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By Burhan Rasool, Member, Prime Minister’s Task Force on Austerity & Restructuring Government and General Manager, Punjab IT Board; and Ammar Malik, Director of EPoD Research, Harvard Kennedy School

One of the natural and obvious outcomes of adopting IT in any public sector organization is the generation of data — and introducing more IT systems into government departments will certainly generate more data. But to be made meaningful for decision-makers, this raw data needs to be processed, ultimately resulting in a culture of data-driven policymaking. Good data can lead to good decisions, hence good governance. On the other hand, bad data leads to arbitrary decisions, hence bad governance.

IT adoption comes with the promise of speedy and simplified processes with little or no human interaction. For the government, this implies that it can facilitate its citizens without discrimination or bias. For the people, this entails remote, paperless, and cashless transactions with the government and assures uniform and easy access to government facilities. 

Punjab’s Digital Transformation Journey

The Punjab Province in Pakistan has a population of over 100 million people, and keeping social order and peace in such a huge governance unit is a big challenge by itself. The digital transformation journey that Punjab has gone through in the last one decade is amazingly unbelievable and worth sharing. I have been extensively involved in the delivery and rollout of over 250 technology-based reform projects and initiatives during this journey under the chairmanship, support, and guidance of two very different yet highly capable leaders, Umar Saif and Azfar Manzoor.

Among all these projects, two have been extremely gratifying: The Dengue Monitoring Platform that used smartphones to track the coordinated efforts of 17 government departments related to anti-dengue activities across Punjab. Over 100 million activities have been reported through this system to date.

The second was the computerization and automation of all police stations in Punjab that resulted in the discovery of thousands of vacancies in the police department after the successful roll-out of the e-transfer system. Personnel files of all employees of the Punjab police were digitized, which enabled the electronic generation of transfer and posting orders. As a result, thousands of vacant positions were discovered. The complaints registration process, the complete lifecycle of criminal and civil cases, and records of more than a million criminals and suspects from all 36 districts of Punjab were digitized. This practice has been replicated in the Sindh and Balochistan Province, and these systems talk to each other digitally. To date, around 100,000 criminals have been traced or arrested because of these integrated systems.

Despite the benefits that the adoption of IT in Pakistan’s public sector would promise, there are, however, eight challenges that the country faces in its ongoing digital transformation journey.

1. Work Ethics and Culture

When technology is introduced into the government ecosystem, whether in the form of software solutions or digital infrastructure, the primary challenge is the cultural change battle that ensues. The resistance to technology is not mainly due to technophobia, it is due to the disruption of the status quo. Technology aims to add elements of transparency, visibility, and accountability for all stakeholders, which tends to have a knee-jerk opposition from most of them. Therefore, this social change demands careful management from an organizational behavior or cultural change expert.

2. Lack of Domain Knowledge

Incompetence is omnipresent at the level of execution. Departmental business rules have either become totally irrelevant, or do not exist in the first place. Domain knowledge is like a puzzle with pieces split amongst various functional units. Hence, for the intangible software, sign-offs on project deliverables will always be challenging.

3. Frequent Leadership Changes

The role of department’s top leadership is most critical. They are required to steer the entire digital transformation process to some logical conclusion, otherwise, it’s a waste of time and effort. Projects that do not show significant returns within a single tenure tend to phase out and be lost in limbo once the top management changes hands. This results in panic, unrealistic demands from the delivery team, and unnecessary urgency. This is where expectations need to be very carefully managed.

4. Delays in Release of Funds

The process of funds approval and releases for government projects is quite tedious and long-drawn. A government’s internal cash flow visibility at any given point in time is a huge challenge. Hence, payments do not have a well-defined timeframe. This has a big impact on the engagement, delivery, and morale of any party that works with the government and can be a major hindrance in engagement of premiere contractors and vendors.

5. No Separate Procurement Rules for Software

There are also maintenance and support challenges for the already delivered software systems — and as per the government books, if something is delivered, it has to be either a tangible good or service. There is no separate delivery category for software. Hence, maintenance and support contracts for software are often treated the same way, but it is very unlikely that two software engineers would solve the same problem in a similar way. Even if they do, their algorithmic implementation is most likely to be different from each other. But there are best practices and coding standards that can be followed as part of a software company culture, which may or may not be followed in another company. Hence, maintenance and support contracts for software must be treated differently.

Ideally, the software engineer who developed it in the first place should be traced and given the contract. Otherwise, the company that was given the initial development contract should be engaged for maintenance and support as well. For this, perpetual budgetary expense would have to be allocated year after year. Otherwise, a continuously irritating buggy software is what the departmental staff will have to live with.

6. No National Policy on Data Governance

Data collaboration even for the internal consumption of government departments is still an unsolved problem. For the justice sector, for example, why can’t police share an authentic digital copy of a FIR to public prosecution and courts? Why can’t court orders be digitally shared with prisons, police, prosecution, probation, and petitioners or respondents? The fact of the matter is that we do not have a national policy on data governance that clearly states procedures for data storage, data backup, data anonymization, internal/external data sharing protocols, and data monetization. In the absence of one, there will always be unnecessary procedural delays, both in public policy formulation and service delivery to citizens. 

7. Context-Driven Digital Payments Gateway

A context-driven digital payments gateway is a fundamental building block to digitally capture and document all economic activities, commerce, and trade, but identifying and understanding the context behind each payment is essential. Is it against an invoice or an agreement? Is it a partial or full payment? Is it a payment made for a service or delivery of goods? Ideally, all fines, fees, and taxes should only be accepted electronically, without any cash-handling.

Once established and made fully functional, this will provide a much-needed mechanism to evaluate the success of the government’s tax policy — whether it has resulted in an increase in revenue, or a decrease, in real terms. Similarly, e-payments at commodity markets will give reasonably reliable data on the demand for essential commodities, locality-wise, and around important events. Consequently, prices of these commodities could be regularized by ensuring a better balance between supply and demand.

8. Secure and Reliable Digital Access

Lastly, access to a secure, faster, and reliable communication network is a big challenge, especially in small cities, remote areas, farms, motorways, and highways. This is critically required for any serious digitization effort to take root in Pakistan. Unless we have equitable digital access across Pakistan, we will never have comprehensive, reliable, and timely information regarding on-ground situations, which is critically required for good decision-making at the top.

Continuing the Digital Transformation Journey

The need to take the next step in the digital reformation of Pakistan cannot be stressed enough. Modern techniques of employing big data management, artificial intelligence, and effective human-computer interaction are the key areas that will help accelerate the process of e-governance. As the fifth most populous country of the world, Pakistan is ripe to make the best use of technology for effective policymaking, governance, and service delivery.


Burhan Rasool is a member of the Prime Minister of Pakistan’s Task Force on Austerity and Restructuring Government. He is an IT & e-Governance expert working with Punjab Information Technology Board as a General Manager. He has served as the Project Director of “Computerization of Police Stations in Punjab.” 

Ammar A. Malik is the Director of EPoD Research at Harvard Kennedy School. He leads research-policy engagements that derive actionable policy insights from rigorous research. He oversees EPoD’s labor market and education research portfolios in the Middle East, identifying and supporting opportunities for data and economic analysis to inform local policies that empower underrepresented groups and support social and economic development.