Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan made an astonishing revelation on December 22. While speaking to his team of ministers and advisers and special assistants – when he said it is a good idea to do your homework before coming to power – he observed, “for one and a half years we remained unable to even know the actual figures of different sectors, particularly the power sector. From one ministry at times the figures indicated we were performing very well and then sometimes some other figure showed we were not performing that well.”

Pause for a moment and absorb the full impact of this. For one and a half years, citizens of Pakistan were being told, the country’s government could not even get its figures straight, let alone adopt a policy direction. Some of us knew this all along, and even wrote about, saying the government does not seem to know what it is doing.

It was clear to see for those who have eyes and ears. A leader appealing to his population to step forward and make donations to the dam fund, to take one example, was all that was needed to know that the ruling party (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) had come to power with no idea of how big the world is, how complex is its machinery and how delicate the balance of the moving parts.

But let us not get too strung up on this. Those in government take umbrage when we listen too carefully, and the inevitable cries of “he said this but he meant that” get triggered. Let us focus instead on one more ceremony of senior government leaders assembled to “evaluate the performance of ministries”. Having seen this same spectacle more times than I care to count over the years it should be clear by now that it is little more than a ceremonial performance.

An ‘extraordinary situation’

Some of us have had the tedious task of following closely all the ceremonial performances that count for governance these days and need no effort to recall this, but to those who have been paying scant attention to the news flow, it is worth recalling how many times we have been here before.

The first “performance review” was in December 2018 on the first 100 days of the government. “The circumstances are not normal,” that report quotes the prime minister as telling his ministers. “We are passing through an extraordinary situation and I expect all the ministers to show extraordinary performance.” Specific performance targets were given to all ministers in that cabinet meeting, which was held in an air of seriousness as the International Monetary Fund talks dragged on, the economy was stalling, and the leadership was beginning to wake up to the fact that running things in a country of 200 million people was serious business which would take more than televised appeals to emotion to pull off.

Then in January 2019, the creation of a cell to monitor the performance of ministers and government servants, to be headed by Arshad Dad, the party secretary-general at the time, was ordered. You will have to do some serious excavating in the news flow to find out what became of that cell.

A little more than a month later we had another announcement of quarterly reviews to be held to monitor the performance of all ministries, who would be required to deliver 30-minute presentations to show how much they had performed against targets that were supposedly established during a cabinet meeting in November of the preceding year.

There was no mention in this announcement of what happened to the decision of the December 10 cabinet meeting to give ministries three months to meet specified targets. Three months later, we had another meeting, another sombre announcement, another ceremonial vow to get serious and make ministers hold presentations.

Then in August came another announcement, this time vowing to make performance reports of all ministries public. “In a pioneering move, PM Imran Khan has decided to break the mould of this cryptic style of governance and push facts and figures of the performance of various ministries to the public more rigorously than any previous government” went the opening line of an article written by somebody who seemed awfully impressed after this announcement. Nothing further.

‘This time it is for real’

The next month, in September, we had another announcement, this time of “red letters” being issued to 27 ministries for being lax in implementing specific tasks assigned to each. Many of these were mundane, such as counting up the number of vacant posts in their divisions, but were left unfulfilled. This time the leadership was serious, went the word. And then in May 2020, there was another announcement of another round of “red letters”.

By April sources in the Pakistan PM’s Office were telling reporters that the prime minister was deeply dissatisfied with the performance of several of his ministries. “The PMO has directed all the federal ministers to submit a detailed report on the meetings held in their ministries, decisions taken and implementation on those decisions since the time of their taking office” went one report that was sourced to a PMO official.

In June, there was another warning. “We have six months to deliver and show results” the cabinet was told at that time, triggering fevered speculation that something in the critical equation that holds this government together might snap soon.

Yet here we are, six months later, and now we learn that through all this they did not even have their numbers straight. And another round of performance targets, another announcement that “this time it is for real”. While the music plays, this merry-go-round will never end. This is not a vow to improve governance. It is a performance, a ceremony meant for your eyes only, to create the impression that folks are now buckling down. Good luck to those tasked with cheerleading all this.

This article first appeared in Dawn.