan often have a member of the ‘clan’ run for elective office. The purpose is to participate in government as an ‘insurance’ policy to safeguard the business interests of the family involved and more importantly to guarantee prospects for growth of the family business. This is then clearly not something that either improves the quality of governance or decreases the amount of corruption.
Obviously not all people who enter politics in Pakistan do so to become richer and all career bureaucrats are definitely not incompetent or venal. However, it would be an important addition to the pool of competent managers if successful people from the private sector could be inducted directly into the senior bureaucracy. Already we have the idea of lateral entry into the bureaucracy, so why not add to it the idea of direct induction of people from the private sector for a limited duration. And of course if such appointees do not perform adequately, they can always be sent home, unlike members of the permanent bureaucracy.
Induction of people who have already ‘made it’ in the private sector to run technical parts of the federal and provincial bureaucracies will, in my opinion, add to the quality of ‘governance’. It will also decrease the amount of corruption that is seen because of the relatively low compensation available in government service. Well-off outsiders will obviously be resistant to the lure of ‘filthy lucre’. The desire to serve is present among many in our business community but there are no venues available for them to pursue this desire other than first contesting an election.
More importantly, the idea that a general cadre bureaucrat can really understand the intricacies of a technical department is no longer valid in the modern world of advanced specialisation. How can somebody who has little knowledge of the intricacies of what a particular department oversees actually run such a department effectively? And by the time these bureaucrats actually get around to learning about what exactly goes on, it is time for them to move on to another posting.
It is perhaps time to bring down the wall that exists between the private and the public sector if we want to improve the quality of governance and control corruption.

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