Distortions in design

This August we need to reflect and imagine new ways to rectify distortions in institutional designs of the state for a better future

Distortions in design

Azadi Notes-2

When I joined civil service in early 1990s, I got an old typewriter which was made in the 1950s. It was not bad as far as the basic typing went. It was not a state of the art machine at that point. It was the best I could have had then. Its value was about Rs7000 then. If you are asked to buy and use the same typewriter now in 2015 for Rs70,000 -- knowing that you can alternately get a smart phone, a laptop or a good desktop for the same price -- not only will you feel restrained but also robbed.

Our justice sector -- police, jails and judiciary -- are the old typewriters we are stuck with at an exorbitant price and literally with no use if compared to the options and value of the alternates we can have.

When desktop computers came to Pakistan in the mid-to-late 1990s, a basic machine would cost about $1000. Twenty years later, in the same price, we can get a laptop computer with 100 times higher speed, 500 times larger disk-space, and ten times lighter weight. In technology, in these years, the unit cost of the same service has decreased drastically. Now look at our health and education sectors -- public or private -- prices of same services have gone up while the quality and users’ satisfaction have gone down.

Our dress is designed to perform the function of covering our body. This design has many varieties that respond to a range of weather conditions, social restraints, affordability, and lead to selective or partial covering of body. The degree of ensuing covering reflects a range of personal choices too. At times the circumstances are such that a person may be restrained to cover the minimum possible. In that case we all intuitively know the core parts we would cover.

Now if we give someone an expensive and antique designer hat and expect to cover minimum possible, and feel proud as well as pretend covered, the end result will be very close to what 150 million in Pakistan feel vis-à-vis governments in basic service delivery, security from law enforcing agencies, justice from judiciary, inclusive and smart public policy from bureaucracy, and statesmanship from politicians.

Read Azadi Notes 1: The evasive Azadi

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last week announced Rs1 billion for people affected by floods in Sindh. This allocation is over and above the regular and routine budgetary allocations made for the relevant departments. Such departments needed far less amount to have the capability and capacity to forecast flood, ward off the displacement and have mechanisms in place that could have avoided death and destructions.

Last year, the Sindh police got several supplementary grants (the money given besides the budget) but the increase in its performance did not correspond to the increase in its budget.

Studies show that children who attend schools in Pakistan learn more -- and from the perspective of parents, wrongly -- from streets than their schools. Studies also show that investing in preventive health in Pakistan would lead to less budgetary demands for curing the diseases that result from the lack of prevention. We also see that lack of investments in quality and affordable public transportation leads to traffic congestions and mess in cities. These are some of the examples of distortions in design.

Policing, security and justice sector distortions are the costliest as their failure is linked to loss of life, resources, and decline in society’s trust and harmony. Distortions in design of education provision, public health and housing are not far behind in detrimental effects on society, people and quality of life.

Distortions in design occur when custodians of the said design fail to invest in its regeneration, reform and continuous relevance. This happens when they don’t care for improving its benefits, increasing its effectiveness, enhancing its efficiency and reducing the costs for its users and on its maintenance.

Timely improvements in design occur when the custodians of a design have a stake in its reform, review and improvement. In Pakistan, the custodians of publically funded and maintained anachronistic designs have disincentive in the improvement and reform of design. They instead revel in a dream blend of high perks, low responsibility and no accountability.

If we look at the deterioration of Pakistan Railways (before the recently reported ‘resurgence’), we see its decline corresponded with the growth of private road transport sector. Similarly, decline in public education and publically funded health facilities corresponded to the expansion of private education and health service provisions. These correlations indicate apathy, disinterest and lack of accountability of the custodians of publically funded designs. They also insinuate potential corruptibility. Decline of security in the last 15 years has led to a thriving private security sector which is owned by you know who!

Our cities are known for slums, shopping malls, traffic jams, chaos and local mafias; not for parks, order or pleasantness. Our laws fail to dispense what they promise. Many pieces of pro-women legislation in the PPP regime, and the right to education (Article 25A) are the recent and ironical examples.

In crime and punishment realm, we have historically relied on severity of punishment as deterrent for checking crimes, and ignored certainty of light penalty for decreasing infractions. Consider the hanging punishment for possessing a few grams of heroin vs. over-speeding fines on motorway. The latter yields more compliance; the former only increases the price of bending the law at the point of first encounter, and those poor folks who cannot pay timely bribes, rot in jails without a trial.

Theory and philosophy of design premise on ‘form follows function’ adage. In Pakistan, governments, parliament, democracy, laws, bureaucracy, taxation, policing, courts, jails, schools, hospitals, roads and cities are designs replete with distortions and thus dispensing the counter products. Their distortions have occurred as they did not keep their forms aligned to their functions. Instead of reviewing the forms the functions have been forced fit into the existing and irrelevant forms. Military courts a case in point.

The above stated and many other distortions in institutional designs of the state have caused distortions in our individual conduct and collective outlook. One most disturbing example is how we tend to deal with a crime and a sin. A crime results from deviation of behaviour in public space with high collateral damage. A sin is a personal deviation in the private space with low or no negative externality.

Due to the layered and sustained distortions in our collective socio-political and institutional design, we tend to ignore the criminals and punish the sinners.

One way to rectify these distortions is to involve more of society to help institutions to deliver the common good in a better way. The other is to invent new designs. Both need reflection and imagination; neither of them are a sin or a crime. August is the best month for both. Imagination is fundamental manifestation of our freedom; and my topic of the next week as well. Azadi Mubarak.

Read Azadi Notes-3: Quest for independence

Distortions in design