Friday, 22 August 2014

Dumping on Technocrats!


Pakistan society at all levels has a very uneasy relationship with technocrats. The common refrain is, “we want ‘doers’ and not ‘thinkers’. The implication being that we are a ’doing’ and not a ‘thinking’ people. I confess, I have no idea what this ‘doing’ is that we take pride in? What wonders have we created in our country to allow us to take such pride in our ‘doing’?
In the same vein, we keep looking for ‘practical solutions’ not theoretical. Anyone who says something that we do not like is labeled impractical. And please do review where our ‘practicality’ has got us?
Invariably, column-writers, conference participants, TV anchors find some way to point to the flaws of what we call technocrats. There is a deep distrust of them?
Who are these technocrats? It is a loose term that we use to lump all semi-well clad, reasonably well-read people who are outside the government. I have often tried to find out what is the difference between a professional, a researcher, a writer, a professor, banker, a doctor, a lawyer and other such skilled people. But no we do not distinguish they are all ‘technocrats!’ Gentlemen!” that is all we are looking for!
How these people use the term ‘technocrat’ is as a catchall for “not in bureaucracy or army, not in politics and somewhat educated.”  
In an age of specialization, it is surprising to see that in Pakistan, a bureaucrat with no specialized training can move from making education policy to running an energy plant to managing the national airline. Then we call them technocrats.
Now for some reason, these technocrats are seen as henchmen of the army. When martial law is imposed, popular myth has it that ‘technocrats’ are called in to fix the system. And indeed by our loose definition,technocrats are called in. In Ayub’s Martial Law the technocrats were the bureaucracy. In Zia’s time again it was the bureaucracy led by GIK. Mahbub ul Haq tried but was strongly resisted by the bureaucracy.
During Musharraf’s marital law we saw the entry of our technocratic Finance and then Prime Minister, Banker, Shaukat Aziz. Yes some industrialists and retired civil servants too joined in. And of course 2 serious economists, Salman Shah and Hafeez Sheikh!
Even in this lineup with only 2 or 3 professionals and the rest loosely defined technocrats, the line ministries and all other government agencies remained solidly in the hands of the bureaucracy. The line positions of government are never compromised to technocrats.
Does this history suggest that technocrats always aid martial law?
But then in my view our approach to the term technocrat and professional skills is all wrong. Whether martial law or democracy, there should always be a strong demand for good professionals to staff key positions in the government! The regulatory agencies—NEPRA, PEMRA, SECP, OGDC etc.—should always be deeply staffed with the best professionals and be given the widest possible autonomy to do their job. And there job is to do first rate research on their system. After all the job of regulation is monitoring, evaluating and adapting to innovations. This job has to be done by the best and most specialized professionals. And certainly such agencies should not report to any generalist secretary or any minister.  
Similarly, the job of a policymaking ministry should be to understand through research the area of their concern to see how it is shaping up and if a policy intervention is required. In this world view policy is a reluctant nudge applied when necessary. But we do not see that as the job. In our traditional, perhaps even feudal mindset, the job is running the sector through giving orders, telling people what to do, and conducting transactions. Here, policy is a sledgehammer and not a nudge.
Looked at in this way, there should be a strong demand for professionals in government and indeed everywhere. Why then do we look down upon them and constantly infer that technocrats are anti-democracy? And why are our democratic leaders not looking for strong professionals to manage agencies and develop policy.
Professionalizing government is the only way to improve governance and raise professional standards in the country. For too long, dilettantes have had their whimsical ways and have refused to succumb to discipline. I guess these continuous attacks on professionals are to prevent governance to improve?
So they pose the question as democracy versus martial law and throw in technocrats on the side of the army.
Meanwhile the invisible bureaucrat--the powerful mafia in control--continues to run all systems even when occasionally a few technocrats are allowed into the periphery.
To my mind we should ask all governments-- as well as all other organizations- to show us good professional appointments everywhere. All positions everywhere—even journalism and TV--requireprofessionalism.
Professionalism is not an option. Any government that is not making good appointments should face public opprobrium. And come election time, we should tell them that they do not know how to hire good people.  
And we should give professionals more respect by being more mindful of their skill rather than lump them into one vague term called technocracy.
Finally democracy is not the election of a ruler who will run the country as a family kitchen. The election merely confers the power to translate the people’s desire into policy. The machinery of government has to be independent and professional to keep the continuity of business going translating the desires of the electorate through their representatives.