Dirty business

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Lahore’s landfill woes may have generated some concern amongst citizens, but the government had some seriously trashy news (how typical) appearing the same day as my last column “Wasted Management”. So we stay with the same theme this week, and you are invited to hunker down with your favourite newspaper to figure out the government’s latest move to reform institutions responsible for waste management in this city.

It’s been reported that the City of Lahore has entered into an agreement with the Lahore Waste Management Company (LWMC) to carry out virtually all functions for the department. It’s that simple. And that senseless. According to the reports, the LWMC is now responsible for managing, controlling and monitoring of existing procedures, processes, actions, activities, facilities, operations, schemes, plans, programmes and assets of the City District Government directly or indirectly related to generation, collection, separation, storage, rescue, recycling, transportation, transfer, reduction, treatment and disposal of solid waste. Feel free to shut your gaping mouth at any time.

Before you go berating one columnist for denouncing the government’s good intentions in leveraging private sector investment into municipal service delivery, let us first hone in on the real problem with basic urban services in Lahore. That is the government’s insistence on pumping taxpayer money into inefficient public service providers that can’t be held accountable for failures in service delivery. The governments that finance these organisations can’t get them to perform and neither can the hapless user. Phrased in this way, the solution to our problem appears to be that the government needs to scale down its operations and provide an enabling environment for non-governmental organisations to provide waste management services. However logical or rational the solution may sound, the government is clearly taking a different tack.

In perhaps the grossest misinterpretation of standard international practices for public private partnerships, the government has shown us the lengths it is willing to go to when service delivery starts to fail. We also get further evidence that a government that so vehemently touts austerity and good governance prefers masquerade parties to the boring old pursuit of protecting the public interest.

Under normal circumstances, the government has a role in laying out the rules of the game, and inviting private sector service providers to function within the sector. What is infuriating about this new mode of service delivery through the LWMC is not that the government isn’t shopping around for alternatives to public sector service delivery, but that the government IS the LWMC. Just as an illegitimate child is the fruit of the over-active loins of a parent, the government seems to have muddled up its own family of service providers.

Indeed, the new wave of good governance seems to be for the government to set up a company, staff it with bureaucrats, and then have the civil secretariat and finance department hold the purse strings. The next step is the worst for after establishing new institutions decked out in chrome and glass, these companies are simply awarding contracts to genuine private parties for service delivery. So while the government could have awarded the contracts under its own ostensible authority in the business-as-usual scenario, it chooses to go the expensive route by setting up some sort of conduit.

Such is the design of every Mickey Mouse operation the government has established over the past few years, and it still doesn’t address the fundamental institutional issues related to the efficiency and technical capacity of several thousand employees. You’d think that by now the government would have devised a way to rid our institutions of the deadweight human resources bogging them down but no. The only option on the table is to transfer inefficient employees to these newly created companies and worry about the ramifications later. So after all those protests against privatisation by employees of the waste management department, such partnerships are more than underwhelming – they are dangerous. The government can offer pay raises or regularisation of staff to keep dissenters happy, but this is probably just temporary respite from the storm that is to come.

This then is the new mode of service delivery for an increasingly wayward government. After facing up to the institutional lapses in the public sector, the government decides to fool itself (and the citizens) into thinking that a new corporate approach to service delivery is being adopted. But where the public interest requires that our traditionally reluctant private sector should come forward, the government decides to maintain its domineering role in municipal service delivery. The juggling act and these masquerade parties of the government are indicative of a willingness amongst the public sector to dilute authority to a point where no one has any control on the value to be derived from such expensive investments. Readers are therefore advised to watch this space for chaos.

 

The writer is a consultant on public policy.