Performance agreements — a new paradigm

The Prime Minister has signed performance agreements with 41 federal ministries to make them accountable during the remaining period of the current government. This is a novel concept for Pakistan’s public sector which has so far known only one form of accountability — inquiries and investigation on corruption. Never ever has anyone been questioned on subpar performance, let alone in a systematic and documented way.

The idea of performance agreement has been circulating in the corridors of the government since 2014. But it was only two years ago that the idea was given a greenlight by the federal cabinet. The concept was then pilot-tested in 11 ministries before being taken to all the ministries. Each agreement includes targets for the current financial year (2021-22), next financial year and some ongoing initiatives. Reportedly, these targets have been further broken down into quarterly milestones by the ministries. In essence, the system provides a very simple and easy-to-understand process to document and chase targets for each ministry. This concept is already in practice in many countries around the world.

A few months ago, when these agreements were initially signed, I wrote about them and suggested that these contracts should be disclosed to public to improve transparency and accountability. I also suggested that the government must take into account the fact that many targets could be outside the scope of a single ministry. I am pleased to see these agreements now being released to the public. Moreover, the document does mention government efforts to track 1700+ interdependencies between various ministries. The system is now being run by a high-level peer review committee, backed by an online portal, with regular quarterly review of the results. Even more importantly, the timeline set for the targets align with the tenure of the present government — something that makes the whole exercise quite meaningful.

There is a general risk with such contracts that bureaucrats could try to game them by setting really easy targets. On a closer look, however, it becomes evident that while some ministries have indeed tried to hide behind routine initiatives, most have in fact set quite ambitious and concrete targets.

For instance, by June 2022, the Privatization Division will complete the privatization of Balloki and Haveli Bahadur power plants, Pakistan Steel Mills, Jinnah Convention Centre Islamabad, Services International Hotel Lahore, SME Bank, Heavy Electrical Complex, Sindh Engineering Limited and many other properties. This is much more than what the ministry has achieved in the whole of last decade.

Other ministries have agreed that by June 2023, they would operationalise the Gwadar International Airport, outsource at least one airport to the private sector, establish a model SEZ in Islamabad and the CPEC SEZ on Pakistan Steel Mills, roll out e-procurement system across the federal government, launch the 5G network, operationalise Islamabad Forensic Science Agency, set up a 200-bed hospital in Islamabad, achieve financial close of the TAPI pipeline project, complete four projects under the Karachi Transformation Plan, and much more. All in all, the ministries have committed to more than 1,300 reform, policy, development and administrative initiatives, with most expected to be completed within the next two years.

Since these agreements are not legally binding documents (they never are even in other countries), the consequences for a minister or secretary for not meeting these targets remain unclear. Most targets are promised for the very end of the government’s tenure, leaving little room to even reprimand them, and that poses a delivery risk.

If the government can meet the majority of these targets, it would be nothing less than a miracle and will definitely put PTI on very solid footing for the elections. On the downside, however, any significant lapses can cause the government some serious embarrassment and will put the spotlight on government’s performance right before the elections.

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