Sunday October 24, 2021

Need for digital bureaucracy

September 19, 2021

LAHORE: Growth prospects are largely linked to improvement in government delivery systems. Delivery systems improve through better governance. Governance can be improved through available technology with low investment.

The basic flaw in our growth strategies is the reluctance of the ruling elite to follow law, rules and regulations. This stands true for any party or dictator that assumes power in Pakistan.

Rules are flaunted with impunity by every ruler. The present regime did a good job by cornering past rulers and bureaucracy through the National Accountability Bureau for overstepping rules in the past.

That at least deterred the bureaucracy from taking any decision that might invite the ire of an accountability watchdog in future. However, the mentality of the ruling elite did not change.

Ruling party still wants the bureaucrats to carry out whatever orders are given to them verbally. The bureaucrats resist and this resistance has made the bureaucracy dysfunctional.

This government has destroyed the excellent initiative of accountability it introduced after assuming power. Now the accountability has turned into witch-haunting of opponents that benefits even those who have done some wrong.

Now we are living in an era where bureaucrats try to stall decisions fearing NAB while the ruling party is frustrated by bureaucratic red tape. As a result, the government regularly transfers bureaucrats for not delivering.

There is not a single bureaucratic spot where multiple persons have served for a period of six months to a year. This is true in the federal government, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where the ruling party is in power.

The PTI government inherited a better governed Punjab that completely eliminated ghost schools and absentee teachers through the use of technology.

It successfully eliminated the threat of dengue again with the help of technology, which identified mosquito breeding grounds via GPS systems. It ensured maximum attendance of doctors not only in all government hospitals, but also in basic health units again with the help of technology.

Even the beds occupied in any government hospitals were visible on health department monitors 24/7. Teachers’ performance was regularly checked by asking students in all public schools to answer questions relating to their courses through iPads. This technology-based governance should have been strengthened but instead the monitoring was ignored and the province is facing the same mess that is seen in other provinces.

The legislature is not interested in the data available with the National Data Regulatory Authority. It has complete details of each national and provincial constituency regarding the education level, health problems of each individual, any disability and many more.

The elected members could benefit from this data by demanding actions like setting up of skill institutes and schools in their constituency and even deputing medical specialists at a government health facility in their constituency, based on the prevalence of an ailment in the area, like heart disease or kidney problems.

As far as the state is concerned, the ruling elite could monitor all government offices, hospitals and schools while sitting in their offices and direct officials to take remedial measures if they find something wrong.

There is however a problem with technology. It does not distinguish between rich or the poor, a member of the national assembly or a beggar. It judges all individuals on the fair parameters embedded in its software.

Technology in other words takes away all the privileges or discretions that anyone enjoys in the corridors of power. All decisions taken by technology would be on merit and there would be no preferences.

This fairness and transparency do not suit the entrenched culture of rulers, rich and bureaucrats - all of whom try to bypass the system when it is in their interest.

Only technology can move from the system of cash transfers or coupons compared to present system of subsidy in specific items.

The finance minister has indicated to try this recently. For making this system work, greater devolution of power to local governance bodies is required, such as union councils in rural areas and municipalities in urban areas.

In such a system, provincial authorities would become accountable for creating any hitch in devolution or transfer of funds. Moreover, willingness of government bodies to work with the private sector for ensuring better delivery is essential and its transparency could be ensured through technology.

In the interim period, the government should set up a regular monitoring / assessment system using special groups comprising experts, state officials and industry, in areas where large outlays are made by the government.

The stability of macroeconomic factors like inflation, exchange rate and interest rates will play a key role in achieving high growth objectives. Transparency and use of technology would assist the planners to achieve these objectives.