In an ideal world, public servants should play by the rules and make decisions based on sound judgment and analysis derived from past experience – without facing pressure or bias from politicians. In the real world we have politicians who do the exact opposite.
One of the first actions taken by Shehbaz Sharif after becoming Prime Minister was to visit the Rawal Chowk Flyover under construction in Islamabad. In an impulsive decision, he terminated the contract of the company working on the project and awarded it to the Frontier Works Organization for the same cost. As they say, the devil is in the details – even if FWO takes over the project at the same cost, it will result in a 7.5% loss to the Treasury as FWO enjoys a tax exemption. This is another case of something that is legal but not entirely legitimate.
The original contractor was slightly behind schedule, which is not surprising given the uncertain times. But when trying to earn brownie points, politicians are ready to go all the way. Sooner or later, the aggrieved party will move the court and get a stay order which will cause further delay in the project. One wonders when this culture of politicians overriding rules, procedures and even norms to meddle in decisions that should be made by professionals will end.
Politicians have filled the space vacated by professionals due to their inaction. Professionals are either petrified by the influence of politicians or crippled by the fear of being harassed by the NAB. The result is thoughtless application of the rules, and even professional dishonesty.
Some things may be legal but not legitimate.
Due to this approach, a loss of billions of rupees is on the cards and nobody cares as everything happens according to the so called rules. The National Highway Authority is renewing the tender for road maintenance projects as most contractors have shown an inability to work on these projects due to the unprecedented rise in oil and bitumen prices since they submitted the tender for the said contracts for the first time.
The NHA, instead of negotiating an agreement – which is contemplated in such circumstances under the terms of the contract – to advance work and allow for adjustments based on actual price increases, has canceled the projects and relaunched them. Now, the new rates are much higher than the previously quoted offers. There is a 50% to 60% difference on average, which means that the NHA, instead of allowing a 10% to 20% price adjustment in the old contracts, is ready to spend three times as much on the same work through new contracts.
All the professionals in the department are aware of this massive loss, but because they fear that NAB will question their decisions, they are ready to turn a blind eye to the billions that literally go in the trash. The delay in the execution of these projects – almost 100 in number – is the other disadvantage of this arrangement because it will take time to finalize the new contracts.
If the rules are to be implemented in such a rash way, why not replace civil servants with software that automatically makes decisions strictly based on the rules? Professionals bring with them the analysis, discretion and ability to find common ground and choose a legal and legitimate solution rather than a purely legal solution. As in this case, knowingly causing a loss of billions to the Treasury may be legal but cannot be called legitimate. Quick action can save billions here, but why bother because it won’t create the media buzz politicians need?
This brings us to the long-term solution – disbanding NAB so that professionals regain the space they left out of fear and start making informed decisions.
It is pertinent to point out that reducing the powers of the NAB, restructuring it or establishing rules to exclude officials from its jurisdiction will not bear fruit for the following reasons.
Pursuant to the National Accountability (Second Amendment) Order 2019, decisions made in good faith by public office holders, or any procedural irregularity having no financial impact, were excluded from the jurisdiction of the NAB. But the problem is that such an exemption does not mean that an investigation spanning years cannot be triggered to decide whether a decision was made in good faith or not. Moreover, this does not exclude the possibility of harassment of public officials and a media trial by spreading their photos behind bars.
Finally, perceptions are sometimes more important than reality. Disbanding the NAB would trigger a shift from a regressive to a progressive mindset among public servants. This would result in truly fast governance rather than just showmanship.
The author is a former civil servant.
Posted in Dawn, May 23, 2022