One of the natural and obvious outcomes of adopting information technology (IT) in any public sector organisation is data generation. The more a culture of IT systems is introduced in government departments; the larger the amounts of data. Raw data needs to be processed to make it meaningful for decision-makers, ultimately resulting in an environment of data-driven policy-making.

Good data can lead to good decisions, hence good governance. On the other hand, bad data leads to arbitrary decisions, hence bad governance. Also, IT adoption comes with the promise of speedy and simplified processes requiring 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 the facilities.

Having been extensively involved for almost a decade in the delivery and rollout of over 250 projects and initiatives – all of which were developed in-house at the Punjab IT Board (PITB) under the chairmanship, support and guidance of two very different yet highly capable leaders, Umar Saif and Azfar Manzoor – one cannot help but be amazed at this unique digital transformation journey.

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

The second was the computerisation and automation of all police stations of the Punjab that resulted in the discovery of thousands of vacancies in the Police Department after a successful roll-out of the e-transfer system. Personnel files of all the employees of Punjab Police were digitized which enabled the electronic generation of transfer/posting orders. Thousands of vacant positions were discovered as a result.

The complaints registration process, the complete lifecycle of criminal and civil cases, records of more than a million criminals/suspects from all 36 districts of the Punjab were all digitized. To date, around 100,000 criminals have been traced/arrested because of these integrated systems.

When technology is introduced in the government ecosystem, whether in the form of software solutions or digital infrastructure, the primary challenge of all the potential ones is a culture 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. This social change demands careful management.

Secondly, incompetence is omnipresent at the execution level. Departmental business rules, on the other hand, have either become totally irrelevant or they do not exist in the first place. Domain knowledge is like a puzzle with pieces split amongst various functional units; quite like the blind men and the elephant. Hence, for the intangible software, sign-offs on project deliverables will always be challenging.

Third, the role of department’s top leaders is most critical. They need to stay and continue steering the whole digital transformation process to some logical conclusion. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time and effort.

Projects which 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 fear results in panic, unrealistic demands from the delivery team and unnecessary urgency. This is where expectations need to be very carefully managed.

Fourth, the process of funds approval and releases for government projects is quite tedious and long-drawn. 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 premier contractors/vendors.

Fifth, there are maintenance and support challenges for the already delivered software systems. As per government books, if something is delivered, it has to be either a tangible good or a service. There is no separate (delivery) category for software.

Hence, maintenance and support contracts for software are often treated the same way. The fact of the matter is that 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.

Sixth, 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 an FIR with the public prosecution and the courts? Why can’t court orders be digitally shared with prisons, police, prosecution, probation and petitioners/respondents?

The fact of the matter is that we do not have a national policy on data governance that clearly states data storage, data backup, data anonymisation, internal/external data sharing protocols and data monetization. In the absence of it, there will always be unnecessary procedural delays, both in public policy formulation and service delivery to citizens.

Seventh, a context-driven digital payments gateway is a fundamental building block to digitally capture and document all economic activities, commerce and trade. This will also be a big enabler for e-services to citizens, whereby their physical interaction with government officials will be completely cut-off. Identifying and understanding the context behind each payment is essential. For example, is it against an invoice or an agreement, whether it’s a partial payment or full payment, whether it’s a payment made for a service or delivery of goods, etc. Ideally, all fines, fees, and taxes should only be accepted electronically, without any cash handling.

Once established and made fully functional, this is going to give the much-needed mechanism to evaluate the success of the government’s tax policy, as to whether it has resulted in an increase in revenue or 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 regularised by ensuring a better balance between demand and supply.

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 situation, which is critically required for good decision making at the top.

The need for taking 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 will be the key areas that will help accelerate the process of e-governance. Being the fifth most populous country of the world, Pakistan is ripe to make the best use of technology for effective policy-making, governance, and service delivery.

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