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IT-driven public service delivery

September 01, 2014


MANY of us may not realise this, but Punjab is going through a significant ‘digital change,’ which is expected to help the government effectively watch its own working, improve its performance and build a closer relationship with the citizens.

Built around information technology and smartphones, new mobile applications and processes being developed by the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) are already being used to control epidemics, revamp the examination system, map crime, monitor school teachers’ attendance, computerise land records, upload textbooks, extend services to growers, register tenants, list Afghan refugees living in the province, issue driving licenses, digitise on-the-spot traffic ticketing system and manage taxes etc.

The pace of digitisation of the government, nevertheless, is slow, given the entrenched bureaucratic aversion to change, which promises to cut through red tape, attenuate the bureaucracy’s clout, and plug loopholes for corruption.

Still, the use of technology to monitor and record the government’s work is increasing thanks to the backing from the top political leadership in the province. Some say it is the first among several attempts at automation of the government that seems to be getting somewhere and that too at a much lower cost because of innovative solutions developed by the new team at the board.

The use of technology to monitor and record the government’s work is increasing thanks to the backing from the top political leadership in Punjab

“The biggest challenge for a government is to effectively monitor its own work. During the last two-and-a-half years, the board has focused its attention on solving this problem. The idea is, we can manage what we can map and measure,” says Umar Saif, who took over the PITB as its chairman towards the end of 2011. He likes to “run fast and is not reluctant to step on other’s toes” to get the things done.

Initially, it was difficult to convince the bureaucrats about the benefits of using technology to improve public service delivery and track the working of their staff.

“After successful use of technology to control dengue, they have come to see its value and utility,” says Umar, the first Pakistani to receive a doctorate degree in computer sciences and who was listed as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and among 35 young innovators in the world by the MIT Technology Review in 2011.

Interestingly, the entire digital change revolves around the use of cost-effective Android phones instead of expensive laptops and personal computers. “Governments in developing countries function in a socioeconomic environment that is quite different from the one in the developed world. Our problems and needs are different; so the solutions have to be different. There is so much that could be done around smartphones,” he argues.

The use of smartphones has helped the government get around many challenges and infrastructural requirements associated with the usage of laptops and PCs by not very computer-friendly officials: they’re inexpensive, easy to carry and use, and have embedded GPS and always-on work connection.

“All you have to do is pre-install the specific work-related applications and distribute the handsets to the officials. Since all their work is geo-tagged and time-stamped, it makes it easier for their seniors to hold their staff to account for any negligence,” Umar says.

In case of the anti-dengue squad, for example, health workers are required to visit different places, do fog spray, use chemicals to kill mosquito larvae in ponds, clear puddles of water and shred some tyres etc. All they have to do is take pictures before and after performing the activity and send it to their supervisors. This allows the authorities to collect data in real time, geo-map the disease, raise alerts and take action to control and manage it.

The World Bank has highlighted the work done by the PITB to increase the use of technology to improve the delivery of public service in Punjab — especially controlling the spread of dengue — as one of three global examples of good governance innovations around the world. The bank has also given $50m to the provincial government for IT-based monitoring of its field work.

In all, the PITB is working on 160 e-government projects. Many of them are at a very early stage of development; some are being carried out in specific cities before their scope is extended to the rest of the province. The board has put a lot of data on the web for public consumption.

“We will keep uploading our data as we collect it. This will help bring enormous pressure on the government to take the required actions where needed and facilitate the citizens,” the chairman concludes.

The board has covered quite a distance in the last couple of years, but it has a long way to go before the people can reap the benefits of digitisation of the provincial government. Its success depends as much on the continued political backing of the government as on the people running it.

Published in Dawn, Economic & Business, September 1st, 2014