Delaying of decisions to defy needed change is fatal for any country. A well-known proverb says ‘Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today. ’The ongoing pandemic has put severe problems in front of our country, its economy, the state institutions, etc. and decision-making is part of this. Many problems had already existed before the onslaught of Covid-19, but they have been aggravated in the changed situation. Governance has been one of our major recurring problems.
From day one of Pakistan’s existence, this has strangled the development in multiple sectors of our economic and social life. The lack of knowledge in the early days aside, the inheritance of a British type of bureaucracy, very rightly labelled the ‘steel-frame of Empire’, aptly describes its harsh and immobile character, the inherited political system of democracy has aggravated the habit of delaying decisions.
The kind of elaborate bureaucratic system introduced by the British made the process and the time for a decision to be taken much longer – a method that the ‘brown sahibs’ of our bureaucracy have mastered. Only that in addition they introduced corruption into the process: first one had to pay to get the wrong thing done by them and today one has to pay to speed up even a right decision to be taken. This has to change in order to improve governance.
Not taking a decision once it is established that it is needed is a common feature of governance in general, and in Pakistan particular. This is how Brad Spangler, an American researcher, has described this tactic while dealing with public policy dispute resolution.
To quote, “Delay is a tactic of slowing down a decision-making process in order to maintain the status quo. It is employed mainly by parties involved in difficult public policy disputes (though it can be used in other contexts) who do not want changes made. If a group is part of the decision-making process but does not want change, the slower the process, the better. If they do not have a say in the design of the process, then they can deliberately delay it by stalling on their involvement”.
The very fact that he gave the matter so much concern is a proof for the fact that the US and probably many more countries are suffering from the same dilemma.
In Pakistan the tobacco lobby has for many years been able to delay the introduction of a track and trace system that would help to limit the production and sale of illicit cigarettes
Delay in decision making is closely related to the political system of parliamentary democracy where the main aim of policy-making is to build a maximum of consensus between all political and other stakeholders in order to avoid later hurdles in implementation.
In a democracy, the decision-making process has been mandated with multiple rules and stages that have to be observed for the process to be credible and in accordance with law. In a kingdom or in a dictatorship, for instance, taking a decision and implementing it would be much less cumbersome.
The king or dictator would ask – or not ask- his advisers-and then take the decision single-handedly. A democracy alleges a broad public support for its policies, attempting consensus is necessary and, in most cases, a long and slow process. This needs many meetings, listening to arguments, looking into expert opinions and reports.
Many of the people who are supposed to decide a course of action do not have the required knowledge or insight into the matter but depend on the opinion of others. Democracy is out of place in these decision-making contexts, critics argue, because democratic citizens are too ignorant and too prone to cognitive biases and errors to be able to make the right decisions; decisions should be left to experts only.
There are other reasons for delaying a decision as well, and that is by intention of one group. We could call that ‘strategic’ delays. Such action is often used by interest groups such as lawyers in a court case or opposition members who do not have the power to win directly in parliament or a commission through a majority vote. Rather than waste their resources in making arguments they cannot win, some use delaying tactics to frustrate their opponent.
In Pakistan, the tobacco lobby has for many years been able to delay the introduction of a track and trace system that would help to limit the production and sale of illicit cigarettes. Even after the decision is taken its implementation can be delayed through multiple means especially in Pakistan, where implementation is anyway marred with multiple hurdles.
Of course, the administrators who are now entitled to take a decision will have to take the responsibility for it and need to be trained to do so
The delay in the decision-making process can be organized by asking for a variety of assessments and expert opinions, insisting on a long string of meetings with ‘stakeholders’, and bringing a lawsuit which they know they wouldn’t win, but it would delay the process even further. The goal in such a strategy is to delay the decision long enough that the decision-taking body, a commission, company or else, would get frustrated and give up.
In the political system of Pakistan where the Parliament is stocked with people who have vested interests and political parties are run by families and clans who use them mostly as vehicles to promote those interests the political class has learned how to use the rules of the system for their advantage.
Read more: Resurrection of political mafia
A good illustration is the sugar mafia of Pakistan consisting of members of parliament and holders of high party positions who use their influence to delay or even prevent change in the system so as to secure their group interest. With all the money at stake why not buy the judicial system? The sugar scandal’s open and shut evidence as unearthed by a detailed inquiry requires ruthless accountability, though our superior courts do not think so!
Despite all the knowledge how the existing system is (mis)used by vested interest or how clumsy are the ordained normal procedures for decision taking it is necessary to speed up the process and/ or prevent intentional delays. The PTI government – though it of course has become part of the system which makes acting difficult – is trying to uproot existing interest groups and chains of corruption.
To expedite the decision-taking process one option could be to involve only the absolutely necessary people into the process. In a cabinet meeting, for instance, only those people should take part who are directly involved in the matter at hand and who have sound knowledge about the issue.
Read more: Pakistan’s bureaucracy needs overhaul
It could help also to streamline the decision-taking process in a hierarchical body like the bureaucracy when decision-making power is delegated down the line and not kept at the top level. Of course, the administrators who are now entitled to take a decision will have to take the responsibility for it and need to be trained to do so. We need to find a way how to expedite change without cutting too many corners (the writer is a defence and security analyst).
Ikram Sehgal, author of “Escape from Oblivion”, is a Pakistani defense analyst and security expert. He is a regular contributor of articles in newspapers that include: The News and the Urdu daily Jang. The article first published in Daily Times and has been republished with the author’s permission. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.