Governance crisis

April 10, 2020


GOVERNMENTS worldwide are struggling to defeat Covid-19. The pandemic has battered many areas of social and economic life. Besides exposing obvious issues in healthcare systems, it has also revealed deficiencies in governance and service delivery, especially in developing countries.

In the course of the outbreak’s emergence in Pakistan, we have seen that while rapidly rising cases created an abrupt burden on our healthcare system, the immediate response to check the spread of the virus through social distancing and lockdowns exposed many weaknesses of governance. The lack of preparedness of our health system is not surprising given that the severity and scale of the crisis is so unprecedented as to leave even advanced nations unable to cope. However, the lack of even basic data on the capacity of our health service delivery (both public and private) highlighted our under-preparedness and added to the panic. This is more a governance issue.

Meanwhile, district administrations and LEAs are performing the tedious job of contact tracing in the usual administrative mode instead of in an organised, scientific way. Despite extraordinary efforts, monitoring the spread of the virus is sketchy and slow. This could have been better managed by utilising the power of mobile phone penetration, as being practised in Iran, South Korea and Singapore. Again, this is not an issue of technological capacity, but of outdated governance practices.

Then there was the issue of restricting citizens’ movements. During deliberations over lockdowns, the primary issue was that of identifying and caring for the poor and vulnerable. Besides reliable data, how to deliver relief support was a significant question. The absence of an integrated social protection management information system (MIS) and, worse still, lack of empowered local governments, compounded this crisis.

Inefficiency and poor preparedness plague the system.

How government officials work under such conditions is another story. Shortly after Punjab announced its lockdown, which categorically stated that all government and private offices would remain closed, it issued fresh instructions that government departments would be open with limited staff. People working in the corporate sector continued to work remotely by adopting and customising digital solutions, while many public servants doing desk jobs are still commuting to office.

Had digital governance been well-established, it could have helped manage this situation. Sadly, scattered e-governance projects and semi-digitised centres are no substitute for a fully integrated and seamlessly reliable service delivery option, raising questions about provincial governments’ ICT policies. In a bid to plug the gap, the centre developed a citizens’ services app, but its launch only amidst this crisis indicates our level of preparedness.

For all their deficiencies, government institutions are at the forefront of this crisis. It is, however, clear that governance needs a lot of fixing for a better post-Covid-19 Pakistan. These challenges are not as novel as the virus, and their remedies are not unknown. The system only requires major, long overdue updating. Reinforcing citizen-centric structure, and using technology and data for efficiency and transparency are key elements.

First, take the government closer to the people. There is no alternative to the time-tested approach of designing a local government system to serve people. Closer contact through local-level representation can promote trust in the government.

Second, moving beyond piecemeal projects managed by technologists, a government-wide digital transformation is imperative. This will enable public services agencies to work across the boundaries of their respective portfolios to collaborate and share information. Related to this is the availability of reliable, real-time public-sector data to use for planning, policymaking, budgeting, etc. This could create a scenario in which, for example, the health ministry could find out the number of ventilators in the country from the trade ministry’s import data in a matter of minutes.

In the current crisis, reliable datasets on at-risk populations and transparent mechanisms for aid delivery have been worked on. The government needs to build on this and strengthen its data management capacity. Developing a social protection MIS and single-banking channel for income support is not a very difficult task; take the example of the Khidmat Card in Punjab as a starting point.

The above are only a few types of governance reforms that explicitly respond to the pandemic. Many great minds might be deliberating over the current situation and positing other solutions, but these may at least help us see a nation’s response to such crises in the future, instead of merely a government’s reaction.

The writer is a governance expert.

Published in Dawn, April 10th, 2020