Tuesday, February 03, 2015
For decades, Pakistan has been facing self-created crises one after another – the latest being the petrol crisis. One major reason for the repeated crises has been the ‘curse of mediocrity’. The British philosopher John Stuart Mill made the following observation: “The general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind.”
All over the world mediocrity runs deep, especially in public institutions. Lamentably, all our key public institutions and the political system exhibit extreme mediocrity and incompetence. While there are millions of Pakistanis who excel in their profession and pursuits, unfortunately most do not work in public institutions.
Four decades of out-migration of the best and the brightest have sapped the country of excellence. Now mediocrity is a disease coursing through our national veins and ethos, fuelled and fostered by years of apathy and inaction by society and government. Incompetence is now a unifying threat that lurks below the surface of every institution, debilitating and damaging our country deeply.
All our public institutions – legislative, civil, judicial and military – exhibit the following defining traits of mediocre institutions: indifference; superficiality; denial; compromise; arbitrariness; hostility to excellence and aversion to performance accountability. While excellence nurtures excellence, mediocrity breeds the mediocre. For example, our mediocre political leaders appoint mediocre ministers – as has been the practice of this and previous governments. Also mediocre heads of agencies and departments promote and foster the average.
One small but telling reason why mediocrity flourishes in our institutions are promotion policies – except those who die in service, without fail almost all young civil and judicial officers entering the service get promoted to senior grades irrespective of performance. Our institutions abhor excellence. Since excellence atrophies if it is not recognised and rewarded, our institutions are now stacked with the mediocre. Moreover, mediocre institutions foster a culture that replaces the pursuit of the possible with the warm embrace of compromise.
Like all mediocre systems, our public institutions spend much time pondering the nature of accountability and good governance, but precious little time actually on holding people to account or practising good governance. No ministerial or high -evel official has ever been held accountable for the numerous crises and failures of policy and implementation. The leaders of our institutions have made it a habit to blame their mediocre performance on others, rather than accept responsibility and reform themselves.
Mediocrity in public institutions, coupled with corruption and complete absence of performance accountability, are some of the key reasons for the morass we are stuck in for the last few decades. All institutions that shape our national destiny are fast reaching levels of incompetence prevalent in ‘failed states’, and are collectively responsible for the repeated self-created crises. It is painful to see our taxes being wasted on the salaries and luxurious lifestyles of the tens of thousands of incompetent senior officials in all branches of the state.
Our political institutions exhibit the highest levels of mediocrity. Although there is electoral competition for becoming part of the legislatures, it is mostly a competition among second-rate and incompetent individuals. There are many politicians who are outstanding, but the majority are mediocre and do not have the academic training, experience or leadership qualities necessary for holding legislative or ministerial office. Worse, the majority are also corrupt. Few =, if any, of the ministers could ever get a job – beyond mid-management – in the corporate sector. And yet they are leading and managing our national policy apparatus.
All our civil institutions also suffer from a severe case of mediocrity. The few exceptional people who work in these institutions are overshadowed by a mass of incompetent officers. As a result, performance of all civil institutions is pathetic: those delivering education or irrigation services, those providing power or health care , those collecting garbage or taxes , those delivering justice or policing . Pakistan’s abysmal human development, poor economic management and wasteful development projects reflect the deep-rooted incompetence in our civil institutions.
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