Digital Pakistan is the new game in town. The plan is to computerise the whole government. And why not! Pakistan is far behind on the digital curve, with offices full of green-ribboned files that take ages to move.
But I’m having a déjà vu moment. I remember sitting in a presentation of the e-Government Directorate, about two decades ago as a low-lying civil servant, listening to similar promises of automation and paperless offices. Ever since, I have encountered numerous similar projects. Every time it seems we are going to succeed. The so-called “computerisation” has actually been done many times over in the files, but not as much on ground.
Why is there a big gap between what’s promised and what’s delivered? And why is it that almost nothing lasts?
Let’s suppose a well-intentioned politician wants to digitise the government. The process has to start somewhere. Let’s say the first step is to digitise a particular ministry. There would be two immediate challenges: designing the project and finding money for it.
The project design needs to go into the age-old PC-1 forms. For any complex PC-1, the government generally does not have the in-house capacity to design it. Help is often sought from donors, consultants or in some cases even the potential suppliers. Mostly, the PC-1 ends up being quite different from what was originally intended. The PC-1 then starts its journey through the complex maze of approval forums (DDWP, CDWP and ECNEC) and appraisal process, questioning the number of cars and salary of project staff, but never the technical design.
Once PC-1 is approved, the battle for funds starts. Interestingly, approval of PC-1 is no guarantee that money would be made available to execute it. Without political manoeuvring, the project may only get a miniscule portion of its cost, making it linger on for years waiting for the rest of the funds.
The next challenge is to find a project team. Good private sector people are too expensive to fit into government salaries and are often discouraged by the public-sector attitude. Good public servants are often lured by more powerful positions and not available for reform projects. The process nevertheless takes time and involves compromises.
Usually by this time, either the secretary or the minister is changed and the project becomes an orphan.
Then comes the usual project delays, design flaws, low quality vendors and procurement compulsions forcing to go for the lowest cost options. Sometimes the media gets the whiff of the project and a debate starts or else the NAB would write a letter, slowing down the already sluggish progress.
Few lucky projects manage to sail through these stages. The procurement is complete, the software deployed, and the project is declared a success.
If the project really brings efficiency and transparency as originally intended, it is bound to step on some toes. Rents are at risk, turfs are threatened, and attitudes come in the way of change. The system works for a while but then is gradually abandoned and declared flawed. Old practices are conveniently resumed, but not without the project staff getting permanent, the project cars ending up at bureaucrats’ houses, and the departments getting fatter.
Politicians blame the babus, the babus blame politicians, but no one fixes the system. The cycle starts yet again with the new government in place.
The problem is not unique to computerisation and is manifested across all sectors. Unless we solve the core issues of public-sector governance, tenure security, matching skills with job requirements, introducing incentives for success and accountability for failures, this cycle will continue.
Every time, the government gets heavier, taxpayers poorer, and egos of the status quo champions a bit taller.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 14th, 2020.