Very lavish allowances are awarded to the officers posted by the foreign and commerce ministries in European countries. If they cannot even update very basic information on their website, what other expectations can be associated with their highnesses?
Dr Haider Shah
For the attestation of a document, I was required to visit the Pakistan High Commission (PHC) in London, the equivalent of an embassy of non-commonwealth countries, a few days ago. As a researcher, I decided to make a virtue of this necessity by making a note of what I observed and experienced. In this way I wanted to conduct a small-scale case study based on personal observations and making sense.
In order to obtain information about the location, opening time and procedural details, I accessed the website of the PHC. The first impression I got was an encouraging one as I did find links for all the activities that an embassy is supposed to perform. At this point my inquisitiveness prompted me to first browse the whole website and see if all the information was up-to-date and helpful. The test was simple to carry out as I had some personal experience in this regard as my guidance. A long time ago, when I used to work for the Federal Bureau of Revenue (FBR), I developed a frequently asked questions (FAQs) document on the import of vehicles and had it posted on the FBR’s website so that overseas Pakistanis could get answers to all possible queries before making a decision about importing a vehicle into Pakistan. After a few months, I proceeded to the UK to undertake my doctoral study. Two years later, I checked the website and was shocked to discover that no one had bothered to update the FAQs even though the policy had changed since then. I was further surprised to find that on the customs intelligence website, where I was last posted, no changes had been made even though I had relinquished the charge a long time ago. The FBR boasts of multibillions worth of investment in information technology as international donor agencies like the World Bank had been generous in funding the modernisation schemes of this premier revenue collecting organisation. However, it is the man behind the gun that refuses to change in our public sector organisations.
With this experiential knowledge in hand, I checked import policy related information on the high commission’s website. I could not help smiling. The high commission seems to be frozen in the year 2009 as the import policy and related material was five years old. Much to the chagrin of Ishaq Dar, it is the budget speech of Hafeez Shaikh that appears prominently under the budget section. The situation of the Manchester office of the PHC is also not much different as it displays very old trade figures. This height of negligence by officers who are posted abroad for promoting trade is shocking on two accounts. One, very lavish allowances are awarded to the officers posted by the foreign and commerce ministries in European countries. If they cannot even update very basic information on their website, what other expectations can be associated with their highnesses? Second, if a decision is made on the basis of the information displayed on the official website, who will be responsible for the financial loss to the decision maker if the information proves to be incorrect? The officers entrusted with this job are also charged with caring for non-resident Pakistanis. By causing distress and economic loss, they fail miserably in this duty as well.
After completing my search of the PHC website I set off to the multimillion pounds’ building of the PHC in one of the most expensive areas of London. Visitors were seen seated in an open, tented space outside the main building as if they were attending a valima (marriage) function. The website had mentioned a ticket system but there was little guidance available on the spot. Finally, I approached an official who was surrounded by a few agitated families. He pointed me towards the inside of the building and I finally reached the window where attestation documents were being received. Here I was attracted towards an interesting object: a big, wall-mounted television. Whoever rules the official premises of the government of Pakistan in London, it was very clear as the pro-dharna (sit-in) coverage of a private news channel was being forcibly shown to the visitors waiting for their turn. Of late, this channel has earned the same status with respect to Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri that Iraq’s Comical Ali had for Saddam Hussein and Shahidullah Shahid for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Showing anti-government propaganda in one of the most expensive official buildings of the government of Pakistan was a bit baffling for me. After my documents were received by a female official, I was asked to make a fee payment to the cashier. On reaching the cashier’s window I noticed that the same live coverage was on the screen of a smaller television inside his office. “Who makes decisions about channels to be shown in the high commission?” I asked the cashier. “I make the decision,” he replied with a tinge of surprise over my outrageous question.
This case study has two learning outcomes. One, our public sector managers continue to be wanting in the hands of management. They are not in the habit of doing an audit or a snap check of their services and, therefore, remain unaware of what is out there for the users of the public services. Two, the senior level officers are consumed more by ceremonies and other superfluous activities while the lower level operational staff run the show. I hope someone in the concerned ministries make a little use of this case study.