The future of government Published in The News International, March 17, 2018
Governments in countries such as Pakistan – with exploding and rapidly urbanising populations – face increasing challenges to deliver ‘good government’. In the context of scarce resources and declining trust, it is increasingly becoming difficult to ensure the key government mandates: delivery of law and order, justice, services to bridge inequalities, market competitiveness, and effective and even regulation.
Fortunately, technology provides an unprecedented opportunity to provide solutions even for low-resource settings. These opportunities have been tapped by the private sector, and have created islands of progress in the public system. The critical question is: will governments be able to harness them to bring about quantum change in their performance?
Even in Pakistan, when you seek services online, fast food chains and online taxis deliver on the objective of trackability, efficiency, transparency, and accountability. The same technological capabilities that underpin these service delivery mechanisms could, if well managed and strategically deployed, support the development of innovative public-sector digital ecosystems that are transparent, accountable and responsive.
The potential of Pakistan’s existing public-sector IT systems should be the starting point to explore potential. The National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) provides solutions for identification. This infrastructure of digital identities is the foundation on which to plan the digital transformation of government services. The Republic of Estonia, the most advanced e-society in the world, is an example of what is possible. Estonia recently received the Government Leadership Award for moving public services into a fully digital mode and making 95 percent of government e-services available through mobile apps. Pakistan has the infrastructure to enable that. The country’s experience with e-filing of tax returns, initial experience of e-filing of FIRs, and land revenue automation as well as other similar initiatives – most notably those initiated by a provincial IT Board – can be the starting point for upscaling.
The Federal Bureau of Statistics’ Geographic Information System can be the foundation for location-enabled services. For example, it can be used to identify schools that are off population centres and crime sites in relation to where police stations sit. This can also enhance the government’s analytical ability and effectiveness.
Triangulation of big data from various sources and data exchange between the state’s information systems can yield significant gains, ranging from predicting diseases to improved tax collection.
Countries that are rapidly progressing have all opted for online single windows for business registration, and Pakistan must do likewise. Mobile payments systems, which are now fully developed, can be tapped for wholesale government-to-citizen payments – for example, pensions, where we know ghost payments are a problem.
Easily deployable technology applications such as video surveillance can monitor Basic Health Units and Schools, just as fast food chains monitor their branches and GPS location technologies can be used to checkmate absenteeism in public-service delivery. Sector specialists can outline a menu of practical applications of commonplace ICT solutions that can drive change in virtually every sector.
The government’s internal functioning also needs to benefit from technology. Tools within government such as e-office (system of moving files electronically) have existed over a decade. Its trackability features can improve transparency, rule-based control and efficiency and time-stamping could ingrain accountability. ERPs are used by most private-sector organisations; clearly, the country’s largest employer, the Government of Pakistan, could benefit through its use.
Technology helps fight corruption and entrenched rent-seeking, which is part of the reason why there are obstacles to upscaling these simple and often cost-effective solutions in our setting. But many countries are relying on technology precisely for this reason, and some have gone as far as to use it to promote integrity in political practices. The use of a mobile app to track campaign finances by the California Fair Political Practices Commission is a case in point.
But technology by itself is not the solution; its deployment in transparent ‘processes’, which hedge against abuse, is key. Hence, large-scale technology deployment works best in environments where the appetite to address corruption and intent to base decisions on evidence exists. Failing this, decision-makers find avenues to insulate process, which vest powers of discretion from getting automated.
There is also the need for a change in mindset. Here we see drones taking pictures at weddings and political rallies. But countries such as Rwanda are using drones to deliver blood products to haemorrhaging women in far-flung areas, and for humanitarian relief.
To usher in a digital transformation of government, technology must be deployed in new systems with appropriate incentives to reshape behaviours. New governance and regulatory models are needed to set standards, formulate policy and address concerns around privacy and security which could hinder adoption. Partnerships are key to draw on the expertise of various sectors.
Governments need to invest in new capacities (both human and technological), in infrastructure (such as e-service kiosks in rural locations) and in digital literacy. An assessment of digital maturity and the technologies and platforms needed, is a requirement, after which a roadmap can be developed to launch pilots, adapt learnings, then scale broadly. Provincial governments should engage in collaborative work, share lessons and prepare initiatives for nationwide scale up. The workforce needs to be realigned with this digital age, which is where the Higher Education Commission can play a key role.
We are starting from a long way back, but we must also prepare to tap the potential of breakthrough technologies, such as blockchain, artificial intelligence and robotics, which have significant potential to reshape governments’ potential further.
To ensure that Pakistan takes full advantage of new technologies to tackle some of our biggest challenges, an overarching digital government strategy is needed to accelerate rollout. Engaging citizens in helping shape this strategy will be critical to its overall implementation. As Pakistan, and indeed the world, goes through transformational changes, uptake in innovative technology is one of the government’s best assets to stay ahead of the curve.