Serving digitally

Published May 20, 2024
The writer is a researcher with Sustainable Development Policy Institute.
The writer is a researcher with Sustainable Development Policy Institute.

PAKISTAN’s digital landscape is undergoing a seismic shift. From vibrant, swarming urban tech hubs to remote villages buzzing with mobile internet connectivity, a digital revolution is reshaping the nation. Yet, its potential to empower local governance remains largely untapped. While federal and provincial governments have embarked on ambitious digital initiatives, true transformation lies in taking these efforts to the grassroots level. This is where the power of pixels — building blocks of the digital world — can be bound to build stronger, more responsive local government structures.

Pakistan’s digital landscape is a canvas of opportunities, which boasts a vibrant ecosystem of start-ups, tech giants and a burgeoning freelance community. The mobile teledensity rate exceeds 70 per cent and internet usage is also witnessing a rapid rise in rural areas. As per the Pakistan Economic Survey 22-23, during July to March in FY2023, IT exports reached $1.94 billion as compared to $1.95bn in the previous year. The IT export contribution is projected to reach $3bn in FY24 and $16bn by FY33. This growth offers a unique chance to enhance citizen-local government connections through e-governance, such as online tax and complaint systems, streamlining services, restricting bureaucracy and boosting efficiency.

Government initiatives, such as Digital Pakistan, Digital Punjab and digitalisation of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, aim to streamline public services and foster digital inclusivity across public sectors. These programmes are laying the groundwork for a digitally connected ecosystem where information flows seamlessly, empowering citizens to participate actively in local decision-making.

The true impact of digital transformation in Pakistan hinges on its implementation at the grassroots level by local governments. While digitalising local governance can revolutionise service delivery, citizen engagement and governance through improved transparency and accountability, local bodies often lack the resources and technology to serve effectively. Digitalisation, supported by necessary legislative and financial empowerment, can modernise services, facilitate citizen feedback and promote accountability, ensuring that every community benefits equally from digital advancements through superior access and digital literacy.

Digitalisation can modernise LG services and promote accountability.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is rapidly transforming governance globally and that is why achieving a pixel-perfect future should feature prominently on our wish list. Let’s imagine Pakistan leveraging AI to analyse large datasets. Undoubtedly, AI can help local governments identify trends, predict resource requirements and optimise service delivery. Personalised citizen experiences via AI-powered chatbots and virtual assistants can make personalised information and support available to citizens. More importantly, AI-driven fraud detection systems can help local governments identify and prevent misuse of public funds and combat corruption, along with AI-powered surveillance systems, which enhance public safety by monitoring sensitive areas.

To maximise digital transformation in local governance, Pakistan must formulate comprehensive policies and regulatory frameworks, which facilitate interoperability and consistency in digital initiatives. It is crucial to foster collaboration across government levels, secure data privacy and engage with the private sector and civil society for innovative solutions. Moreover, an inclusive digital infrastructure across all areas provides equal access to digital services and opportunities.

Pakistan can learn from global leaders in digital governance to accelerate its transformational journey. Estonia has a highly digitised government with almost all services accessible online and Singapore, with its “Smart Nation” initiative, leverages AI and data analytics for efficient urban management.

Our country’s digital revolution centres on a collaborative, inclusive, and localised approach — local governments, empowered with resources, and knowledge necessary to navigate the digital landscape, pave the way for sustainable and equitable development. As the nation charts the course for a modern digital future, prioritising local governance has to be seen as a strategic imperative because it promises a resilient, connected and empowered nation.

This is not just about pixels and servers. It is about building a future where every citizen feels heard, empowered and actively involved in shaping communities. Let us embrace this path and create a future where local governance is able to serve every citizen.

The writer is a researcher with Sustainable Development Policy Institute.

Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2024

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