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Anatomy of policy making

We are all beneficiaries or victims of public policy. It is our end of the social contract that binds us to the state: giving the government the power to make rules, and if necessary use force to make us obey them, in exchange for our security and welfare. Because there are so many competing interests government has to do a fine balancing act. The dictum is the greatest good for the greatest numbers. What is ‘good’ is part mandatory, as enshrined in the Constitution, and part promise, as defined in the ruling party’s manifesto, or announced on TV to ‘azizhumwatno’.

Why is it that all governments find it so hard to deliver on what they promise or announce? Perhaps they can be forgiven for making promises and announcements without thinking, for not having enough of an idea what it would take. Maybe even betting on public’s short memory and its inability to hold them to account – quite forgetting the public cannot but history most surely does.

What is harder to forgive is their failure to comply with Constitutional dictates – census, national language, equality being the better-known instances of hapless prevarication. It is all about policy formulation. The cabinet and the senior civil servants share the responsibility for policy formulation. The former, supposedly closer to the people, are expected to know what people want. The latter, supposedly well trained in policy nuances, are expected to craft what the Ministers want.

The Pakistan experience shows both, the Ministers’ knowledge and the Civil Servants’ ability, to be unrealistic suppositions. To drive the point home let us survey certain policies that affect us. Let’s give Defence policy a miss. Matters of national security are best left to the Generals, as we are sure the Defence Minister will most readily agree.

What about Foreign Policy? We know there is more than one father but is there a mother who would give up her son to save him from the choice offered by Solomon – cut the son into two halves? Foreign Policy, in its essence, is the ability to influence and to defend interests;shape events that promote country interests, and contain the fallout effects of adverse events. There is always a transactional element but you never put deals before ideals. We seem to be poor players of this game of shifts and compromises, with no one answerable. What we are left with is the fig leaf of spin doctoring to cover policy failures.

Unsure of its policy space at home the Foreign Office finds solace abroad, maintaining missions that would be hard to justify for a country of our clout and economic size. What particular national interests, for instance, our missions in Buenos Aires, Dakar, Minsk, Astana, or even Lisbon protect or promote? Trade? Aid? Diaspora? Security and Defence needs?Historic ties? Pakistan has 86 embassies (plus 76 consulates). Much richer countries- Australia, Canada, Belgium,and host of others – have fewer.

Sadly, we do not use the considerable talent of our Foreign Service, leaving them believe ‘in diplomacy style is substance’, as they scurry for greatertrappings of office. In the old world of diplomacy hospitality was deemed a political instrument; a means to gather intelligence, create a favourable impression of your country, and win friends in high places. We are told we too are fervent devotees of this instrument, giving handsome entertainment and staff allowances. It doesn’t seem to have made a whit of a difference to our image.

The three other policy spheres affecting our security and welfare come within the domain of Ministries of Interior, Agriculture, and Industries, and their Provincial counterparts. Interior is full of sound and fury and wiggish appearances. National Action Plan has somnolent characteristics,waking up only when a new tragedy strikes. Police in the provinces is known better for our persecution than prosecution of criminals. It won’t be too frivolous to ask for the disbandment of police force now that we have come to depend on the para-military for our safety and security. How we shudder each time the Sindh Government does this pantomime, hemming and hawing about police powers to the Rangers! Balochistan, having abdicated all authority to the FC, at least has no pretence.

Agriculture and Industry, mainstay of real economy, have one thing in common: both have perverse incentives masquerading for policy. The bailout packages, from farm incomes to export support, deepen inefficiencies without addressing the structural issues.

Agricultural policy consists essentially of support prices, subsidised inputs, and greater (and cheaper) agricultural credit. Besides being costly and untargeted – they help the better off more – years of ‘more of the same’ have done nothing for greater productivity, which is what a sane policy should be about. The badly needed productivity and competitiveness enhancement measures are nowhere in sight.

Ministry of Industries and Production’s canvas is limited to SME’s, fertiliser industry, auto industry, and yes, that behemoth that no one wants to own, Pakistan Steel. Occasionally, they also play tootsie with the sugar sector. Greater protection to Industry seems to be the gospel, as we mindlessly watch this curious co-existence of opposites: growing profit margins and falling industrial productivity.

The auto policy is a classic case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. All the assemblers are working at near capacity level with profits now looking obscene, no export interest, unremarkable employment generation, and a marketing strategy driven by ‘on money’. Clearly, there is a demand-supply gap if the buyers have to wait months for delivery. The normal policy response would be to beef up supplies through imports. Why the government is unable to do so largely explains our policy conundrum: policy makers are not entirely free in the matter of policy choices. Literature calls it policy capture.

World Bank and IMF, who seek a proselytizing role in our economic and social policies, talk a lot of this policy capture but do little. IMF highlights the issue but its focus is on macroeconomic stability. World Bank interventions, consultant led and disbursement-driven,are over before the report card is written.

Conflicted, confused, compromised is how our policy matrix looks. It doesn’t have to be that way. What it needs is a better understanding of what is good for the country. Once we can agree on that we can talk of a charter of development.

Shabir Ahmed, "Anatomy of policy making," Business Recorder. 2017-05-25.
Keywords: Political science , Competing interests , Policy formulation , National security , Policy failures , Political instrument , TV , FC , IMF