Pakistan, which gained independence in 1947 and inherited administrative reforms from the British colonial authorities, celebrated 71 years of independence in 2018. The country is once again audaciously heading towards a long-awaited overhaul of its governance model. Various governments, civilian and military, have made reform a top priority under their development agendas by extending significant financial and human resources.
These reforms have been formulated through working groups, committees, commissions, and task forces working in collaboration with international development partners including the World Bank, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Department for International Development (DFID), the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Japan International Corporation Agency (JICA). Multiple studies, surveys, whitepapers, and reports have been published with scarce tangible outcomes, either moved into library archives or posted as certificates of achievement on civil servants’ beige walls.
Despite these efforts, there’s been meager progress to overcome poor governance, a frail economy, uncontrolled corruption, inept bureaucracy, declining moral and ethical values in society, an unstable democratic system, lack of law and order, and unreliable social services.
Unlike its predecessors, the newly elected government is determined to abandon centuries-old bureaucratic procedures and instead strengthen institutions for better accountability, empower citizens to play a larger role in decision-making, transform the public sector by revitalizing the concepts of right to service and information, and formalize reforms for the law enforcement, healthcare, education, and judicial systems.
Pakistan also embarked on a mode of reforms in the early 2000s, when, for the first time, citizens saw extensive investments in research and development and significant increases in higher education participation, literacy rates, GDP, tax and revenue collection, and foreign investment, to name a few. However, because there wasn’t a strategic roadmap protected by legislation, those efforts to bring reform were in vain, abandoned in the old mindset.
Pakistan, like other developing countries, is not alone in this race to eliminate traditional governance approaches to become more systematic and outcome-driven. Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, India, South Korea, and Bangladesh are among the countries where technology-driven reforms are shaking up the slow-moving and rusty policies with consensus-based decision-making processes. It’s challenging to try to repeat the success stories of countries like Japan and South Korea, but hardly impossible. For example, even though it was difficult, time-consuming, and costly, Malaysia has emerged as one of the strongest knowledge-based economies by adopting technology in reshaping its governance model.
In 1980, Japan set up its vision and policy goal to be a “nation based on science and technology,” which helped it implement laws, regulations, reforms, and policies to become technology-driven with swift citizen-centric outcomes. While it wouldn’t be fair to compare Pakistan with Japan, consider that Korea, the country known as an agriculture-based economy in 1960, was ranked second on ITU’s ICT Development Index in 2017. West Pakistan, known as Bangladesh, was established under the same circumstances, but adopting New Public Management helped the country leapfrog most of the governing challenges and become prominent in the region. Its neighbors in the state of Bihar, India, were struggling from poverty and corruption until 2005, but ICT reforms helped the local administration streamline operations, boost revenue, and improve the government’s responsiveness to citizens’ needs, improving their lives.
New Public Management (NPM), introduced in the 1980s, is fully backed by the technology needed to modernize the public sector. The countries that adopted NPM not only showed significant improvements in public-sector performance but they also proved cost-effective without negative effects on other objectives. NPM includes organizational changes in the state with regard to privatization, corporate management, decentralization, regulation, and political control.
Given global economic, strategic, institutional, and ideological changes, Pakistan’s newly elected government smartly started its journey by examining and fixing the public sector’s foundation through reforms. The government has already announced multiple task forces to propose reforms focused on governance, health, education, and other areas. Even though the initiative has been well received, it needs to ensure that the country doesn’t end up repeating the mistakes of the past. Pakistan may have missed the wave of automation or digitization, but I believe it can still overcome those shortcomings by riding the emerging concept of digital transformation through technology-driven reforms.
A task force established for civil service reforms has focused its work on addressing the public service structure in HR policies and management, recruitment, placement, training, promotions, career planning, performance measurement, compensation, and post-retirement benefits. Implementing reforms through a unified digital platform can establish a solid foundation for Naya (New) Pakistan.
Before we examine the strength of technology, we need to draw a clear line between automation and digital transformation. Automation may still require people to follow the old bureaucratic steps, clicking buttons here and there, while digital transformation not only reengineers processes but also establishes a seamless integration with supported functionalities, and it may end up providing a whole different level of user experience.
Imagine a system-driven recruitment process that can tap into LinkedIn, career websites, recruiting agencies, and more to find the best candidates for open positions, verify their information through different sources, prepare online tests, and empower government agencies to define evaluation criteria. An intelligent platform that keeps track of job positions and provides visibility into the best resource available can help decision-makers identify the right person for the right job. System-driven indicators and flags can improve human resource development and career planning and keep them aligned with agencies’ KPIs and provide proper visibility on individuals’ job performance.
In such a system, getting an approval against benefits (during service or post-retirement) or allowances is defined once and doesn’t depend on an individual’s discretion. Policymakers receive a holistic view in the shape of an analytics dashboard for end-to-end visibility of the government’s human resources in federal, provincial, and other administrative areas. Technology can help the government not only track ghost employees but also calculate excessive workforce in the system.
The debate is: What is the right type of solution? Before we open this Pandora’s box, we need to know what the government of Pakistan is running at the application layer. Is that technology up-to-date and secure enough to handle the mass traffic coming from all ministries, divisions, and departments? Is it capable of being an enterprise application; is it intelligent enough to deal with emerging technologies like predictive analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, etc.?
To the best of our awareness, the government of Pakistan is already running an enterprise-level resource planning application in its finance division through the Controller General, which is a great success story. Many countries have tried to implement the application layer at this level but failed because of uncontrollable bureaucratic hurdles. To make full use of deployed technology, the government needs to accept the built-in functionality more systematically to resolve issues like statistical discrepancies, procure to pay, and single source of truth, and eventually provide a better ROI on the government’s investment. One of the fastest and lowest cost approaches would be to extend this instance to other ministries, divisions, departments, and provincial governments.
The Pakistan government needs to buckle-up and execute an order to enforce the implementation with clear timelines in a phased approach. In a nutshell, the technology is there, the government is committed, and the people are full of expectations, so we need to take it one step further and ensure unified digital control, visibility, and compliance around the financial, treasury, budgeting, accounting, HR, procurement, contracts, assets, and infrastructure management at every single level of the Pakistan government.
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