Most of us like to think that we are good at multitasking. Most of us are wrong.
The most dramatic illustration of the ‘myth of multitasking’ was provided by the recent three-day BlackBerry outage in the Middle East. In the UAE alone, traffic accidents fell by 40 per cent during that period.
I mention the myth of multitasking because I think it is one way to understand why our political parties and their leaders are so bad at what they do.
Our political parties are all led by people who think that they are exceptional at their jobs. In addition, they are extremely suspicious of all others (with the exception of their bachpan kay dost and their own children). Finally, they are constantly surrounded by people telling them that (a) they are extremely intelligent; and (b) various others are plotting to take power away from them.
The net result of all these factors is that our leaders are genuinely convinced that the good of the country requires them to make all decisions themselves. This in turn has fairly disastrous consequences because our leaders — like most people — turn out to be fairly lousy at multitasking.
It is also important to note that our leaders are multitasking in different ways.
In the first case, there are instances where single individuals are handling more than one provincial or federal ministry. This situation is most pronounced in Punjab where the entire cabinet consists of nine ministers. Some ministers are holding as many as seven or six different portfolios. Mian Shahbaz Sharif himself is apparently handling 12 departments.
I bear no malice towards Shahbaz Sharif: if anything, I admire the man. But the point being made is that he is a man, not a superman.
A recent news story applauded the efforts of Shahbaz Sharif in combating dengue in Lahore. One person quoted in the story observed that if the problems of Pakistan had been tackled with the same spirit of devotion that SS had brought to dengue eradication, Pakistan would not be in the mess that it is today.
Fair enough, I say. But can the dengue approach really be applied across the board?
Let us start with the fact that Shahbaz Sharif is also the health minister of Punjab. There is a meeting on dengue every morning at 7:00 am that is attended by the chief minister, the chief secretary, the additional chief secretary and a whole host of other functionaries, including presumably the entire senior staff of the health department. Even the agriculture secretary gives daily briefings! Furthermore, the 7:00 am meeting is not the only time when dengue is the main topic. The entire senior bureaucracy of Punjab spends the rest of its time either checking up on dengue at hospitals or preparing for the next day’s dengue meeting.
The point to note then is that the ‘dengue approach’ requires the undivided attention of the chief minister, the chief secretary, the additional chief secretary, the health secretary, the rest of the health department and the agriculture secretary to deal with one problem affecting one city. Unless each of those gentlemen can be cloned, this approach self-evidently leaves no time whatsoever for any of the other problems that a government is meant to be dealing with.
In addition, there is a separate problem arising from the fact that under Rule 12-A of the Punjab Rules of Business, no order involving any important policy or any departure from important policy can be issued without the approval of the chief minister. This means that the only person competent to make policy in the entire province of Punjab is the chief minister.
It needs to be remembered at this stage that Punjab is a large place: it covers an area of more than 200,000 km sq and is home to approximately 81 million people. If it was independent, the population of Punjab would make it the fifteenth largest country in the world — roughly the same size as Germany. And yet, it is all run by one man.
Think of the human brain as a camera with limited width and limited depth of field. If you focus on one person, you cannot see anything to the left or the right of that person. If you focus on the foreground, the background becomes fuzzy. And if you focus on the big picture, things that are closer disappear.
Much the same applies to governance. If you focus your perspective on Lahore, the rest of Punjab fades into oblivion. And if you focus on practical aspects of policy, then long-term planning stops being important. The problem though is that good governance requires both foresight and oversight, that too in relation to all areas of a territory, not just its capital.
There is an obvious answer to this conundrum, which is to share the burden of governance. This doesn’t only mean that Shahbaz Sharif needs to find competent ministers. It also means that provincial governments need to share their burden with local governments. In other words, it makes sense to let union councils worry about roads and sewers and to make the provincial cabinet worry about which industry to encourage and what policies to adopt.
Presumably, the chief minister’s defence to this column is that he would happily share his responsibilities if only he could find suitable people to share them with. My answer is that the lack of suitable colleagues is his problem, not mine. I don’t vote for a chief minister so that he can fix my drains. I vote for a chief minister so that he can find suitable individuals to oversee the people who are supposed to be fixing my drains. If Shahbaz Sharif can’t do that, he shouldn’t have sought the office of the chief minister.
Many of us believe that the only thing needed to fix Pakistan is sincerity. Unfortunately, we need not just sincere governance but smart governance. Otherwise, our destiny will remain in the hands of a driver typing out messages on his BlackBerry while simultaneously trying to avoid oncoming traffic. And in those circumstances, accidents are inevitable.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 25th, 2011.