‘You can’t beat a turtle to move’

Rethinking how to fix Pakistan's broken public institutions

‘You can’t beat a turtle to move’
Pakistanis have come to expect poor service from the public institutions designed to serve them. These include sectors that are critical to a good standard of living such as the police, healthcare and education.

A poll by Gallup Pakistan found that although confidence in public institutions has improved since the early 1980s, it is still relatively low in certain areas such as the police and the National Assembly, with confidence levels at 34 percent and 54 percent, respectively. According to Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer, over 80 percent of Pakistanis perceive the police and all government employees as corrupt. Nearly half of the respondents felt the same way about the judiciary and the health sector.

Pakistan has encountered success in some areas such as its highway police and reforms of its central bank, but key sectors continue to underperform. Despite increasing enrollments in school, an Annual Status of Education Report found that 50 percent of children in class five read several grade levels below their own and could not perform basic math. In energy, the official expiry date on load shedding has repeatedly been extended as Pakistan continues to generate insufficient wattage to meet its rising electricity demand. Tax collection needed for public services is also lacking, as less than a fifth of taxpayers file their income taxes.
Less than a fifth of taxpayers file income tax returns

Multiple attempts to remedy this situation have failed. Faisal Bari, a research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives (IDEAS), thinks public policy reforms have largely resulted in a government that only creates the appearance of service by establishing bureaus, introducing training programs and filing the necessary paperwork. But the effect on the quality of life, if any at all, has been marginal.

“There is clearly evidence of very poor policy of service, maintaining a façade, and using that façade to justify very large structures with tremendous expenditures used for other purposes – definitely not for quality service,” says Bari.

How does a country get into this situation, and how can it get out? Harvard Kennedy School professor Lant Pritchett offers an answer through an unorthodox framework for public policy reform that identifies the characteristics of low-performing states and proposes solutions that run counter to the conventional wisdom on making the public sector work.

The failing reforms often found in these kinds of states have been described by Pritchett as “isomorphic mimicry”. Governments create bodies that resemble those of a working public sector, but fail to adopt the sufficient mechanisms to ensure they are functional.


After adopting these reforms, a country soon finds itself in a “capability trap”: failing to achieve quality public service while touting working reforms.

When capability traps and isomorphic mimicry become so routine within public institutions that they fall apart without them, those institutions encounter the paradox of “successfully failing”. The public sector career ladder can be climbed by executing the required tasks to appear functional - ie stamping documents and filling quotas - and then declaring the job done. But actually, that work made little difference for those it was meant to benefit.

Good performance and bad performance are no longer distinguished because the existence of the institution is enough for appearing legitimate.

“The distance between form and function allows organizations to adopt reforms that look good but don’t actually lead to performance to persist and survive. That can lead things to stagnate for a very long time,” says Pritchett.

Pritchett thinks that global development programs have enabled these characteristics by imposing sector-wide solutions from the top, rather than allowing for innovation from the bottom, which he believes is needed for organizations to be intrinsically functional.

In Pakistan, international development efforts have seen disappointing results to reform Pakistan’s public sector. An evaluation of the World Bank’s Social Action Program found that loans made from 1990 to 2003 for improving social services and poverty alleviation failed to work.

Bari highlights tax reform as a particular area of failure. “There is almost never a moment when the World Bank, the IMF or others don’t have a Federal Board of Revenue reform program. Yet is tax collection any better today? Most people would say no,” he says.

To enact genuine reforms, Pritchett advocates a new approach to identifying problems and the right policy measures through the gradual application of results-based, feedback-intensive programs. This approach, which was devised by him and his team at Harvard, is called Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA).

As a rule, pursuing a PDIA-influenced track to reform is experimental. It doesn’t define a policy from the outset, it instead offers a toolkit for finding key issues and the people who can lead the solution. Its core principles are to focus on solving problems at the local level, allow flexibility in implementation, favor quick feedback over evaluations made long after the fact and assign local actors a central role in oversight.

According to Bari, these concepts can be applied to Pakistan by focusing on many small reforms over a long period of time. As new policies roll out, constant feedback will identify problems areas quickly so that changes can be adopted before more damage is done. If implemented properly, the accumulation of this process will slowly lead to better delivery. And that key word – properly – requires a deep investigation into how current systems work from within. Bari stresses the importance of this in the case of reforming education.

“If I really want to have some traction to the kind of things I want to do, I have to embed myself. I have to really embed myself into the education departments in the education sector, and work with the bureaucrats to understand what their actual issues are,” he said.

Knowing organizations from within allows the reformer to identify what Pritchett calls the “committed core”: people who excel at the substance of their work despite being in an underperforming institution. He thinks policymakers should highlight the most capable individuals so that they themselves become the drivers of intrinsic reform. Imposing changes from the outside would only bring resistance.

“You can’t beat a turtle to move. If you go after any major organization with an exclusively external attack, it will force even the reformist elements that might exist within the organization to pull their legs in, pull their arms in. To get a turtle to move, somebody has to stick their neck out,” says Pritchett.

He also contends that working public institutions will have little to do with how wealthy a country is. Although high income countries tend to have better functioning public services, high income does not in itself instigate good reforms.

“While in the long run I’m sure wealth would be a game changer, one doesn’t need to wait for it in the short to medium run and it’s not going to be the impetus for change.” he says

All of this may sound like a call for radical change, but both Bari and Pritchett anticipate that success will be gradual because of how thorough the process of reform needs to be. Institutional embedding and audits of local data may need to be carried out multiple times before a proper solution is agreed upon.

And although the structures in place are seen as the problem, the intention is not to tear them down. The PDIA approach would attempt to facilitate changes within those structures so that their function is aligned with their purpose in as organic a way as possible.