Public Policy Formulation-4: Case Study-Policy Formulation in Pakistan

Shahid H. Raja
14 min readOct 11, 2021


( Part 4 of my 4-part series of articles on public policy formulation)


Pakistan is a federation governed under a parliamentary form of government. Being a functioning democracy, its policy formulation process, by and large, resembles any nation-state having fairly well-functioning democratic institutions. There are multiple institutions and stakeholders which take part, directly as well as indirectly, in the formulation of any public policy in Pakistan. These areas follows1.

1. Parliament/Provincial Legislatures

Theoretically, it is the Parliament of the Islamic State of Pakistan that is the supreme policy-making institution, including the formulation of the foreign policy of the country. The two Houses of Parliament and their Standing Committees on different subjects influence this process by making known their views on important policy issues by discussing them in its sessions or passing resolutions. The Parliament is also the supreme institution for converting any policy into a legislative act.

Similarly, at the provincial level, it is respective provincial legislatures that are responsible for public policy formulation relating to the affairs of that province

The Constitution requires that all-important policy decisions ultimately must be taken by the cabinet and formally communicated to the head of the state, usually the President. Once a policy proposal is received by the Prime Minister or cabinet, it would be discussed in its formal meeting and adopted, rejected or modified keeping in view the country’s best national interests.

2. Federal Ministries/Provincial Departments

At the federal level, it is the responsibility of a Ministry to formulate a policy relating to the subjects assigned to it under the Rules of Business. The Minister in charge of each ministry is competent to approve a policy if its area of operation remains under its domain. However, if a policy formulated by a Ministry overlaps with the other ministries’ domains, then it must be presented before the Cabinet for approval. Some of these are the

a) Economic Affairs Division, Ministry of Finance responsible for dealing with bilateral or multilateral economic and technical cooperation, with foreign state and supra-state institutions

b) Ministry of Commerce responsible for increasing Pakistan exports,

c) Ministry of Investment, tasked with attracting Foreign Direct Investment

d) Ministry of Privatisation mandated to disinvest the state-owned enterprises,

e) External Publicity Wing, Ministry of Information responsible for projecting a soft image of the country,

f) Ministry of Defence seeking to enhance the defence capabilities of the country through the acquisition of military technology and armaments etc

Similarly, in the provinces, policy formulation is carried out by the respective provincial department as per the practice described above for the federal ministries

3. Foreign Office

Normally, any foreign policy proposal would be initiated by the Ministry of Foreign affairs which is the focal point for the initiation of all proposals relating to the foreign affairs of a country. However, there may be cases where any issue relating to any ministry has foreign policy implications. In such a case, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is consulted or the case itself may be routed through it to the cabinet to obviate the possibility of any proposal being accepted which is not in the larger interest of the country.

The foreign office, while formulating and submitting foreign policy proposals to the government, would take into account the views of the Parliament, civil society, media, and think tanks. If need be, the foreign office would consult them formally. Similarly, it would also consider the views and policies of other countries and non-state actors at regional and international levels within the prevailing regional and international strategic environment.

4. Non-state Institutions

Although public policy formulation is a very structured process involving formal institutions of the country, three non-state institutions provide important inputs in this process. These are the think tanks, media, and civil society organizations. Think tanks and research institutes play an extremely useful role in any country’s formulation of policies by providing an independent assessment of the ground realities as well as recommending a course of action. Although Pakistan is woefully short of such tank tanks, there are quite a few think tanks that have been quite active in this field

Civil society organizations are not well organized in the country and as such their contributions towards making policy are not so significant. However, lately, they have become quite active, particularly those espousing human rights causes.

As opposed to the think tanks and civil society organizations, Pakistani media, being the mirror of social thoughts, has been quite active in the process of public policy formulation in the country. Consisting of print, electronic and social media, Pakistani media not only helps shape public opinion but also contributes to setting the agenda for the policymakers by highlighting what issues are newsworthy at a particular time.

Public Policy Formulation in Pakistan: An Assessment

Looking at the history of policy formulation in Pakistan, one cannot escape the fact that it is a mixed bag. While there have been some very good policies formulated and executed since its creation as an independent nation-state in 1947, there have been some glaring examples of poorly designed or badly executed policies. Sometimes it did not have a policy at all for a long time in the field in a few crucial sectors like agriculture and industry, land use, transport etc.

Some of the main features of the public policy formulation process are as follows

1. Procedural Mismatch

Public policy is a dynamic but complex process through which public problems which can be of economic, social, or political nature, are identified and countered by creating new public policy or by reforming existing public policy. Good public policy solves problems efficiently and effectively, serves justice, supports governmental institutions and policies, and encourages active citizenship.

There are diverse types of actors involved in the process of policy formulation, ranging from technocrats who provide their inputs in the form of knowledge on the one hand to multiple interest groups which represent and articulate the concerns of their respective constituencies on the other. However, ultimately, policy formulation is the exclusive domain of the elected representatives who aggregate these various conflicting demands and convert them into the form of actionable policy options keeping in view the broader national interests.

Unfortunately, in Pakistan, the political elite, has not shown a keen interest in public policy formulation. That’s why the two Houses of Parliament and their Standing Committees have not been as active in the consideration of policy issues as they could or should have been for one reason or another. In actual practice, it is the cabinet, headed by the duly-elected chief executive i.e., Prime Minister or the President, which calls the shots.

Besides creating crises of legitimacy, such procedural mismatch also creates crises of ownership as it does not properly reflect the wishes of the people. Who will monitor its implementation if those who were supposed to make it just abdicated their role?

2. Institutional Overstepping

Every institution is responsible to formulate policies belonging to its sphere with suitable inputs from all the concerned stakeholders. However, in the case of some very important national issues such as defence, national security, foreign policy etc., the concerned ministries have been abdicating their responsibility and allowing others to run the show.

No doubt, all over the world, armed forces play an extremely crucial role in the making of the foreign policy of any country for obvious reasons. However, in the case of Pakistan, they play the dominant role. There are multiple reasons for the larger-than-life role played by Pakistan’s armed forces in the political governance of the country, ranging from colonial legacies, domestic conditions, regional imperatives, and global environments.

Consequently, the military and the intelligence agencies have had a much greater role to play in determining the policies to be adopted and equally importantly the measures to be taken on the ground through overt and covert operations. Intelligence agencies view their function as going beyond the collection of information.

3. Policy Capture

One of the persistent allegations against the public policy formulation in Pakistan is that of policy capture” whereby public policies are consistently or repeatedly directed away from the public interest towards a specific interest. It can not only exacerbate inequalities and undermine democratic values but can also retard genuine inclusive economic growth and erode trust in government. One reason for this policy capture by the elite is the lack of a level playing due to vast economic inequalities. Another is a lack of sufficient transparency in public policy formulation and the absence of all stakeholders

Thus to ensure that the public policies formulated are in the best interests of the majority of citizens, we should not only engage stakeholders with diverging interests to ensure an inclusive decision-making process that is more resilient to capture by narrow interests but should also promote integrity and transparency in lobbying activities and political financing. This is only possible if external actors and stakeholders have adequate access to reliable, timely and relevant information in the decision-making process. External control, effective competition and regulatory policies enable accountability in both the public and private sectors.

4. Implementation Inadequacies

The existence and maturity level of their policymaking and service delivery institutions in a developing country like Pakistan has a lot to do with the underdeveloped socioeconomic status of the country. On the other hand, the greater maturity level of the institutions in a developed country is reflected in their policy formulation process. If a country’s political elite is mature and responsible and its bureaucracy is efficient, effective and responsible, it will be reflected in the quality of implementation of the policies

One of the biggest charges against the policy formulation in Pakistan has been the inadequate implementation of policies, due to its lower level of socioeconomic development, absence of commitment/lack of ownership at the political level, and capacity deficit of those responsible for its implementation.

5. Evaluation Failure

Each society is influenced by different public problems which can originate in endless ways and thus requires different public policy responses. Public policymaking is an interactive process that needs continuous monitoring and evaluation for taking any midterm corrective measures. Every policy must have some clearly defined evaluation mechanism not only to gauge its impact but also to learn lessons for the future. Unfortunately, this crucial element of policy formulation has been missing in most of our policies with the result that there has been not a single case of anyone being held responsible for the failure of policy formulation or its implementation.

6. Lack of Policy Consistency and Continuity

Every policy has a champion behind its formulation. However once formulated by the elected representatives, a policy reflects the wishes of the people and should be owned by the concerned institution even if there has been a champion behind it. However, in the case of Pakistan, most of the policies are known by the name of the person who championed them and invariably go to cold storage when the personality is gone. This lack of continuity sends wrong signals to those interested to commit resources on a long-term basis.

7. Limited Role of Non-state Institutions

Despite being a very structured process involving formal state institutions, the process of public policy formulation benefits a lot from the inputs provided by non-state institutions such as think tanks, civil society organisations, and media. In this respect, the role of Think tanks and research institutes is extremely important as they not only provide an independent assessment of the ground realities but also recommend viable policy options. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, there is a woeful dearth of world-class reputable public sector research centres which could, after carrying out an in-depth analysis of the issues and the multifarious challenges being faced by the country, provide appropriate recommendations to different public sector organizations. Independent research institutes established in the private sector do carry out research on some of the public policy issues and also publish their findings/recommendations; however, they have too much tilt towards academics and therefore, carry less practical value.

Similarly, there is an acute dearth of quality case studies about different topics of public policy which could be used as a teaching aid in the public sector training institutions for imparting training to junior officers, middle management and senior public officials. Most of the case studies developed so far on topics related to the socio-economic and political context of Pakistan are heavy on academic content. They may be more useful for the universities and the academic institutes but less helpful for the training institutes in terms of their approach, structure and content.

8. Inadequate Environmental Compliance

One of the common observations about public policy formulation in Pakistan particularly relating to development planning is the scant regard for the repercussions they will have for the environment. Environmental Compliance of strictly conforming to environmental laws, regulations, standards and other requirements is now part and parcel of all policies formulated anywhere in the world. Every policy document relating to a development project does have a separate chapter dealing with the environmental issues and more specifically, whether practicable mitigation and adaptation measures have been suggested to tackle these issues. However, these requirements are usually deficient and are openly flouted when the project is being implemented. Typically these errors of omission and commission pertain to the following

I. Managing monitoring programmes or schedules, ensuring that the monitoring required in the permit has been done, at the correct locations, for the correct parameters, and at the correct frequency

II. Pre-processing, performing calculations and validating the data for compliance with any alert or reporting levels

III. Generating routine compliance reports for authorities.

9. Global Influences

Globalization has resulted in larger than life role of the global state and non-state actors who are increasingly penetrating those domains which were henceforth exclusively reserved for the domestic state machinery. They not only interfere in the policy formulation but are now acting directly through their proxies in the form of non-governmental organizations in domestic policy formulation and implementation. This is all the more penetrative where the state is suffering from capacity and legitimacy deficits.

Pakistan is no exception to this wholesale blind following of global actors’ prescriptions which can be visible in almost all major policies formulated. This is not bad if the policies formulated have been in sync with the wishes of the people but not per the wishes of foreign forces with one size fits all labels.

10. Structural Flaws

Once a draft is presented to the Ministry by the consultants the junior officers must study it, give their inputs and then present it to their seniors for approval. However, sometimes these junior officers are not well versed in the process of scrutinizing these drafts and the public policy drafted by the consultant either remain unattended or is submitted to senior officers without any sufficient input from them. Sometimes best-designed policies are doomed because of inadequate funding or stoppage of their execution due to changes in the political elite.

Suggestions to improve Public Policy Formulation in Pakistan

To improve the performance of our public policy formulation process, here are some suggestion

1. Building National Consensus on Vital Issues

One of the main causes of political instability and frequent dissolutions of the Parliament in Pakistan has been the wide gap in thinking that exists between the military establishment and the elected civilian set-up on different national issues. There is, thus, an urgent need for a broad holistic national consensus of all stakeholders about the long-term vision for the country and the formulation of a coherent public policy framework to achieve it. Armed forces must accept that they are a subservient part of the state and not an independent state within a state. They must not regard themselves as the ultimate custodians of the national interest; multiple stakeholders must be on board while establishing the parameters of national security. At the same time, we will have to end the religious, ethnic, provincial, and political polarisation in the country as it is far more lethal to national security than outside aggression or internal subversion.

2. Establishing Effective National Security Forum

There is a need for an effective institutional framework to define the components of Pakistan’s national interest, their inter-se priority, and the best strategies to achieve them effectively and efficiently. The creation of such a high-level forum, suitably assisted by talented think tanks, would not only help to narrow the gap between the military and civilian establishments mentioned above but would also create a comprehensive mechanism for research, analysis, and consultation on policy options and their short and medium-term implications. However, any recommendation made by this forum must be subject to deliberation and debate either in an open session of the Parliament or, if the subject is sensitive, in-camera by the relevant committees of Parliament and become the basis of policy only after it has been approved.

3. Activating Standing Committees of Parliament

The Parliament serves as a policy-forming agent in direct proportion to the extent of its use of the constitutional powers which it possesses to support, modify or defeat the programme of the executive. The executive should, therefore, make a conscious effort to consult the Parliament and its leaders on policy issues more frequently than has been the case in the past. It is imperative to activate and strengthen the Standing Committees of the two Houses as they can play a major role in facilitating a wider process of consultation on a major policy issue. Keeping in view the due role of legislative committees, the committees gather data, listen to the views of specialised interest groups, hold public hearings on important issues, and carefully weigh alternative courses of action in the formulation of policy.

Parliament and the committees, by utilising the powers of investigation, carefully scrutinise the execution of policy by the executive. They can also instigate a nationwide public debate on controversial policy issues. For example, the Parliament and its Committees can play a major role in facilitating a wider process of consultation on major foreign policy issues; such a role has been very scarcely played by the Parliament and its committees, although they are constitutionally empowered to oversee the executive as well as formulate and forward foreign policy options in keeping with the aspirations of the people of the country.

4. Strengthen Foreign Office

The foreign office is the core state institution without which a country cannot anticipate the reaction of other states and thus cannot formulate a considered foreign policy. The terms “foreign policy” and “diplomacy” are generally used interchangeably. An efficient and professionally managed foreign office which can present well-considered options, whenever required, and can implement policies effectively, once these have been formulated by the Government. It must strengthen its Policy Planning Division by allocating more manpower and financial resources.

5. Responsive Feedback System

Last but not least, there is a need for a robust and responsive feedback system, consisting of internal checks and balances assisted by external stakeholders, civil society organisations, think tanks, and media. A country’s policy framework mirrors its national agenda, priorities, social attitudes, and political structure. Public policy formulation is a cumulative process; even revolutionary governments have to worry about what their predecessors, whom they condemn, had or had not done or promised to do or not to do. The feedback from the external environment is already in place before policy options are drawn. For policymakers, executive autonomy is not a license for a free choice of action, particularly in the case of relatively less strong states.


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