Punjab’s Chief Minister and leader of Pakistan’s second largest party, Shahbaz Sharif, is reported to have called himself an “Islamic socialist”. This self-declared adherence to socialism was cited at a reception, held recently for the visiting Chief Minister of the Indian state of Bihar, Nitish Kumar. This declaration followed the public adoption of Habib Jalib’s radical verses by the chief minister, who often sings revolutionary chants at public meetings. Mr Sharif developed a reputation of sorts during his first tenure (1997-99) as the chief minister of Pakistan’s largest province. His dedication and long working hours were legendary and he would often be seen walking himself in knee-deep water, after a monsoon rain, to get to areas inundated by the water and oversee relief work. As a small cog in the public-sector machinery, I had a chance to work with him and could not help marvel at his quest to improve the system.
A decade later, the chief minister was back despite the efforts of military junta to keep him and his elder brother away from politics. For various reasons, the performance in the last five years has not been comparable to the earlier tenure. There have been ambitious subsidy schemes (such as cheap wheat flour, tandoors and so on) which were captured by local elites and political groups. Most importantly, the spread of extremism and power of militant groups seems to have grown with weakened law enforcement. There is a perception that the PML-N is soft on extremist and sectarian groups, due to reasons of electoral adjustment and perhaps, ideology as well. This is a serious omission which might haunt the party if it comes to power in the next election, as there will be no excuse of a ‘hostile’ federal government and its failures to curb terrorism.
It is not all that gloomy. Shahbaz Sharif, true to his reputation, has undertaken major development works across the big cities of Punjab and this contributed to a significant expansion in the province’s infrastructure, all of which seems to be a response to the needs of an articulate urban population that votes for his party.
During the last one year, the urban youth have also factored into provincial governance and we have witnessed several programmes to engage and mobilise this particular segment of Punjab’s population. The efficacy of distributing laptops to students and getting them to set some world records will only show their results in the next election. Sadly, efforts in this arena have been reactive to Imran Khan’s growing popularity and do not seem to be the outcome of a considered policy that responds to the Herculean challenge of addressing the need for additional skills and jobs for the largest segment of Pakistani society. For instance, Punjab needs millions of jobs to be created every year for its growing population and the setting of Guinness world records should not count as a high priority.
But this is all relative. Sharif’s performance has to be viewed in the context of Pakistan’s failing state. When compared to the other three provinces, he stands out for his responsiveness and ability to set the parameters of governance right. Punjab, for instance, cannot be blamed solely for not holding local government elections. Political parties are not prepared to devolve powers and patronage to the local level — at least not till there is sufficient demand at the local level. Having said that, service delivery indicators in Punjab, especially in the education sector, have been encouraging. More importantly, there seems to be an effort to innovate and encourage citizens to have a voice and give feedback.
The ongoing citizen feedback model, perhaps, is the best example of Punjab’s willingness to tackle service delivery failures and corruption. Using simple SMS technology, the initial Jhang model of seeking public feedback has been expanded in the last few years. Across the province now, a phone call with the voice of the chief minister greets a citizen if the services provided were satisfactory. People who get their property transferred or interface with local officials are then asked to send an SMS. Thus far, under the Punjab model, 70,000 such SMSs have been received. The service has nearly half a million users and thousands are added on a daily basis. Its managers in Lahore can refer to a disaggregated services’ status to monitor the quality of services and check corruption.
Corruption data is also available with the provincial government. Over a thousand calls are made every day. For instance, as I learnt recently, 73,000 citizens were contacted to check if they had to pay bribes for registering property. More than 16 per cent answered and registered complaints. Public officials behave differently if they know they are being monitored and there is scope for accountability. The chief minister and his secretariat are tracking this process and have involved the talented LUMS academic Umar Saif in the process, who is helping the provincial government to install and improvise these systems.
The data on public feedback is not open to all yet and this is vital to ensure that there is transparency and that a system of accountability is in place. It is time for other provinces to learn from this model. Also, development partners need to make this essential to the investments they make in Pakistan’s social sectors. Citizens across the country are losing faith in the state due to abuse of authority by the police, by the arbitrariness of revenue authorities and the non-functioning of health and education facilities. Such data can help track the performance and also improve the state’s delivery of services. Of course, there is a lot more that needs to be done. The greatest challenge is to institutionalise innovations such as these. However, the younger Sharif knows that good governance intersects with smart politics.
Regardless of who wins the next election, it is important that citizen inclusion in governance through such methods is continued and expanded. In the meantime, the chief minister of Punjab should mainstream this model by linking public officials’ annual performance to how well they are responding to citizens instead of their superiors. Replicating this model vigorously in police and prosecution services might be a good step in helping tackle law and order crisis that haunts the country and its largest province.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 11th, 2012.