Understanding the PM Citizens Portal

Shahid Mehmood explains the positive aspects and the shortcomings of the app

Understanding the PM Citizens Portal
The recently released statistics on the performance of the PM Citizens Portal, an application launched to alleviate public grievances against state institutions, painted an impressive picture of its performance. Given my own experience, and extensive discussion over its performance with varied group of individuals, this article aims to put in words what I learned during these interactions.

I’ll start with a case which demonstrates how the bureaucracy has successfully managed to undermine the whole process. Perhaps most damning is the fact that it’s happening right under the PM’s nose, in PM Secretariat. It is important to understand the context. Bureaucrats have managed to invent a special rule for themselves, a 10-year age relaxation (up to the age of 55) to contest against any advertised post. It mainly caters to the interests of those babus who fail to get a promotion or are interested in a particularly coveted seat. Anyway, the Establishment Division’s OM regarding such age relaxation clearly states that it has to be advertised!

So there is this babu on deputation, working in PM secretariat on a specific post since January 2013. In 2016, the same post was advertised with a maximum age of limit of 45 years (without age relaxation). However, this guy not only sat in the exam, but also managed to get shortlisted for final interview. At the time of exam, he was 53 years, and 54 years old at the time of final interview! Simply put: he wanted to seat himself permanently on the post while excluding others of the same age cohort from competition (that is why the age relaxation was never advertised). Unfortunately for him, another candidate found out and took him to the court. Caught red handed, he withdrew from the post by giving assuring the court (in writing) that he is no more contesting against the post. To obviate any further scrutiny, he returned to his parent department.
The app is a good move as it allows citizens to approach the corridors of power without the need to cower in front of public servants and loitering aimlessly

But it was just a smokescreen. He returned on the same post after three months, and the candidate who exposed his fraud is still awaiting his letter for work (being on top of merit list). So now, he has been working on the post for seven years. Here’s what Supreme Court has ruled in cases of deputation: no deputation can be beyond three years. Additional deputation time cannot be more than two years, and even that in case of an extreme urgency (refer to Tahira Yasub DSP vs Government of GB, for example).

In short, not only did this bureaucrat indulge in fraud, but he is also in direct contempt of the Supreme Court. These details (including SC case number and exact para regarding deputation) were put up on PM portal last year (complaint number IS190819-4182868), asking Establishment Division to take action. Unfortunately, the establishment tends to act as a bulwark against scrutiny of the unethical conduct of the bureaucracy. As expected, they made it a football, forwarding it to one department, which forwarded it to another, which then forwarded it to yet another one. In the end, the complainant citizen received the message of ‘partially resolved,’ and the bureaucrat continues to work on the same post.

Be it the issues of potholes appearing on roads, correcting defective street lights or trash disposal services, this app works well and complainants can see results in little time. Quiet surprisingly, I am aware of cases where complicated matters like rights to property and land grabbers have been taken care of.

The introduction and working of the Citizens’ App is a good move as it allows citizens to approach the corridors of power without the need to cower in front of public servants and loitering aimlessly, hopelessly in public offices. It saves time and public expense, thus making it more economical than other such platforms. At the same time, citizens must tamper their expectations in case they are (irrationally) expecting any fundamental changes in the way that the system operates. That is not going to happen. Large, organizational and society level changes in behaviour can only come through strict and persistent application of laws, an aspect that Pakistan is very poor at. Bureaucrats have already fine-tuned their workings to deflect any attempt at straightening their wayward indulgences through this app.

What are its economic ramifications? To many, this might sound strange. After all, where does economics fits into this? Answer: the spillovers may even be more than what we can imagine. Let us analyse why this might be the case.

They say time is money. The article elucidates how the app is fairly good at forwarding and resolving micro level issues relatively quickly. Just imagine the time and mental torture if one had to traverse the bureaucratic allays endlessly just to get a minute issue resolved. What the app does is that ends up saving the applicant from that predicament. Time saved can be spent, theoretically at least, on something productive that can complement or enhance source of income (thus time becomes money). And averting mental torture is in itself an enhancement in the quality of life if one is able to comprehend that majority of the micro level issues in our daily lives are the ones that have been a persistent bane of our existence for as long as we can remember.

An important aspect, from financial point of view, is the costs associated with maintaining such initiatives. Unlike the expansive (and largely ineffective) system of courts that are aimed at solving citizens’ issues and ensuring their rights, online platforms come with the substantial advantage that these are primarily a one-time investment, with later maintenance and upgrade costs (marginal costs) negligible compared to their overall benefits. Contrast this with the brick and mortar way of dealing with these problems whose total costs can be telling upon the national exchequer. Thus, for a country like Pakistan whose public kitty is almost always empty, such an arrangement offers a substantial advantage. Plus, let’s not underestimate this clever move in terms of economizing on an already existing (and widespread) platform: the smartphone. No public expense involved here.

Regular readers of my columns would be aware of my critical stance towards economic management under the PTI. But PM Citizens Portal is a praiseworthy step. Yet, Khan’s government should look towards attuning this initiative with strict, no-nonsense application of laws, lest this also gradually fizzles out like the initiatives before.

The writer is an economist

The writer is an economist. He tweets at @ShahidMohmand79