Re-thinking government

Published: August 20, 2019
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PHOTO: INSTAGRAM/@imrankhan.pti

PHOTO: INSTAGRAM/@imrankhan.pti

PHOTO: INSTAGRAM/@imrankhan.pti The writer is a public policy expert and an honorary Fellow of Consortium for Development Policy Research. He tweets @hasaankhawar

What keeps large bureaucracies busy? Imagine a public sector organisation with 385,000 employees serving across 50,000 locations. A considerable number of employees are not happy about the places that they are serving at and want to move closer to their hometowns. The organisation’s secretariat therefore receives more than 100,000 transfer applications every year and has to spend approximately two-thirds of its time in processing more than 400 applications a day.

Any employee who wants to get transferred has to keep a tab himself on vacant positions at his preferred location. Once there is a vacancy, he can file an application, which goes through five to six tiers of a highly centralised bureaucratic chain. The manual processes involved could take weeks if not months to seek a decision on the application. If the application is rejected, the employee then has to file separate applications for his second or third preferred locations. If he is lucky, he can finally manage to get transferred in a few years.

This is the Education Department of the Government of Punjab, where this elaborate transfer and posting business has been continuing for years, leaving little time for anyone to worry about poor learning outcomes, low enrolments or a failing public school system.

The vague criteria and opaque processes make this whole transfer and posting regime highly lucrative for secretariat employees, who exercise abundant discretion and enjoy unquestionable authority over this massive pool of nation builders. The only way to successfully navigate through this complicated labyrinth is to use one’s connections and pull some strings. A few opt for the long arduous path of civil litigation, while others have to grease the palms of those involved. And some, depending on their age and gender, even have to sell themselves.

But very recently, something transformed this altogether.

The department developed a new transfer policy with clear and transparent criteria, based on teacher tenure, seniority, compassionate grounds and digitally computed distances between schools. A smartphone app was then deployed, making available open vacancies, applicable policies and ranking criteria allowing teachers to self-check their scores against the criteria and request for transfer with multiple location preferences. Based on a pre-decided algorithm the app processes most of the requests without human interaction ensuring that the decisions taken are closely aligned with teachers’ preferences.

Reportedly, more than 34,000 teachers have used this app so far, submitting applications for approximately 100,000 preferences. About 50% of teachers were able to get transferred to schools of their choice within two months, while the other half could see why they weren’t selected.

Such remarkable stories about technology disrupting governance need to be told. It is not just about digitising systems and improving response times but also about using technology to minimise human intervention, adopting open government principles, making better decisions for the organisation, reducing corruption and freeing up productive time, which could now be spent on core functions.

Rapidly evolving citizens’ needs, new demands expected from civil service, a growing population that is the world’s sixth-largest, constraining fiscal space and ballooning wage bill are all contributing to the rapidly deteriorating public service delivery in Pakistan.

The public sector provides ample opportunities to re-think the business of government. Yet most of our reform efforts remain focused on peripheral issues. While we provide extensive training on information technology skills to government servants, digitise government records and track service delivery times, we remain oblivious of various government jobs becoming redundant, along with whole departments that can be reduced to a single computer app or piles of files that can be mounted on a simple cloud-based solution.

It is time to open our eyes and re-think the government. Or else, it will soon be impossible to effectively govern this growing population exceeding 200 million people.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 20th, 2019.

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