Thursday, 16 November 2017

Why do politicians hate technocrats?

Whenever ‘elected’ dynastic governments start to unravel the myth of a technocratic government backed by the army is rolled out by politicians and sympathizers of their misrule.

Myths about ‘technocrats’
  
1.     ‘Technocrat’ is anyone “not in bureaucracy or army, not in politics and somewhat educated.” In an age of specialization, all semi-well clad, reasonably well-read people who are outside the government are regarded as power hungry connivers looking for an in with the army. All retired bureaucrats or army generals are technocrats as are all businessmen even if their own businesses are not growing or successful.

This definition is very different from what the rest of the world thinks. Technocrats is more or less an obsolete term used to describe technically capable people who could provide research, managerial, and other technical skills towards the making of a better society and government. The emphasis was on the need for specialized skills in areas such as the management and development of energy, transport, environment, economics, education health and many other increasingly technical subjects as societies and economies get more complex.

2.     All army coups are backed by and staffed by technocrats. Review the evidence and you will see that this myth is based on the definition of technocrat as a dilettante.

It is true that dictators make an effort to find some professional people for better governance and policy. After an initial 2-3 years, their cabinets contain the usual politicians. Even the early technocratic cabinet had businessman and retired bureaucrats in cabinet positions and not necessarily highly skilled professionals matched to the right positions.

The truth is that the invisible bureaucrat--the powerful mafia in control—has run all systems through both martial law and democracy even when occasionally a few technocrats are allowed into the periphery. They thrive on the notion that any bureaucrat with no specialized training is very well-equipped to revolve between managing and making policy in education, health energy, railways, and all other technical positions in government and even outside.

3.     Democracy is incompatible with technocracy. Recently the Interior minister wrote an op-ed arguing that the issue was “democracy vs technocracy.” Civil servants, columnists and anchors all point out that policy and projects are whims of politicians with no need for technical scrutiny. Politicians love this arbitrary power that is handed to them and argue vociferously against technical skills in government. Sympathizers especially the civil servants have a vested interest in decrying special skills in government. 

4.     Government only needs politics and no technical skills. Elected governments revel in bad appointments and their supporters don’t seem to mind.

Yet modern governance--whether martial law or democracy--requires that key positions--management of public sector agencies as well as the development of policy—should be staffed by the best available professionals. Regulatory agencies—SBP NEPRA, PEMRA, SECP, OGDC etc.—should be deeply staffed with the best professionals and be given the widest possible autonomy to do their job. Similarly, universities, hospitals, utilities and many public service provision agencies should all be professionally staffed and with autonomy from politics.

Why would elected governments not demand competence in government?

5.     We elect an imperial Prime Minister. The Urdu word ‘hakumat’ helps creates this erroneous impression. They want the PM to have unbridled power and everyone should be ‘under him.’ Most commentators believe that elected leaders have a ‘divine right to rule.’

People elect representatives asking them to frame laws and influence policy in line with mandate from the election. Elections don’t give the right to rule the country whimsically, signing foreign deals at will, initiating projects as they like, spending public money without check, and gifting state land and contracts to favorites.  

The role of elected leaders

Consider how a corporation is run. Shareholders elect the board of directors to oversee the running of the company who in turn hire the best professional managers to execute the policies approved by the board. Even the policies of the corporation don’t come only from the board. Guidance and suggested directions come from the board. But mostly well-researched proposals from the management and staff are put up to the board for guidance and approval.  

We should think of the elected parliamentarians and the cabinet as board members. They are there for guidance, oversight and decision-making not to run the government. Ministers should not be running executing agencies for public service provision. Cabinets and parliaments review reports and policy proposals arising from agencies. Ministries monitor and develop reports on public service provision and occasionally propose required policy changes. 

Good governance arises through such checks and balances and specialized roles.

Professionalizing government is no longer an option. For too long, dilettantes have had their whimsical ways and have refused to succumb to discipline. All positions everywhere—government agencies, universities, police, journalism and TV—should be filled with competent professionals of a high quality.

Continuous attacks on professionals must be understood as means to preserve status quo of arbitrary rule. ‘Democracy versus martial law with technocrats’ merely suggests that democracy wants an Imperial Prime Ministry which is totally undemocratic.

Let us also stop talking of obsolete terms like technocrats that lump all manner of skilled professionals into one vague category.


Politicians must stop dumping on knowledge and skilled people. Instead they need to develop a healthier relationship with learning and professionals.