Wednesday December 08, 2021

Checking corruption in bureaucracy: Task force drops proposal of using technology

July 24, 2019

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister’s Task Force on Austerity and Restructuring of the Government has shot down the proposal of introducing Corruption Sniffing Bots (a computer software application) that was designed to track bureaucrats engaged in corrupt practices.

“Disappointed!! Corruption Sniffing Bots idea shot down by Dr Ishrat Hussain and my colleagues of the task force,” tweeted Burhan Rasool, the member of the task force who was assigned to develop this software. The idea was his brainchild that was initially well-received by the task form. Subsequently, he was asked to prepare a concept paper.

As he presented before the task force last week, its members were dismissive declaring it “Orwellian”, a reference to British writer George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, which centered on the theme of a totalitarian regime with Big Brother watching everybody through massive surveillance.

Dr Ishrat Hussain, Chairman of the task force, however offered different explanation of dropping the proposal. He said it is not doable at the moment because of lack of requisite data. When his attention was drawn to Burhan’s tweet, he said he’s a technical person unaware of other challenges coming in the way to make it happen. The Federal Board of Revenue, he said, is working on a data warehouse to integrate financial information of individuals from different departments. “Once it is done, we will try this software.” However, insiders of the meeting said there was strong resistance from the members of task force; retired bureaucrats in particular who said this software application will further harass government functionaries.

For Corruption Sniffing Bots to work, Burhan suggested putting information of government officers and their dependents in data. Included in it was payroll data of all government employees available with Project to Improve Financial Reporting & Auditing (PIFRA). Any source of household income other than government salary should be explicitly mentioned and this way government can keep the record of all known sources of income of its employees. Computerized National Identity Card (CNIC) based data of parents and all dependents of each and every government employee should be maintained. Data on take-home monthly salary as well as complete service history along with orders relating transfer and postings should be maintained.

Filing of income tax returns and assets statements should be mandatory whereas the data from State Bank’s Financial Monitoring Unit could be pulled every month to check the account balance of officers and their dependents. Similarly, data from Land Revenue Management Information System can be used to check sale and purchase of property against CNIC of officers and their dependents whereas the data from Tenants Registration System can be pulled to check if the officers or their dependents showing up as owner of a rented property.

Likewise, data from Excise & Taxation can be utilised to check the ownership of vehicles and travel data from Federal Investigation Agency is useful to track their travelling history. Data of credit cards can indicate their payment history to see if any unusual transaction has occurred through this mean. The bots also required digitisation of information regarding the place of residence along with information who pays the utility bills of a said place. For cross-comparison purposes, utility bills’ data of all such residences should be maintained after pulling the same every month from concerned service providers of utilities.

The above-noted recommendations were in addition with the proposal of introducing whistleblower programme to uncover corruption. The programme was to be backed by a robust tracking and registry system to identify and tag possible culprits and associates.

This way, Burhan suggested, officers living beyond known means can be identified. For protecting data from falling into wrong hands and prevent any leakage, he proposed its storage in an encrypted format only readable through Artificial Intelligence (AI) Bots. To further ensure privacy, he suggested AI Bots may be programmed to vet integrated information in order to spot and report anomalies every month to respective government employees.