Why do some ministers succeed while others fail?
On the appointment of ministers, a recurrent problem seen in Bangladesh seems to be that the system of political reward — the allocation of ministerial roles — is not directly related to an assessment of the actual requirements of government. Appointment to ministerial office is instead used for other purposes, including recognition of political loyalty, writes AR Chowdhury
EVEN diehard Awami League supporters would agree that the performance of the current AL cabinet has been mixed. The ministers have succeeded in certain areas while failed in others.
When the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, formed the cabinet in early 2009, the selling point was that the newly appointed ministers were not tainted by allegations of corruption. They were supposed to represent a new beginning in Bangladeshi politics.
After almost four years in power, we now have enough information to judge the performance of specific ministers. Like any other cabinet, the performance of the ministers has been uneven. Some have excelled more than others.
To make the point, let’s consider two randomly selected ministers — the education minister, Nurul Islam Nahid, and the shipping minister, Shahjahan Khan. Let me start with the disclaimer that I have never met either of these two gentlemen.
In my opinion, Nurul Islam Nahid is efficient, effective, has a vision of where he wants his ministry to go, and generally known to be honest.
On the other hand, Shahjahan Khan has proven to be ineffective, has very little vision about his ministry’s future path and, by most accounts, has embarrassed the government on a number of occasions with verbal gaffes and thoughtless statements.
Nurul Islam Nahid has taken a number of innovative steps in the education ministry. These include, but are not limited to, distribution of textbooks free of charge, cracking down on corruption in the ministry, and taking a relatively objective position when it comes to campus unrest.
Unfortunately, I had to struggle hard to come up with a consistent list of achievements for Shahjahan Khan. The debacle in the shipping ministry under his helm is well-documented and need not be repeated here. In fact, he may have caused more embarrassment to the government than all the other ministers combined (except, of course Syed Abul Hossain, who is no longer a member of the cabinet).
Nahid is by no means perfect. He has taken a number of steps in his ministry that many readers of this column would disagree with. However, under the given circumstances, his overall performance is better than many others in the cabinet.
In fairness, it should be pointed out that there are other members in the cabinet who would fall in either of these two camps. I have used the case of these two ministers for illustrative purposes only. I invite the readers to prepare their own report cards on the performance of our cabinet ministers.
Let’s now look at the broader question. What could the prime minister do to make sure that she gets the best out of her ministers?
The most basic requirement for any government is ensuring that it has the right people to do its work effectively. This means that the prime minister needs to cultivate the right qualities, skills and values among the cabinet members. It also means making sure that the structures and systems within which ministers operate allow them to perform their jobs well, and do not stifle their initiative or their professional autonomy.
The quality of political leadership exhibited by government ministers is vital to good government. However, it is not just political leadership but managerial leadership. The two have to work in tandem. You can see that not just in government but in other spheres as well. There are some examples where the ministers have provided real leadership, and that has been evident in the design and implementation subsequently of important political policy priorities and they have been very successful.
One concern is how best to ensure ministers are equipped and able to lead their departments effectively, given that many politicians come into government without any prior experience relevant to governing, such as, leading large organisations.
On the appointment of ministers, a recurrent problem seen in Bangladesh seems to be that the system of political reward — the allocation of ministerial roles — is not directly related to an assessment of the actual requirements of government. Appointment to ministerial office is instead used for other purposes, including recognition of political loyalty. This has a number of detrimental effects, such as a sense that many ministers are not actually performing a useful governmental function.
I do think, on the political side, we can do a lot more to ensure that ministerial office is treated more in terms of outcomes and less in terms of the success of the individual minister in climbing the greasy pole.
I am sure the prime minister has now recognised that the system of making ministerial appointments can work to undermine good government by encouraging behaviour that is focused on short-term political advantage rather than the long-term interests of stable, effective government. Prime ministers have the formal prerogative to appoint whichever ministers they choose — but decisions about the appointment of ministers need to take account of governing need as well as political reward.
Ideally, this would mean the appointment of fewer ministers than is currently the case. Another change that would assist good government concerns the behaviour of those individuals appointed as ministers. Ministers will always respond to short-term considerations of media and political impact, but this should not be at the expense of the longer-term outcomes that their policy decisions are attempting to influence or bring about.
There is also an issue about the expertise of ministers: both the existing skills and experience that they bring to the job, and that which they develop during their tenure as ministers. It would make more sense to appoint people who have substantial experience relevant to their ministerial portfolios.
Assuming that the right appointments have been made in the first place, this would help ensure that our government develop the ministerial capacity it needs to function effectively. Three quarters of the way through her current term, if the prime minister feels that a certain minister has not fulfilled his or her commitment, there is still time to cut her losses and move on.
So why have certain ministers performed better than others?
In my opinion, in addition to the issues discussed earlier, the motivation of the specific minister matters the most. Some enter the government to serve the people; while others are more interested in serving their own pockets.
This entrenched mentality in our government will not disappear in a year or two. To break the vicious cycle, we need more Nahids and less Shahjahans in our government. That would be good for both the Awami League and the country.
bdnews24, January 5. AR Chowdhury is the professor and chair, Department of Economics at Marquette University.
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