Ammar Khalid is an editor at SAIS Perspectives. He is a first-year International Development student from Pakistan.

“Some of our biggest challenges are cultural,” noted Burhan Rasool, a senior official at the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB), at a lecture titled “Is Technology Transforming Governance in Pakistan’s Punjab Province? The Case of Reforms in Law Enforcement.” The event was organized in late September by the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

The PITB has been at the forefront of introducing information and communication technology (ICT) reforms in Pakistan’s populous Punjab province. This is being done as part of a broader effort by the provincial government to promote inclusive governance within a culture of two-way communication between the government and the citizens. For instance, the provincial government has put in place the Citizen Feedback Model, which gathers citizen's assessments on the quality of public services after using them, asking people to report their comments via SMS following an automated call with the chief minister’s voice. This is feasible because Pakistan has a 73% cell phone subscription rate.

However, such initiatives face impediments because inclusive governance, characterized by increased accountability and responsiveness of public sectors officials, is an alien concept to the bureaucracy and the citizenry in Pakistan. The bureaucracy still operates in the centralized, top-down manner reminiscent of the colonial era. On the other hand, long periods of authoritarian rule have resulted in a weak civil society and a scarcity of channels available for citizen engagement with state institutions. 

It is in this environment that the PITB is going on about its reform business. Cashing in on the recent surge in smartphone usage in Pakistan – the proportion of Pakistan’s population which uses smartphones has almost quadrupled in the last three years – the PITB has implemented innovative projects across the public sector sphere, thus improving monitoring and accountability significantly.   

Rasool opined that smartphone-based ICT interventions improve accountability and require less time and money to put into place. Indeed, studies such as this one show how the provision of smartphones has, in fact, been effective in improving accountability and reducing absenteeism in other public sectors in Pakistan, apart from generating valuable real-time data for policy makers. Low infrastructure costs makes them particularly appealing to bureaucrats who, faced with volatile tenures, view such interventions as ‘quick fixes’ that can then be presented to their political patrons. In most cases, as Rasool pointed out, these bureaucrats will not be posted on one assignment long enough to get funds for a grand development scheme approved. 

On the other hand, the government employees in the field – those who are handed the smartphones – are incentivized through generous data packages and the fact that their good work is recognized by top government officials.

Arguably, the challenge of misaligned incentives is most starkly manifested in the case of law enforcement. Here, the chasm between the government and the citizens widens the most. The police department often ranks as the most corrupt government authority and episodes of injustices at the hands of law enforcers are aplenty, as trust in the police wanes. In this regard, Rasool proudly listed some of the PITB’s accomplishments during the talk:

  • Compilation of a Human Resources (HR) database of roughly 158,000 employees of the provincial police force
    This has enabled decision makers to identify fake employees. Rasool informed the audience that this exercise also revealed a paucity of officials in the investigations department, where more officials have since been recruited. This HR database is also being used to track transfers of police officials. Due to the intense politicization, field police officers often only last a few months in a particular posting.
  • Exercise to maintain digital records of citizens’ fingerprints
    This was undertaken in the wake of controversies regarding elections in Pakistan but will have far-reaching implications for the efficacy of the security apparatus. 
  • Compilation of a digitized database of the First Investigation Reports (FIRs) of all crimes for the provincial capital, Lahore
    This initiative, executed by handing smartphones to field officers who report details from crime scenes, lays the ground for analyzing crime trends in the city and tailoring policing strategies accordingly.
  • The entire lifecycle of FIRs, as they move from police stations to the courts, is now being monitored digitally
    This has the potential to expose where the bottlenecks are in Pakistan’s labyrinthine criminal justice system. It is part of a broader effort to streamline the criminal justice system. As part of this work, another initiative has been taken to send court notices by SMS, thus eliminating the job of the servers who customarily took bribes before sending out court notices. 

Beyond crime and policing, Rasool also went on to describe some of PITB’s accomplishments in conjunction to other government departments during that talk. For instance, PITB has created a Smart Monitoring of Schools database that monitors school attendance across the province. Other future undertakings could be to digitize wholesale fruit and vegetable markets in the province, “enabling regulators and other policymakers to get a sense of food demand and supply.” 

Many of PITB’s initiatives seem path breaking. Question marks remain, however, over their sustainability. Even though the current efforts have powerful political backers, they are inherently top down in approach. Rasool admitted likewise, when a member of the audience asked about the future of these reforms in case incumbency changes hands after the next election. More efforts, therefore, have to be made to institutionalize these changes so that they can be sustained and scaled up across Pakistan.

Below, an image of Pakistani police officers receiving training to use the Punjab Automated Fingerprint Identification System. Photo courtesy of Burhan Rasool.

PHOTO CREDIT: Department for International Development/Russell Watkins from Flickr Creative Commons licensed under CC BY 2.0