Dominance of unelected personnel in governance

ByM Ali Siddiqi

writer who contributes to leading periodicals


November 26, 2022

Dominance of unelected personnel

M Ali Siddiqi looks at the confusion created by an
unusual situation

One of the reasons for the current Dominance of unelected personnel in governance turmoil is described to be the lack of competence exhibited by the top leadership of the previous party in power that was voted out of power earlier this year. It was mentioned in this context that during the entire tenure of the PTI government the affairs of the state were controlled and managed by the unelected civil servants who held complete sway over the important offices of the state particularly the Prime Minister’s Office and they hardly allowed any leeway to the elected representatives who were just onlookers and toed the line given to them by the government servants posted in their respective ministries and departments. This is a very serious lacuna and unfortunately has become a constant in the governance process of the country that has caused serious harm to the welfare of the people. The situation has come to a pass where it has become untenable to sustain it any further and the need is to bring about radical and rational changes to this process.

The evolving factors of governance in democratic dispensations have resulted in complicated office of PM requiring support regime helping in shouldering complex responsibilities related to coordinating policy, taking decisions, arranging resources, providing critical analysis, resolving disputes and ensuring implementation. In an atmosphere laden with multilayered international relations and continuous media glare the importance of a support system has grown manifold. The presence of political personnel managing the levers of the executive office are more amenable to stay in touch with the prevalent political currents and are more suited to policy formulation and execution.

An effective support unit filters documents put up to PM forecasting impending political and technical issues. It examines recommended policy initiatives for ascertaining that they present a wider, coordinated perspective rather than reflecting departmental priorities. The support structure maintains a balance between core government and bureaucratic apparatus and personally preferred policy areas advanced by Prime Minister with a view to preclude possibility of sudden shifts of priorities.

PMs obtain or receive policy advice from multiple sources including civil service and external agencies along with political feedback from informal sources making policy making arena extremely complex eclipsing traditional hierarchical model on which PMO functions. The plurality of such factors dictates that civil service can no longer maintain a monopoly over policy advice that requires increasing involvement in it of outsiders like think-tanks, special advisers and frontline practitioners. There is a growing trend to rely on support given by individuals having political rather than administrative background and by people who are media and policy experts rather than career civil servants.

In this connection it is widely acknowledged that formulation and implementation of policies have more chance of succeeding if they are conviction driven instead of hierarchically proffered and robotically pursued. It has also been observed that formal systems have inherent limitations as much of interaction between a leader and his staff depends on personal relationships and most action occurs outside formal channels.

The influence of political personnel, working explicitly for PM, managing both political and administrative affairs is not a phenomenon unique to one country. It has increasingly become evident that a PM finds it difficult to operate in absence of such close advice and support. Such advisers critically analyze policy proposals forwarded by government to give advice to the PM about which policies are in an acceptable state to proceed and about the progress of policies underway.

Considering that a political mindset profoundly differs from an administrative perception, political appointees are better placed to identify clashes between policies, notice opportunities to combine initiatives or help decide which policies are of particular priority along with contesting the advice provided by other departments. In essence they assist PMO to become the control centre of the government’s broad policy narrative. Moreover politically appointed support structure helps resolve disagreements between ministries allowing PM more time to spend on critical issues. Political apparatus acts as an early warning system for PM, pre-empting and defusing potential problems.

The top of political pyramid is pulled in two directions; reliance on civil service or ascendancy of political associates. It should always be kept in mind that, at the top, politics is a personal matter and the executive will run at that level on largely informal lines. Informality at the top provides speed, efficiency and increased opportunities for imaginative and constructive points brought before PM. In contrast, the supposedly non-partisan advice proffered by civil servants is generally written by generalist staff in line departments with steering briefs from senior level officers that usually lack capacity for critical, whole-of-government analysis of policies.

Civil Servants are stiff and dogmatic by temperament, educated in high sounding institutions, usually are ‘generalists’ rather than specialists, operating in a rigid hierarchy, acutely conscious of their career prospects and jealously protective of their knowledge and working of governmental machinery. They are normally caught in the dichotomy between politics and administration. The drawback of placing civil servants in PMO is that same civil servants who gave policy advice to one PM may start to give policy advice to his successor in their areas of expertise. There are questions of permanent civil service unwilling to change its opinion about issues and resultantly blocking political agenda.

These PMOs provide policy advice to the PM and act as competing sources of policy influence. This advice is given in addition to the substantial amounts of non-partisan, whole-of-government advice which leaders receive from their departments. Civil servants in these offices have a secondary role of monitoring and reporting back implementation process. The tendency to rely heavily on the civil service hampers the flow of the political process at the highest executive level resulting in isolating the political executive.

Pakistan follows the parliamentary form of government where the majority of staff is civil service appointments but Pakistan’s political governance will be better served with personnel who bear political orientation and commitment. It is indeed unnerving for a politician to master the cumbersome governmental practice without active support of his political colleagues. The political entrant grapples with status quo ridden official machinery whose patronising frolics encumber his messianic spirit and inhibits his broader vision.

A lot of distortion creeps in by the time he comes to grip with the nuances of administrative machine. This is precisely the reason that modern democratic dispensations rely more and more on acquiring political support in running government. One of the reasons of failure of Nawaz Sharif’s government was excessive reliance on bureaucratic machinery than expert political hands. Since the tenures of many political dispensations it is noticed that the tendency to manage policy affairs through either the civil service or unelected technocrats has badly distorted the political vision and even the credibility of these dispensations.

In this context it is advisable to increase political advice in governance matters and the administrative unit, manned by career civil service, is utilised for managing its day to day chores including conducting PM’s appointments, movement and logistics. It is required to devise a private office headed by political personnel and supported by official secretariat staff mandated to keep PM’s diary, liaise with Parliament and its members, social sector and all stake holders. The third unit should deal with policy manned exclusively by political personnel that may oversee all political activity and the fourth unit should be concerned with media matters that should also be dealt with political personnel. TW

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