Wanted: More Government Failure


“If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.”
– Thomas Watson, Sr., founder of IBM

I am going to make a controversial statement, but I ask that you please hear me out completely before you call me crazy and click to the next website. Are you ready? Here we go: I hope the government makes more mistakes. Lots of them. And quickly.

Ikram Sehgal expresses the standard excuse for military intervention very well in his criticism of the CJ’s statement earlier this week that each institution should operate only within its own place.

Time and again, the army has come to the rescue of the common citizenry in times of disaster. Is it surprising that given such circumstances some adventurers take it to be an open-ended “invitation” to ameliorate the miseries that the populace is facing? In the face of survival of the country, is it surprising that the Constitution and oaths of allegiance to it, take a back seat?

The circumstances in Pakistan are usually such that they provoke the minds and senses of the personnel of the armed forces as they do of common citizens. It does not help for them to see the apparent helplessness and inadequacy of the SC to implement its judgments on the one side and on the other, the long suffering public exhorting them to “do something” and being insistent about it (no matter that they turn on their “benefactors” soon after they have “done it”).

This frustration is enhanced when the rank and file see the incumbent government adopt the simple expedient of repeated filibustering, the changing of counsels that has successfully hindered the implementation of the NRO judgment for the last 18 months since late 2009. All the rhetoric by the SC declaring the NRO to be a black law and those in office affected by the NRO to be ineligible for office has remained just that, “rhetoric”. The ineligible have thus become legitimate and are legitimately looting the till. The result is that those who should be prosecuted by law for their countless misdemeanours are themselves prosecuting those who should be prosecuting them.

Same excuse every time. Government has not solved all the nation’s problems, so the politicians face “the rage of angels”. But what good has it done? According to Aqil Shah, none.

Shah is a postdoctoral fellow at the Society of Fellows, Harvard University. Writing in Express Tribune, he points out that it is military intervention that has caused the government to be so weak and ineffective in the first place.

It has not mattered whether the army is under the command of a reckless figure, such as General Pervez Musharraf, or an apparently more prudent one, such as the current chief of staff, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. As an institution, it deeply distrusts politicians and sees itself as the only force standing between stability and anarchy, intervening in politics whenever it decides that the politicians are not governing effectively, which is all too often a pretext used for the advancement or preservation of the military’s parochial organisational interests. These repeated interventions have weakened the country’s civilian institutional capacity, undermined the growth of representative institutions and fomented deep internal divisions in the country.

People continue to tell me that what we need is a period of military government. Sometimes they say that only ‘patriotic generals’ can effectively rule. Sometimes they say that it is a temporary need only, just enough to get the current group of politicians out of the way. But neither of these makes any sense.

Success is 99 percent failure – Soichiro Honda

The military is a more effective institution because it has been allowed to grow and learn over time without interruption. No one would say the military brass have never made a mistake. But how effective would the military be if every few years it was disbanded for a decade only to be called back and told, “Okay, you have three years to try again…” It would not be effective at all, and the national security would be at great risk.

And what about a ‘temporary’ intervention – the famous model that was adopted by Bangladesh in 2006. This too makes no sense because military intervention is always supposed to be temporary but it actually creates a ‘vicious cycle’ of ineffective government that is used as an excuse for another ‘temporary’ intervention etc etc etc. Even after the Bangladesh ‘minus-2’ program Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia are still running the politics.

No, what needs to happen is that the government needs to be allowed to make mistakes. There is a saying among engineers: “Fail faster, succeed sooner”. This means that you want to make mistakes and have failures in your work quickly so that you can learn from them and make improvements that lead to success. This rule is applied in industry and should be applied in government also. To its credit, this government has seen its own share of mistakes and failures recently but it appears also that the politicians are learning from these mistakes and failures and making improvements.

Three years ago who would have believed that Q-league would be talking with PPP about cooperation? Who would have believed that Mian Nawaz would state that the government should finish its elected term? Who would have predicted that any president would sign the 18th Amendment and give away his powers?

Progress is slow, but it is happening and we should be proud and encourage that. Part of progress though is mistakes. It is like learning to ride a bicycle. Whose father watches his child fall down and takes the cycle away? Actually they pick you up, dust you off, and encourage you to jump back on and have another go.

When the government makes a mistake we should not run screaming for angels in khakis to save us. Rather we should be cheering each and every government failure and pushing them to learn, improve, and more forward.


Author: Mahmood Adeel