Harnessing tech to offset incompetence, corruption

The News

LAHORE: Managing a non-transparent economy is an uphill task as it needs a distinction between the corrupt and honest civil servants as well as knowledge of their competence.
An extremely corrupt official could equally be competent. He is dangerous for the system as s/he could use the competence to hide corruption. He may deliver but the delivery could turn out very costly.
On the other hand, an honest official may not be competent to perform the assigned job and his service delivery would be very poor. He would be a nightmare for the management. But, if an official is corrupt and incompetent he could turn out to be a management disaster because of cost of the task accomplishment. This stands true both for civil servants as well as the ruling elite.
Government should ensure efficient and affordable public services. Cost of services increases if people have to pay bribes. Service may also lose its value if it is delayed because the individual responsible for delivery is honest but incompetent.
Pakistan needs both competent and honest bureaucracy. Corruption and dearth of competence could be compensated through technology use. Punjab, for instance, is the country’s only province where there are no ghost schools because of technology, which records attendance of the government school teachers at their class rooms through global positioning system. The tech use has also tremendously increased the presence of doctors at the public sector’s clinics in remote areas. Electronic stamping in the province has eliminated pilferage of revenue as well as malpractices, such as backdated revenue stamps for property transfer.
There is not only stiff resistance to the use of transparent technology in the country but absence of accountability also ensures that the bureaucracy passes on penalty of its incompetence or corruption to the citizens.
One glaring example of this is found in the sales tax regime under which sales tax officials are required to register a person or company after complete investigation. The officials have to visit premise of the company aspiring for registration. They have to record computerised identity card number of the company’s focal person.
The registrants are put online so that businessmen can buy inputs or products from them and pay the due sales tax. The registered supplier needs to then deposit the revenue collection into the treasury.
Businessmen who pay sales tax are eligible for tax refunds, which were refused by the sales tax department, in several past cases, on the pretext the registered supplier didn’t exist or the collected tax was deposited to national exchequer. Rather, refund claimants were asked to trace the missing suppliers despite the fact they were registered after investigation.
Tax officials who registered such bogus suppliers with no physical existence should be held accountable and the firm that bought goods after sales tax payment must get refunds without any delay. There will never be any improvement in governance without booking the officials for their misdeeds.
Technology ensures that all the parameters of transparency are observed. But, the procedures incorporated in software have to be followed in letter and spirit. There should be no shortcut to the procedures. If the rules are followed the question of incompetence will never arise.
The system should also be transparent to ensure elimination of corrupt practices. Systems of the National Database Registration Authority and passport offices should be imitated as they at least ensure that the applicants are served in letter and spirit.
Obviously, there are some loopholes which can be eliminated over the period. The practice of bypassing the electronic line, which is in vogue at some government offices, needs to be shunned.

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