Towards a decentralised Pakistan

Without civil service reform, devolution of policy setting will be unachievable and the current reform may just not achieve its intended purposes

On July 1, 2011, the third phase of redistribution of federal powers and functions was completed whereby 7 federal ministries now stand devolved. These include Ministries of Health, Food and Agriculture, Labour and Manpower, Environment, Women Development, Sports and Minorities affairs. Earlier, ten ministries were devolved to the provinces with the abolition of concurrent list under the 18th Amendment.

Implementing the 18th Amendment: The process has been fraught with political bickering between the Centre and the Provinces and resistance by powerful groups, which are beneficiaries of a centralised Pakistan. However, these political and administrative contests have not undermined the process of devolution. A major factor in negotiating this transition has been the role of Mian Raza Rabbani who heads the Implementation Commission for the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.

Most significantly, the political parties have shown their willingness to work together in achieving the intended results of provincial autonomy related clauses. Having said that, the real test of the elected civilian governments has just begun. Large scale restructuring of the federal government and transfer of new functions to the provinces implies that there is much more needed than executive notifications and political rhetoric.

Beyond executive notifications: Four challenges are of urgent importance. First, to ensure that devolution process is completed and not truncated or manipulated to suit the ends of the political parties. At the same time the regulatory capacity of the state, already weakened over decades, must not be diluted during the transition. Secondly, the corresponding institutional capacities are also devolved to the provinces and where missing, the Centre should advise and facilitate institutional strengthening. Thirdly, a civil service reform is required to achieve the responsive and citizen-oriented governance – the larger goal of the 18th Amendment. Finally, decentralisation of provincial powers is also needed and the local government system should be reintroduced. Unpacking and addressing these four imperatives is now an urgent responsibility, which the federal and provincial governments cannot absolve themselves of.

Is devolution complete? Within hours of the issuance of the June 30 notification by the federal government, the largest constituent unit of the federation, the Punjab province, sent a long letter of protest highlighting how several functions of the ‘devolved’ ministries were still retained by the Centre. Examples of the ‘partial devolution’ complained by the Punjab province are instructive. For instance, while the ministry of Labour and Manpower has been devolved, the attached Workers Welfare Fund and the Employees Old Age Benefits Institution have not been decentralised. Similarly, while devolving Health Ministry the Drug Regulatory Authority is still a central subject. Another body of dubious performance, the Pakistan Agricultural Storage & Services Corporation remains intact despite the 18th Amendment.

While Punjab may be protesting too much in view of the recent escalation of Centre-Punjab conflict, there is a need to view devolution not as a formalistic transfer of the ministerial apparatus but of decision-making powers and the ability to negotiate and transact public policy choices.

Partial reform syndrome: Development theorists have highlighted the pitfalls of the ‘partial reform syndrome’ in many contexts. Institutional and political factors are vital in shaping incentives for policy makers to implement reforms. Gaps between stated and actual commitments to reform most of the times differ, and the case of devolution under the 18th Amendment is no different. A centralised culture of exercising power will not go away in months or years. It would require decades and negotiations via ‘triangles of accommodation’ among bureaucrats, politicians and strongmen. In Pakistan’s case, multinational corporations, business lobbies and other non-state actors (such as the contractors, middlemen etc) also set the policy course. The greatest challenge to devolution, therefore, is overcoming the partial reform syndrome and Punjab has made a good start by highlighting it and calling for mediation at the level of Council of Common Interests.

Regulatory capacities: Important ministries such as health, agriculture, women’s development and environment have been undertaking regulatory functions. The Drugs’ authority is still at the centre but there needs to be a debate where it belongs. Being overly centralised and a preserve of a few bureaucrats, regulation of drugs has been a joke where powerful multinational pharmaceutical companies have prevailed over a weak and vulnerable group of mandarins. Environment is another area where weakened regulation will enhance the risks to the economy and society. Climate change agenda requires strong regulation at all levels. These capacities must not be lost or undermined during the current transition and, therefore, should remain a focus of policy debate and political negotiations. And, let’s not forget how important are labour standards and addressing various policy issues. Devolving labour ministry must not result in weakening of enforcement of state’s obligations to the working class.

Inadequate federal arrangements: The post-18th Amendment changes appear to be hurried and devoid of imagination. Instead of thinking out of the box, the Cabinet, Inter-provincial coordination and Planning and Development Divisions have been dumped with additional responsibilities. The under-performance and weak capacities of these institutions was already a matter of concern for the last few decades. For instance, the Economic Affairs Division gets donor support for even the basic innovations. It will be extremely difficult for these inefficient bureaucratic layers to handle new vital responsibilities without technical staff, budgets and swift decision-making powers. This is why regulatory issues relating to education, health and other sectors require more innovative and independent arrangements. Perhaps the next phase of the ongoing process should devote exclusive attention to this.

Provincial institutions and capacities: At this stage it is also unclear how much of devolution has taken place in terms of staff. Media reports suggested that provinces were not keen to take all the federal employees on board due to financial constraints. But the general administrative staff is available everywhere, it is the technical staff that matters. Environmental experts, engineers, archaeologists and finance specialists are needed with the new powers at the provincial levels (especially in the smaller provinces). This is why it may be important to discuss staffing and capacity plans at the provincial levels and also the changes in legislation and rules of business. Scores of laws and rules assign responsibilities to central authorities and, therefore, the provinces will now need to get down to serious business of framing new laws and ensuring that they are no replicas of archaic colonial legal frameworks.

Specifically, the labour, women’s development and environment departments are the most sidelined and under-funded provincial departments. They will be undertaking a host of functions and projects, which require suitable staff and resources. In view of the climate change phenomena, the provincial environment departments need a fresh role and reorganisation that can only be approved if the Chief Ministers and their cabinets are on board. Donor coordination requirements will also increase at the province level; and this requires new business model within the province, which is less archaic and inefficient than the present arrangements.

What happened to civil service reform: It has been reported that yet another civil service reform commission is on the cards. Dozens of such committees and commissions have made recommendations perhaps not so much at the provincial level. As I have argued before, the Ishrat Hussain commission has proposed a useful reform agenda that needs to be taken forward. The proposal of easier entry and exit into the public service and the creation of a national executive service are ideas that must not be trashed just because status quo-ists in the bureaucracy find them unappealing.

Provinces are now going to handle the business of 17 federal ministries; and most importantly exclusively in charge of policy-making in crucial areas such as health, education, gender, agriculture and environment to name a few. Reliance of donor-funded consultants cannot be the norm. Instead, core staff in the departments must be hired, trained or re-designated to fulfill the requirements of effective policy process. Three competencies – financial and budgetary expertise; sector specialism and gender-sensitive policy skills – are needed in most departments. Without civil service reform, devolution of policy setting will be unachievable and the current reform may just not achieve its intended purposes.

Devolving powers to the local level: Provinces such as the Punjab and Balochsitan are way too populous or huge to ensure effective policy implementation and service delivery without further devolution. The state is bound by the clauses of the Constitution to set up a local government system. Yet, the rollback of Musharraf’s devolution has not been followed by a credible alternative. Admittedly, these are not easy times for the federal and the provincial governments, but they have to focus on local governance and install strong accountability mechanisms. Electoral accountability is globally known to be the best way of giving people a voice and making the leaders and service providers at the grassroots level work as responsive state functionaries.

Sadly, the provincial governments are not keen and the ruling coalition is also wary of sharing powers with local representatives. This attitude and power-culture defeats the intent of 18th Amendment and the current devolution. There are multiple possibilities to be explored without resorting to 1979 or 2001 models of devolution. However, the federal government must lead this process and facilitate inter-provincial dialogue. Parliamentarians need to think beyond their short-term and ineffective patronage systems to set up local government systems. In fact, this may be the right time to think of province-specific arrangements that cater to the unique needs of each province. Civil society and media need to build pressure on this front. Thus far the policy discourse is populist, foreign-policy-obsessed and too removed from people’s everyday concerns of reliable and timely services, security and a responsible state.

Despite the public cynicism and ‘anti-democracy’ discourse in the media, the Parliament has led a vital reform with far-reaching effects. After a century and a half, the arbitrary colonial state is being decentralised addressing the historical struggles for provincial autonomy in contemporary history of Pakistan. But the challenges are manifold and quite formidable in nature. The provinces will have to steer the process of consolidating the constitutional gains through effective institutional restructuring to ensure that the implementation of 18th Amendment does not turn into an intra-bureaucracy power shift. This is the time for sub-national social movements, media and academia to articulate a reform agenda and pressurise the provincial elites to undertake reforms essential to bridge the gap between state and the citizens.

The writer is a policy adviser and writer based in Lahore. His writings are archived at Follow him on Twitter @razarumi

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