Aimed at introducing some extensive institutional and governance reforms in Pakistan, ‘Transform Governance’ was the key point in PTI’s manifesto for the 2018 General Elections. Political slogans like “Naya Pakistan” and “Tabdeeli” essentially reinforced the ruling party’s resolve to introduce such reforms in the country. Having come into power in August 2018, Prime Minister Imran Khan appointed the renowned economist and ex-governor SBP Dr. Ishrat Hussain as his Special Assistant on Institutional Reforms and Austerity. I don’t know exactly if Dr. Ishrat Hussain and his team have formally put forward any proposal for institutional reforms, we are yet to see any significant reform or structural change in any public sector institution in Pakistan. It simply shows that the incumbent government, despite being in power for 21 months, is either not interested in seriously implementing its promised reformed agenda or just clueless about how to bring about change in the country.

An institutional reform generally implies any structural or functional change introduced in any institution aiming to improve its performance, efficiency, or service quality etc. In Pakistan, “institutional reform” has been one of the most commonly employed and equally abused term since its inception in 1947. In reality, no civilian or military regime in the country has ever seriously endeavoured to overhaul or improve the performance of public sector institutions despite the fact that most of them have just become the lame ducks. There is certainly a dire need to introduce some basal reforms in a number of public institutions including the local governments, civil administration, tax administration, police, anti-graft watchdogs, regulators, and public sector enterprises (PSEs) etc. Likewise, the country’s education, healthcare, judicial, electoral and democratic structures also need a serious overhaul.

As a matter of fact, institutional reforms and public governance have been my favourite topics as a columnist. I have produced a number of pieces on public policy and governance in Pakistan. Since these issues have a direct impact on the lives of Pakistanis, I will further try to dwell on them once or twice a month. However, such endeavours could only be worthwhile if the government takes the lead in seriously overhauling the dilapidated structures of our public sector institutions and departments. Reforming an institution is definitely a herculean task for anyone. Institutions, just like individuals, are inherently conservative that often oppose every change. There is bunch of civil bureaucrats in the country who would be resisting any significant change in the structure or functions of some public institutions and government departments since they are the major beneficiaries of this status quo. Therefore, a strong political will and resolution on the part of incumbent government would be required to drastically reform these institutions.

Good governance is obviously not a rocket science in the contemporary world. Devolution of power and grassroots level empowerment are the basic elements of good governance all over the world. Many civilised and advanced countries have evolved some efficient and smart local government institutions through empowering their local communities. These institutions are actively providing education and healthcare facilities in addition to civic amenities to local inhabitants. They are also playing a pivotal role in maintaining law and order and combating crimes in the localities. The local government institutions are an integral part of the governance structure in each civilised country whether it is a federal or a unitary state, a republic or a monarchy. Thus, the efficiency and maturity of the local government institutions essentially distinguish a developed country from a developing one.

In my opinion, the local government (LG) institutions should take centre stage when it comes to introducing reforms in our public institutions. These LG institutions can provide a foundation upon which the entire superstructure of good governance can be conveniently erected. It would be advisable to shape the basic framework of LG institutions before proposing any civil service or other public sector reforms in the country. These institutions will certainly have an impact on the form and functions of the police, civil administration, regulators and other government agencies at the district and grassroots level. Therefore, the government should initiate its intended reforms agenda from the grassroots level with LG institutions rather than pointlessly restructuring ministries and divisions in Islamabad.

Sadly, local government institutions could not flourish in Pakistan owing to vested political interests of our ruling elite. The politicos have been avoiding holding LG elections to appease their party MPs in the country’s constituency-based politics. On the other hand, the military dictators were only interested in establishing LG institutions in accordance with their personal brand of democracy. According to Article 140A of the Constitution, it is mandatory duty of each provincial government to establish LG system, and “devolve political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local governments”. Nonetheless, provincial governments have mostly been shying away from holding LG elections. The last LG elections in the country were held only when the superior courts directed the provinces to do so after intervening in this matter.

The ultimate objective of the 18th Amendment was the devolution of power – the devolution of power from the centre to the provinces, and in turn, from provinces to grassroots level. Unfortunately, in the absence of LG institutions, the administrative powers have now concentrated at the provincial headquarters across the country. In fact, the local government institutions can ensure good governance in the large-sized provinces in the country. These institutions can also pacify or satisfy the deprived and alienated people from the country’s backward areas who are currently demanding a separate province for them.

Instead of strengthening the LG institutions, the PTI-led Punjab government simply chose to dissolve the local governments across the provinces in May last year. However, despite a lapse of one year, the government has not held the promised local bodies elections in the province. Had there been LG institutions in place in the country, Pakistan would be in a better position to meet its coronavirus-related challenges these days. The elected representatives of LGs would be helping the government effectively enforce preventive measures against the spread of COVID-19 besides identifying and approaching such individuals who need financial assistance in these troubled times.

There are many who oppose establishing local government institutions at the cost of exiting bureaucratic administrative structures at the district level across the country. They often argue that these institutions can only work and flourish in societies where individuals are educated and well aware. Ironically, while arguing this, they always forget that individuals from the same society are electing and being elected as the members for the parliament and provincial assemblies, who eventually run governments at the federal and provincial levels. One should obviously not criticise such institutions which never took root in the country. The local government institutions can only be evolved by ensuring their continuity and perpetuity. And without evolving and establishing the local government institutions in Pakistan, I am afraid the government’s intended reform agenda would end up in a miserable fiasco.