By Raza Rumi
While the pundits have rambled on the venality of the politician and the slothfulness of the bureaucracy, Pakistan’s largest province has witnessed the rise of a unique phenomenon in terms of provincial public management articulated by its second-time Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif. In terms of efficacy of the public services and the administration of state machinery, the younger Sharif has set a leadership benchmark that daunts the political class as a whole. What are the points of departure here and how did this formidable image develop in less than a decade?
From 1997-99, arguably not a long stint in office, Shahbaz Sharif demonstrated the maximalist application and range of political will — from policy setting to micro-managerial interventions. It was a style that went down well with the populace, sent shivers down the imaginary backbones of the civil service and took the entrenched mafias and vested interests by huge shock. In the quest for an administrative style that could ‘deliver’, the younger Sharif was undaunted and bold. Exogenous factors admittedly were at play: a powerful government managed by the elder Sharif at the Centre, two thirds majority in the Punjab legislature tremendously helped in this quest for efficient public administration.
Therefore, a new style emerged that combined the popular versions of administrations run by Nawab of Kalabagh and Mustafa Khar, and added a predominantly modern and corporate ethos to it. It was the idea of public managers setting goals, targets and involving the private sector in a rule-based fashion. Other than the more visible infrastructural investments, the launching of public-private partnerships for urban public transport systems in Lahore and Rawalpindi, the launch of the private sector financed airport in Sialkot and restructuring of hospital management across the province were reflective of a ground-breaking vision of public administration.
Critics, of course, had a few major points to articulate. Foremost, this was a personalised style of governance and institutions lagged behind the personal dynamism of Shahbaz Sharif. In particular, the arrests and stern treatment meted out to the defaulting civil servants created waves of resentment within the bureaucracy and of course the sustainability of reform was faced with a question mark. In some measure the critics were right as the reform movement waned after the coup of 1999 and several of the innovations were either undone or diluted to render them ineffective. However, the PML-Q could not give up the style of management and therefore we saw Sharif’s successor maladroitly attempting to imitate the ‘new’ Sharifesque style of public management.
Such was the legacy of three years in office.
The central tenet of the Shahbaz Sharif style was a quick appreciation of history and how the district team mattered in delivering state services and ensuring a perception of responsiveness. The mansabdars and their successors, the deputy commissioners, were made to work at the local level with relative autonomy from the local and the provincial politician. The bargain was that this kind of unprecedented backing from the Chief Minister and space for action was to result in the achievement of provincial policy goals. Therefore, the health facilities for the first time were inspected duly and regularly by the officials of the Deputy Commissioner’s office, development work was implemented under such scrutiny to offset the predominance of the contractors’ mafia.
The results were stellar for as long as the Sharifs governments lasted.
Critics were also vocal that development was Lahore-centric with spillovers into parts of the northern and central Punjab. There was some merit in this assertion though not entirely true. Even in far-flung areas such as Dera Ghazi Khan and elsewhere the provincial government made immense headway and improved the overall administration as well as services.
However, it was Lahore that saw the transformation of its urban infrastructure, sound maintenance of works and efficacious delivery of public services. The widening of roads that took place through the Army’s construction subsidiary was completed in record time and the quality was matchless or at least superior to much of what had been constructed earlier. The elite-owned petrol pumps built without proper layouts and regulations were demolished overnight and the tricky business of removing encroachments was handled with a rare degree of fairness. The State, after a long time, was seen as applying and establishing its writ; and the urban interest groups were given a rude shock by the general even-handedness in application of law.
The financing of infrastructure across the province was also innovative: a sizeable portion of funds for development were raised through creative re-engineering and play with the encroached public assets that had little or no returns. There was some reaction to this zeal of generating funds such as the local uprising in Murree in 1998 when the government offices and property were set ablaze. However, the project continued until a tourism tax was imposed in 1999 and that continues to save the Murree’s municipal coffers from bankruptcy.
In the post-Bhutto Pakistan, populism cannot remain confined to interacting with the dreams of poor and a mere articulation of vision for change. This was an unwitting lesson imbibed by Shahbaz Sharif who ventured to showcase results and in certain cases change the embedded administrative practices. Air conditioned buses for urban commuters therefore became a landmark in a city that had largely focused on private cars and their easy facilitation.
The agenda, image and substance of the Shahbaz Sharif phenomenon holds a resonance with the fast urbanising districts of the central and northern Punjab that are not only PML-N’s base, but also the seat of current turbulence in the wake of lawyers’ movement. These districts are clamouring for urban public services and a state that gets down to civic improvement rather than overspend on martial goals. In new urban areas — from Attock to Okara — where safe drinking water is extinct, sanitation systems have collapsed, security is purchased from the private agencies, quality health and education service come with a price tag, urban unrest is logical.
This is why Shahbaz Sharif has been cheered and welcomed back by a population at the end of its patience with the old order. However, this public angst poses even a bigger challenge since a tumultuous decade has made the task of public administration even more daunting. The more pressing issue is that the Sharif phenomenon cannot just be a personal style steeped in the Mughal virtues of ruling. It has to get down to the messy institutional reform business. Such an agenda would require a headway towards civil service reform, realignment of local government system and of course instituting internal accountability mechanisms that are not hostage to the Chief Minister taking notice of everything that goes wrong in the Province. The best service that Sharif can do for the Punjab and the country is to ensure that agencies and departments undertake their regular business and that there are systemic safeguards to weed out those who cannot or are not inclined to deliver.