Reform Implementation

 A must do come next elections

Expecting elections in early 2013 political parties have started work on their manifestoes, agendas and policy papers/positions. Some have even started announcing bits and pieces of these to create some buzz in the media and society and to elicit support for ideas from the public. This activity is going to pick up pace over the next few months. Hopefully, some interesting ideas and pledges will come through, and more importantly, the winners will actually implement some of the changes they are promising once they are in power. Given the state of our economy, governance, and institutions, the urgent case for radical reforms is not hard to make. It will be surprising if any party does not promise deep and thorough reforms in their manifestoes for the next elections.

All of the political parties are likely to say that education, health and social sectors need major reforms: they need more resources, the resources need to be better spent, and we need new thinking in some of these areas, for example on the role of the state versus the role of the public sector. All parties are likely to say that governance is in need to major reforms and these reforms will have to include radical institutional reforms as well: move towards local government and decentralization is likely to be popular, as will be moves to streamline state owned enterprises and other state run institutions.

Everyone will have to take on issues of fiscal reforms. Tax rates are already quite high in Pakistan so most parties are likely to talk about extending the tax net, bringing those who are currently not paying taxes, or not paying enough (agriculturalists, traders, businessmen) into the formal economy and the tax structure, and removing all the ad hoc exemptions that have been given on political and/or rent-seeking grounds. All parties will have to offer new ideas on the issue of energy and electricity: generation, distribution as well as pricing. One just hopes that parties will do some in depth work and go beyond rhetoric and/or just mentioning of these issues in their manifestoes and offer some interesting possible solutions.

But apart from ideas on what needs to be done, it will be far more interesting to see what the parties propose on how they would be implementing the ideas they would be proposing. In public policy and reform, implementation issues are as interesting and important, if not more so, than ideas on what needs to be done. This is where most parties, at least so far, have not been coming up with interesting things to say.

We all know that education is an important sector for Pakistan’s future, its growth as well as possibly its existence. We also know, and most parties and people acknowledge it, that our education system, especially the public sector one, is in very poor shape. We also know that even the bulk of the private sector, the low fee private sector, is only imparting fairly poor quality education. Article 25A, added to the Constitution through the 18th Amendment, has committed the state of Pakistan to ensure that all children, between 5 and 16 years of age, need to have access to free and compulsory education. All parties are saying they will ‘fix’ education. But how are they going to do it?

PPP, ANP, PML-N, PML-Q and MQM have been in power in various governments over the last five years. They have not been able to do much, in fact almost nothing at all, in the sector over these years. And more importantly, they have not even come up with any interesting ideas for the sector over the years. PTI has not been in power and so the same cannot be said about them, but most of the people who are leading the PTI now have been in other parties over the last many years. And while they were there, they have been ministers, senators and MNAs. They are not unknown people in that sense. Do we expect them to come up with new and interesting ideas on implementation after they have joined PTI?

All parties are likely to promise an increase in the percentage of GDP that they will spend on education. But what particular institutional and governance reforms will they implement to make public schools better, and/or regulate private schools? How are those reforms to be implemented, how will decentralization help in improving educational access and quality, and what will be done to offer better, more accountable and more attractive career paths for teachers?

Over the last couple of decades that I have been a student and observer of public policy and reform issues in Pakistan, I have observed the pattern so many times: good or decent ideas have been proposed often enough, and various parties, ministers and other stakeholders have even expressed intentions of implementing changes, but when it comes to trying out actual implementation, most of the policies did not do too well. One reason for this is that implementation is a lot messier than proposing ideas. You have to work with people and existing institutions to implement change and people who stand to lose due to change will resist them. And facing resistance, most ministers and/or other stakeholders, tend to step back and do not want to ruffle people too much. If there was stronger commitment to change from the party and party leaders, maybe the resistance cold be countered, but in most cases that support was not there and so policies were usually abandoned or would get lip-service only. Hopefully parties, this time round, will feel more responsible to the people and will have more of a commitment to change. But this also depends on how the electorate, rating the performance of the parties that have been in power, rewards/punishes them and sets incentives for performance for the future.

Key ingredients to institutional reform, from across a lot of literature, have been identified as the involvement of and ownership of the people at large and the commitment of the people who are in-charge of implementing change. Hopefully the manifestoes will detail the changes that parties will implement, and some detail on how they will implement them. Whether the public will buy their promises, and post election get involved with implementation and whether the commitment of the parties will continue through implementation, we will only know about in time.

From Pakistan Today, Pakistan, Tuesday 28th August, 2012.

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