Turning Thoughts Off and Nature On

Sometimes, to wind down, I go to a park nearby for a walk. Last month, I observed an interesting phenomenon.

While walking, I kept worrying about a problem related to work. It had been occupying my mind ever since I left my desk. At a certain point, I stopped thinking about it. I realized as soon as I stopped thinking, I could now proactively engage my senses with my beautiful surroundings. I could hear birds chirping, kids playing and running in circles, people breathing, talking and laughing. I could enjoy the fragrance of flowers, and petrichor. I could see nature and people around me. I could also derive pleasure from touching trees and beautiful flowers.

Then at a certain point, another problem entered my brain. Again, when I stopped thinking about it, I noticed beautiful nature; hope, energy, and excitement in the park. It was like a game. Turn on the worrying thoughts, everything around you is foreign. Turn those thoughts off, nature, hope, energy and excitement await.

With uneasy thoughts running, the experience of engaging and enjoying nature in a park is incomplete, since you cannot engage all of your senses (as senses become subservient to thoughts in the mind). To create a valuable experience and get greater inspiration from nature, all senses should be engaged. Doing this creates the whole experience  -- for one, we cannot enjoy a great meal with eyes closed and nose blocked. Moreover, if the experience of engaging all senses wasn’t important, watching a video of a park on a computer would be equally satisfying and inspiring. To engage all senses, to let nature inspire us, we should occasionally turn off our thoughts.

It is true that completely turning off those thoughts in a natural setting would not help.  Sometimes lovely scenery can help improve our thought processes and give us a unique perspective on a problem we’re facing. But it is also important to let those thoughts rest for a while in order to appreciate nature or just rest our minds.

How do I turn these thoughts off? Well, it is hard for me to point out a general solution, since this is more of a casual observation, but the following is what I have been trying so far. First, I try to make a conscious effort to live in the present moment. The present is all I have and I try to embrace it while in nature instead of dwelling on the past or future, since I cannot control either.

Also, one has to have a belief that the outcome of valuing the present moment is most rewarding. Another thing that appears to be working for me is to allocate a certain area within a park to do this. So while in this area, my goal is to focus only on nature. Beyond that area, I can think of other things, but within it I try to resist thinking about other stuff.

This has been helping so far. It is peaceful, and refreshing, to just absorb and enjoy everything around me with my thoughts off, something I cherish even after I get back to my desk. I carry that same hope and excitement, as they can be contagious. So while out in nature, the lesson for me is to deliberately turn off agonizing thoughts. I will carry on the experiment and may update it in a future post.


Our statesmen in Pakistan

I am not an expert on public policy or governance. Nor am I the epitome of virtue. However, the recent scuffle between two parliamentarians (and similar instances in the recent past) have made me think.  As someone who has his, and his descendants’, futures married to that of this country, this was painful. This use of force shows how our leaders deal with dissent. It really baffles me how those who cannot govern their tempers in the highest public political forum, knowing that events in this forum are captured permanently by the mass media, can expect to be able to govern cities, ministries, provinces or our country (which is already at a crossroads). Such behavior evoked certain thoughts.

Ask yourself, would you want people who use their arms and tongues freely in an arbitrary direction, to be a guardian of our children and be responsible for their upbringing? I don’t think any parent would want people exhibiting such behavior to guide their children, given the kind of negative influence they may have on them.

Let’s assume you own a business or manage a certain department. Would you give such people responsibility to run your business or your department? Running the affairs of a business involves situations in which your temper is tested almost on a daily basis. Would such behavior make a business profitable? Would it not affect the performance and morale of employees? How would this behavior impact a business when it’s already in trouble?

Moreover, would you like to learn an art or a sensitive craft from someone with a similar temper? Would you like to get yourself treated by a doctor, for a life threatening disease, who is trained by someone with such a temper? Similarly, would you like to be treated by a doctor with such a temper? I think the answer is “no”.

Ask yourself, would you really want someone with such a temper to be a mediator in a large and important dispute? Do you think he would be able to judiciously solve matters related to life, death and general social welfare? Would you confidently think that such a mediator would be able to impart justice to society at large?

Furthermore, can such a person truly offer his services to provide reasoned resistance against tyranny? Isn’t it doubtful that people would actually oblige his calls at the hour of need for an honest and just cause? The need for leaders who can act and unite us against tyranny has never been greater.

I believe, therefore, that if a person of such temperament cannot be very confidently assigned such jobs, we cannot confidently assign him the sensitive and arduous job of running a state, which involves dealing with all such affairs.

It is doubtful that  such people can craft policies and make regulations needed to turn around a troubled country. Dissent and discourse are inevitable in matters of monumental scale. Incisive insights are usually a result of discourse and dissent conducted with civility. When tongues, arms and legs move freely and forcefully to take each other down, it makes one wonder if our policies and regulations are well thought out.

Is it because of inherent patronage and clientelism that people with good morals and virtue don’t because part of the political machine? Political entrepreneurs take advantage of misplaced incentives; they who know how to exploit this political machine, by doling out favors and economic resources in exchange for votes, are given priority by those in power. The fact that political parties’ leadership doesn’t strongly condemn this behavior of their colleagues reinforces the importance of such political entrepreneurs.

This political machine is also an indication of how our politicians have been successful in making policies that have kept the majority poor and uneducated. According to American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, having a poor and uneducated majority enables patronage and clientelism. The most acute problem with patronage and clientelism is that both politicians and citizens sacrifice their long-term well-being for short-term gains. That is likely the reason that the majority of our population still doesn’t have access to clean drinking water, fair justice, quality health care and proper education.

This opinion was published in The News on 21st of March, 2017.

Is National Action Plan (NAP) a plan?

ANDREW Grove, one of the founders of Intel, is considered the pioneer of the semiconductor industry and of modern management practices. In one of his books, High Output Management, he talks about “management by objectives” (MBO), a method of creating meaningful plans that disciplines thinking, focuses efforts and gives direction to those involved in their implementation.

This method had earlier been popularised by the founder of modern management, Peter Drucker, but Grove brought it to an even wider audience. Reportedly, Google, DuPont and Intel all use this method. MBO can be used to create and analyse the effectiveness of a plan, whether by a company, sports team, individual or country.

Our government came up with the National Action Plan (NAP) some time ago. It tries to address the important issues this country faces. The purpose of this article is not to analyse the plan from a political or public-policy standpoint but, rather, to evaluate it in the light of MBO.

Any meaningful plan needs to list not only its objectives, but also the milestones (or key results) that must be pursued along the way in order to achieve those objectives. According to Grove, MBO helps answer two questions: first, where does one want to go, ie the objective and; second, how to measure whether one is getting closer to one’s destination, ie milestones or key results. NAP, however, refers only to objectives and has no mention of key results that will help measure progress. For example, the objectives listed in NAP include revamping and reforming the criminal justice system but it does not state which milestones or key results need to be achieved in order to be able to do this.

The aforementioned objective also gives no indication of the duration in which this task is to be completed. Plans need to be time-bound. Grove gives a good example: “I want to go to the airport to catch a plane in an hour. This is my objective. I know that I must drive through towns A, B and C on my way there. My key results become reaching A, B and C in 10, 20 and 30 minutes respectively. If I have been driving for 20 minutes and haven’t yet made town A, I know I am lost.” Key results need to be time-limited so that they can be effectively tracked.

Neither does NAP give direction to those in the government’s machinery responsible for the execution of its objectives. It is important that objectives are further broken down across the government’s chain of command, down to the individual level, so that the relevant people in the national and provincial echelons know what their responsibilities are.

If objectives are clearly defined at all levels we then clearly see, as Grove notes, a “nesting hierarchy of objectives, so [that] if a subordinate’s objectives are met the supervisor’s will be as well”. Without this nesting hierarchy, everyone is unsure of their roles in the grand scheme of things and this may result in inaction and a lack of meaningful progress towards their goals. Even a partial implementation of the nesting hierarchy, in which most of the available resources are ineffectively and incompletely utilised, will fail to yield fruitful results.

NAP also contains no measures of success. Key results need to be measurable so that there is no ambiguity upon completion. If the objective of a waste management authority is to reduce waste in Karachi, for example, then one of its key results could be to increase the waste collection coverage by 10pc in south Karachi by May 2017. Similarly, merely stating the intention of revamping the criminal justice system is not enough — we ought to know what we are aiming for and how much of an improvement we expect.

Any plan or objective must have a mechanism for review, how frequ­ently one is conducted and by whom. There also must be in place a process whereby objec­tives and key results are periodically refined. While some degree of failure is reasonable, it is important to make correc­tions to a plan upon subsequent evaluations.

A plan is susceptible to vagueness and failure without specific objectives, key results, time limits, clear direction, measures of success and concrete criteria for monitoring. Good plans require a lot of thinking, something that, unfortunately, cannot be outsourced. Good plans also foster good communication, which in turn can expedite implementation and give a sense of purpose.

Of course, thorough planning is a daunting task, and it’s understandable that making progress on large national plans takes time, consensus and much coordination. With determination and seriousness of purpose, however, this can be achieved. The need has never been greater to make progress towards big and audacious national goals such as better education, expanded healthcare and increased national security.

This opinion was published in the Dawn on November 9th, 2016. 

Delusional Development in Pakistan

Delays in the completion of mega-projects have become the norm in our country. Hydropower projects and construction of highways, sewage treatment plants and airports, for example, are being delayed, and delays cost money. Islamabad airport has seen a cost overrun of Rs 19.39 billion; the cost of the sewage treatment plant in Karachi jumped nearly five times. Delays and cost overruns in development projects are a concern for a debt-ridden developing country such as ours, because they lead to inefficient allocation of resources and the waste of scarce capital.

According to research conducted by Dr. Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford University, cognitive biases, poor planning, political pressure, strategic misrepresentation and the lack of outside expertise best explain delays and cost overruns. These factors lead also to the building of inferior projects. The dream of pro-people development is shattered while our impoverished country has to bear these burdens.

Various studies have suggested that decision-makers (e.g. politicians) fall prey to cognitive biases, and have a tendency to exaggerate their talents. Overconfidence affects us all. In a 1981 study, Ola Svenson found that 93% of American drivers rated themselves as better than the average driver. According to Flyvbjerg, politicians are not immune to this over-optimism bias, or to the illusion of having control. They believe that things that go well are their own achievements, while things that don’t go well are others’ failures. They think they are in control and ignore the rare and worst-case scenarios. When project promoters become excited about a project, they focus solely on success scenarios and rarely talk about the associated risks. Sadly, we don’t have policies in place that take such biases into account. The Treasury of the UK instituted policies to ensure that funding is available only for projects that factor in cognitive biases. We need to take similar measures.

Poor planning and inaccurate cost-benefit forecasts also cause delays and cost overruns. Properly-planned projects depend on rational and thorough cost-benefit analyses (CBA), and the foundation of a good CBA is conservative and thoroughly-vetted forecasts. A CBA can easily be tainted due to improperly analyzed-forecasts, making unfit projects look good on paper. Incorrect forecasts project unrealistic revenue and erroneous payback estimates, as assumptions are never questioned. Sadly, the issue of incorrect forecasts isn’t currently part of the discussion in our planning and development process. We should discourage and even penalize incorrect forecasts, as their repercussions are so damaging for our developing country. Further, forecasts should be subject to public scrutiny, peer reviews, and citizen juries.

Political pressure to develop and finish projects within the political term and strategic misrepresentation further cause delays and cost overruns. Planners, who create forecasts, work for powerful politicians and bureaucrats, a group among which the cost of raising dissent is high. Planners actually find incentives for positively accentuating their forecasts, since, due to political pressure (as well as a lack of independent analysis and the ex post facto evaluation of projects), exaggerated forecasts are never questioned. This creates a culture in which tainted forecasts are considered fine. Eventually, we end up with piles of projects with incorrect estimates.

Additionally, Flyvbjerg notes the phenomenon of strategic misrepresentation, which best explains cost overruns. He cites studies in which planners admitted that they had to “cook” their estimates to make projects look good on paper so that they could secure funding. Due to political pressure, as well as to scarce funding, competition is stiff, so project promoters pressure forecasters to underestimate costs and overestimate benefits. More transparency in the planning process can help ease political pressure and prevent strategic misrepresentation.

The problems of cost overruns and delays are also aggravated by the lack of outside view. Getting objective outside feedback, keeping experiences and expectations in check and learning from the outcomes of similar projects in past are part of an approach termed outside view. For an outside view, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman has recommended a method called “reference class forecasting”. It is used by governments in the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland and elsewhere, and has been proven to curb cognitive biases and help reduce delays and cost overruns. As Kahneman notes, an outside view becomes even more important when a project has never been attempted before (like an urban rail project), because that’s when cognitive biases are greatest.  

I went through both the Manual for Development Projects and the Handbook of Planning Commission (both are published by the Planning Commission) and didn’t find any mention of “reference class forecasting”, or any method that deals with cognitive biases or the other problems in our planning and development process. This needs to change and it cannot happen without strong political determination and backing as rightly pointed out by Dr. Khalid Ikram in a podcast with Dr. Nadeem Haque (both are Planning Commission veterans and noted economists). We need to modernize our planning process to protect future public funding and to thwart the paradigm of delusional pro-people development.

This opinion was published in the The News on 31st October, 2016.

The rise of post-truth

The internet bridges distances and has the potential to significantly improve our lives in many ways. Recently, however, the prevalence of a dangerous phenomenon called ‘post-truth’ – in which appeals to emotion shape public opinion more than objective facts – and the rise of ‘fake news’, particularly on social media, have raised various concerns. It is intriguing to see what might be causing them. 

The first possible cause is the absence of editorial scrutiny by social networks. Lots of people use these networks as their primary news source and the absence of editorial oversight is a major issue that fuels fake news. This is not an easy problem to solve. For one, how many editors would be required to help fix a product used by billions? What if the fake story has already reached thousands of users (including well-connected ones) before editorial scrutiny begins? How would editors undo the damage done? Regardless of these issues, editorial scrutiny and oversight are sorely needed. 

Another issue enabling post-truth is the low barriers to entry for starting a news business on social media. All you need is content on Facebook and a website with advertisements to generate revenue. For example, during the recent US election season, some people running politically-themed Facebook pages were basically just marketeers operating from their basements with low capital investment and without any formal training in ethical journalism. These marketeers post clever ‘linkbait’ headlines to entice users to click on them. The absence of ethical standards and motivation for profit make it possible to manufacture controversy. 

The aggressive collection of data and its manipulation in a cost-effective and precise manner by users and marketers on social networks further contribute to the rise of post-truth. Powerful computational algorithms make it possible to infer and predict a wide range of information about individuals using this collected data. Research studies conducted in 2013 by an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at  Stanford Graduate School of Business, Michal Kosinski, revealed that just by using Facebook “likes”, it is possible to accurately predict personal attributes such as “ethnicity, religious views, political views, personality and mood, age and even gender”. Once these predictions are in place, it is easy to target the profiled users with tailored, potentially fake, news. 

It’s also interesting to note that polarisation can make people voice extreme opinions online while totally ignoring facts. Cass Sunstein of Harvard University has shown that there is a great likelihood of acute polarisation on the internet due to the high degree of anonymity. We see this on social networks everyday – intensely polarised groups read and share news stories that appeal to emotion as opposed to relying on logic and fact-checking. This polarisation is further aggravated by algorithmic biases. For example, Facebook’s news feed algorithm shows us only what we want to see, exposing us to a narrow spectrum of opinion (tailored to our liking), exacerbating polarisation. 

The effects of social influence and information cascades further propel post-truth. Social influence theory suggests we do what we do by imitating what others do. For example, research suggests that to increase tax compliance, people should be informed about the high levels of voluntary tax compliance by others. Information cascades occur when we rely on information spread by others while ignoring our own personal knowledge. People often re-share a news story without fact-checking – to the exclusion of their own personal feelings and knowledge about the news item – when they see more (credible) people among them sharing it. 

So what do we do? One, social networks, like Facebook, should not deviate from their original mission – which is to connect people, not promote false information (and even hatred) among them. 

Social networks should also slightly raise the barrier to entry for upcoming businesses by adding more checks and balances. 

Furthermore, these networks must tweak their opaque algorithms so that they don’t just keep feeding one type of news to readers. Sunstein suggests that exposure to opposing views is important for groups to depolarise. 

Social networks need at least some human editors to check for the validity of both page content and its sources. In Pakistan, we see lots of Facebook pages with the names “Hate [insert politician name here]”. Compared to other communication media, the most ad-hominem attacks per paragraph appear on these pages. They don’t serve any useful purpose and need to be taken down. 

We should understand how much information we, as users, are feeding social networks and how much power this gives them to predict our personality traits, future views and actions. 

Lastly, we should realise that the internet is a medium where polarisation, social influence and information cascades are at play. We should always fact-check news (since others might rely on us) and try to expose ourselves to a wide range of opposing views, knowing that some social media companies are suppressing that exposure.

This opinion was published in The News on January 09, 2017.

Fairy tale of a city, changing cities in Pakistan

Imagination is a powerful tool. Imagine you live in a metropolitan city plagued by violence, corruption and all the malice imaginable. Now imagine for a moment, that the local government has called on the community to band together and create a consensus on how to fix the city and transform it into a modern and an innovative metropolis. See yourself sitting in a room, surrounded by local politicians, everyone discussing future government projects to cater to the neighbourhood’s needs. Feel that sense of ownership when both parties walk out of that room having signed agreements detailing the roles and responsibilities of both parties.

What if the chief minister, in ensuring full disclosure and transparency, broadcasts the agreements and meetings to the entire city? Imagine the public participating in the budgeting process where the local communities decide the allocation of the portion of the city budget. Also imagine that the government opens up library parks, libraries with ample green space around them for public use, in the city’s slums that offers education to low-income individuals. Envision the underprivileged youth’s exposure to book clubs, theatre groups and other healthy activities. Visualise the government emphasising public education, building schools and libraries in poor cities.

What if the city dedicates space for local and foreign companies to set up their offices? Envision an international cooperation agency that creates international ties to increase the flow of capital, products, services and knowledge. Imagine the city provides funding, space and mentorship to small and medium companies to help create businesses, proposals, financial plans and marketing strategies. Envision a large state-owned company being run by the municipal government that contributes 30 per cent of its revenue to the city. The company funds huge projects such as botanical gardens, planetarium, children’s interactive museums, libraries, large urban parks and even a 16,000 hectare park right outside the city. Not only that, but the company even funds 3,000 students annually and also has a fund to spur innovation and new businesses.

Now, this may sound like a fairy tale but it is the true story of Medellin, Columbia. The city was heralded as the “Innovative city of the year” by both Citibank and The Wall Street Journal. The local government changed Medellin from a drug capital into a modern and innovative city. The lessons learned from this city’s success story can be applied to any city in Pakistan, given that we have the determination and resolve to see the changes through. Some important goals guided and prioritised Medellin’s development projects. Those were as follows: a) indicators of human development and quality of life will guide public investment, focusing on first serving the ones in most need; b) public space and infrastructure must become the framework where education and culture are cultivated in places of encounter and coexistence; c) urban projects must simultaneously integrate physical, cultural and social components, improving not only places but also the life and interactions of people in the communities; d) the integrated metropolitan transport system must be used as the organising axis of mobility and projects in the city. All projects must be directly linked to the main transport system; e) the decision to make Medellín an educated city, with education and culture as priorities that guide programmes and projects.

All these were not mere words eloquently crafted by an expensive speech-writer to win an election, but goals that are meaningful. Their usefulness was proven by the mayor of Medellin, and our policymakers can make use of these ideas. Meaningful infrastructure development is good, but haphazard infrastructure development is not. It is said that if we plan cities for cars, traffic and noise, we will get more cars, traffic and noise. However, if cities are planned for healthy people and places, we will get more healthy people and places. Moreover, local governments rarely take local opinion or input before making decisions, which weakens the sense of ownership and pride that locals may feel about the decisions made by those in charge.

There is this powerful idea of the ‘Power of 10’ — the number can vary. But the idea is, basically, that if we can do 10 things to attract people to one place (such as a place to sit and play, art to touch, music to hear, food to eat, history to experience and people to meet), then we may have designed a good place. We can then further it by creating 10 such places. We can then create 10 such places in 10 other neighbourhoods. This will snowball into a massive project that will drastically improve the life of every citizen.

As a nation, and as individuals, we need to take a step back and evaluate our current developments. Are they truly what we need to improve the lives of everyone involved? Or does the answer to that question lie in the fairy tale of Medellin?   

This opinion was published in the Express Tribune on May 01, 2016.

Unjust Authority (Milgram's experiment in Pakistani context)

One cannot imagine inflicting pain on innocent people. However, empirical evidence shows that we have the tendency to let authority define our actions, however destructive they may be. This has implications for society, particularly one like ours. Knowing why that happens and what to do about it can help minimise such regrettable mistakes.

In 1961, at Yale University, Stanley Milgram began an experiment that changed the outlook of modern psychology. The experiment involved three individuals who played three roles – the experimenter, the teacher and the learner. The teacher was supposed to teach some words to the learner. On each incorrect answer the learner would receive an electrical shock which would increase by 15 volts on each subsequent wrong answer. The teacher also received a real electrical shock before the experiment began to experience the pain the learner would feel.

Although teachers believed that real electrical shocks were being given, in reality no real electrical shocks were involved. Instead pre-recorded sounds were played and the learners acted as if they were in real pain. Both the learner and the experimenter knew that no real electrical shocks were involved. Milgram himself played the role of the experimenter (with the authority to run the experiment).

When the experiment ran, some teachers did question the motives of the experiment. However, most of them continued when they were assured they would not be held responsible. Furthermore, when some of the teachers wanted to stop they were told by the experimenter authoritatively that they should continue. But after four verbal prods if the teacher still wanted to stop, the experiment would then stop.

The results were shocking because round 65 percent of the participants issued the maximum shock of 450-volts to the learners while interestingly all participants continued giving shocks of 300 volts. Subjects of the experiment showed signs of tension and stress but they continued inflicting pain on otherwise innocent individuals. It was evident that people, being obedient to authority, inflicted pain and even increased it manifold on the insistence of the one with authority.

In our society too, we see people inflicting pain on others (and increasing the pain) at the behest of an unjust authority; in our schools, hospitals, police stations, mobs protesting or taking justice in their hands, companies, violent groups and state-run institutions.

One example would be the way the police deal with citizens. Provincial governments (the experimenters) may engage forces for their own protection or they may order police forces (the teachers) to ensure they do not serve a particular portion of society (the learner) for some reason or serve them in a way that favours their interests.

Simply imagine an innocent citizen in need of timely justice who is denied access to investigation by the police, and even if the police want to help they are reprimanded by their seniors to follow arbitrary orders. Unfortunately, it seems that the public is the poor learner in all cases.

The experiment’s reality is best explained through the way politics work here. Is it not odd that no one in our political parties strongly comes forward and questions the leadership? Further, it seems that the political party heads are the experimenters whereas the role of the teacher is being played by the politicians reporting to those leaders – and, yet again, the citizens are the poor learners. This also explains why people at the policy level are ready and willing to inflict pain, and continuously increase it, on fellow citizens.

Put in another way, Milgram’s experiment explains why political party heads ask politicians to follow commands and then, in turn, those politicians, even those with Ivy League credentials, follow them blindly.

It is evident that we possess this powerful tendency to obey painful orders and not question decisions issued by an arbitrary authority. Can we not change our behaviour and be able to stand up against unjust authority? Learning from Milgram’s experiment we can take preventive actions to question an unjust authority.

First, we should question the legitimacy of the authority. Second, we should ask ourselves if we should really do something even if a legitimate authority has asked us to do it. Third, we should not comply with commands that make us uncomfortable to begin with. Because the more we do destructive acts the more difficult it becomes to distance ourselves from the authority figure.

Finally, if somehow we land ourselves in a group that is supposed to carry out immoral actions and we cannot get out then as a last resort we should find an ally in the group.

Understanding this phenomenon can equip us to stand up for what is right and correct ourselves when we find ourselves facing an unjust authority.

This opinion was published in The News on 15th October, 2016. 

Providing Effective Digital Services in Pakistan

Hundreds of thousands of people were unable to collect their pensions and suffered as a result when the National Bank of Pakistan’s online computer system broke down right before Eid.

The exact reason for this technical glitch is unknown; it is realistic, however, to think that our government’s digital services are not developed using modern practices. The elderly had to wait in long queues while they were fasting, and it must have been very painful for people not to be able to collect their pensions before Eid.

The online pension fiasco is a testament to how broken our digital services are, and to the dire need to provide better digital services not only within government departments, but also to citizens.

There are many areas in which better digital services can improve governmental services in general, including the health, education, law enforcement, and judicial sectors. Imagine, for example, if doctor availability, prescription records or scheduling appointments could be done online? Imagine, also, if we could search through all past judicial decisions and look at the detailed schedule of court cases online?

Better digital systems would have brought relief and convenience to elders collecting their pensions at the critical time of Eid. Pakistan ranks down at the bottom when it comes to ease of doing business, according to the World Bank’s 2016 Doing Business report. Smart use of digital services could speed up the process of setting up and running a business.

The UN’s e-government survey 2014 ranked us 158 out of 193 countries in its e-government development index, so there is definitely a lot we can improve upon.

Improving digital services can bring us benefits, especially as internet and smartphone penetration will increase. (According to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), there were 103 percent more 3G/4G subscribers in May 2016 than there were in July 2015. According to Wikipedia, there are 30 million internet users in Pakistan, and this number is forecast to grow to 100 million active users by 2020.)

These benefits include saving citizens time and money. For example, with information technology we do not need to stand in long queues or go through laborious (and often corrupt) bureaucratic procedures to process a bill or payment – thus reducing time and money spent.

Second, if people get things when they need them most, they realise that their government is responsive, and that will inspire greater trust in it. Citizens would be able to talk to their government more freely. Third, improved digital services result in huge cost savings if implemented correctly.

Fourth, digital services can reduce our carbon footprint, as they eliminate redundant office visits and, not insignificantly, unnecessary paper use. Fifth, thanks to efficiencies and cost reductions, a leaner and simpler form of government would emerge. Last, even though most of our population is illiterate, the success of well-designed digital products (eg financial products like quick money transfer using a mobile phone) shows that people can benefit from technology.

So what to do about it? One example to follow is that of the Obama government’s multi-layered technology initiative. To begin with, the US has appointed a chief technology officer (CTO). This person is responsible for creating jobs, reducing the cost of healthcare, helping keep the nation secure and increasing access to the internet.

The United States Digital Service (USDS) was also created, staffed by technologists who provide overall strategy and technological vision. The USDS created a Digital Service Playbook that outlines 13 modern best practices that government agencies can use. (Following this playbook alone could improve our government agencies manifold.)

The ‘18F’ agency, composed of designers and technologists, was also formed. 18F is a ‘services arm’ which helps any government agency that needs to improve its digital services delivery.

The creation of the USDS and 18F resulted in huge cost savings and the quick provision of digital services to masses of people. Previously, the Obama administration had spent roughly $800 million on launching www.healthcare.gov. The project became a disaster due to various factors like communication problems, contractor issues and the neglect of modern software development tools and practices.

This gave the Obama administration impetus to form an agile and fast-moving USDS. It hired people from the private sector – people left high-paying jobs at Google and Amazon to work for the government – and within the next few months a small team people fixed www.healthcare.gov. Not only did delivering quality digital services result in cost saving, it also showed that it’s possible to deliver digital services worth millions of dollars with small teams that move fast.

We can replicate this technology initiative here. To begin with, at the very least, we need a CTO and an agency like the USDS (comprising a small team of engineers and technologists). Both the CTO and this agency should provide a coherent national ICT vision, and evaluate, prioritise and monitor federal and provincial IT projects (taken up by provincial IT boards).

Second, this agency must use modern engineering practices and tools and setup guidelines (like the USDS Playbook); it must ensure that provincial IT boards and IT departments of state-owned enterprises strictly follow those guidelines.

Use of modern technologies can also ensure maintainability, scalability and reusability across different IT departments. For example, as for reusability, if Punjab’s IT Board has developed something useful, then Balochistan’s IT Board could tailor it to also meet its needs.

Third, this agency should create processes whereby competent employees of provincial IT boards and civil servants are paired together to find potential process improvements and implement fixes using modern technology.

Fourth, the CTO’s job description should also include increasing broadband access, better IT curriculum and more IT awareness. This would enable a wider group of citizens to benefit from improved digital and government services.

Fifth, we need to create innovative attraction and retention programnes for information technologists. For one, they can lure competent private-sector employees by creating programmes like ‘innovation fellows’, whereby people can work on government projects for six months and then leave. For another, we can create flexible work environments to attract even the Pakistani diaspora. It may prove to be very beneficial since many competent Pakistani engineers work in the Silicon Valley.

The practice of ‘delight the customer’ should not be foreign to our government agencies, and using digital services effectively can help achieve it. A coherent vision supported by diligent execution will ensure that our citizens can use government services with ease, trust, and peace of mind, all without a great cost.

This opinion was published in The News on 22nd August, 2016. 

Health-care and Census (Pakistani context)

We are a developing country whose healthcare system is in a deplorable condition; and the lack of updated census data makes it even worse. For accurate data we need to conduct a census – something that is also mandated by the constitution.

The last census in Pakistan was conducted in 1998. As most of our resource allocations are being made using 18-year-old data, suffice it to say we must be solving the wrong problems in the wrong places. Healthcare decisions are directly proportional to the wellbeing of citizens and decisions based on guesstimates are going to affect them. Making critical decisions on unreliable data surely implies that the government is willingly adding to the suffering of its citizens.

We need to conduct a census so as to allocate resources effectively, make significant progress towards the Social Development Goals (universal set of goals, targets and indicators that nations have to pursue to make progress on poverty, health, education, hunger and the environment), report healthcare indicators more accurately, forecast healthcare trends, create better health-centred policies and also fairly distribute resources among provinces.

First, better resource allocation would efficiently address public healthcare needs in three prevention stages – primary, secondary and tertiary. Primary prevention is concerned with overall human wellbeing and health promotion activities. For example, if we know that people living in a certain region have a tendency toward diabetes, then funds can be allocated to educate people from that region on that condition.

Secondary prevention is about early detection and treatment of a disease so as to prevent its spread. For example, timely identification of high-risk groups can help us take measures to prevent it from spreading.

Tertiary prevention concerns itself with minimising the damage caused by a disease. For example, if we know that a certain demographic is affected by a disease then corrective measures can be taken to help minimise the damage.

All reliable remedies for these three prevention stages are only possible if we have access to updated data. How can we allocate resources efficiently when we do not know what sort of prevention resources a certain population needs most?

Second, in terms of the SDGs, no meaningful planning can be done without updated census data. This means that we cannot make significant progress towards health-related SDGs such as lowering mortality rates, ending preventable deaths of newborns, etc. Whatever progress we do make will definitely be slower in comparison to nations that have access to updated data.

Third, the health performance indicators currently presented by the authorities do not reflect the exact situation on the ground. Current performance indicators use outdated population data, and using up-to-date information can reflect a decline in otherwise satisfactory-looking performance indicators (potentially because updated data would yield a bigger number in the denominator).

So coverage levels reported in the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (PDHS), Multiple Indicator and Cluster Survey (MICS), and Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement (PSLM) are not significant because they are based on outdated data. Without a census, correct and transparent progress on health cannot be reported.

Fourth, an updated stream of data can help us predict trends. Forecasting helps us identify future trends and prepare for them in advance. That becomes difficult without data, not least because the baseline data changes due to growth in the population. So we need updated data to facilitate forecasting.

Fifth, health-centred policies cannot be made without current data. Let us assume a city has a lot of people suffering from partial achromatopsia, a cognitive vision disorder; people with this disorder usually cannot drive. Without access to data, how can we then reserve funds for alternatives in the city infrastructure that could help such people?

Lastly, the National Finance Commission is responsible for allocating resources based on a few factors. One of them is population and another is development indicators. Without access to updated data, allocations in the health sector cannot be accurately made.

It is unreasonable for any country to deprive people of access to basic healthcare due to reasons within its control. The government must allocate funds and resources for a timely census so that these problems can be addressed. Our healthcare is definitely poorer if there is uncertainty around actual performance indicators, resources are allocated inefficiently and no meaningful planning towards SDG goals is being done.

The writer gratefully acknowledges a conversation with Dr Shehla Zaidi of Aga Khan University Hospital.

This opinion was published in The News on 23rd July, 2016.

Anatomy of a ban

A government puts regulatory authorities in place so that activities can be regulated to benefit the public, protect the environment, and prevent market failure. Some of our regulatory authorities have been banning things right and left. It is important to note that banning things, without thinking through their repercussions, can have harmful economic and psychological consequences.

There are five things to consider in terms of the economic consequences of bans. First, though regulatory authorities are sometimes put in place to prevent market failure, ill-planned regulations can actually cause such failure. Assume there is a certain problem (eg, overpopulation) that a government wants to address, and entrepreneurs come up with products (eg, contraceptives) to tackle the problem. A ban on advertisement of such products will discourage future entrepreneurs from making those products in the long run.

Now, although the government admits that there is a problem, and there is also ample demand for the product which will solve it, putting a ban will, in the long term, reduce the number of suppliers of that product – thus eventually causing market failure, or at least defeating the policy of the government.

We should also reflect on whether an advertising ban restricts promotion on all media. Even if regulators ban advertisements on media over which they have control, entrepreneurs will find alternative media through which to advertise their products. For example, if a product is banned on all TV channels, an entrepreneur can still advertise a product (globally) on the internet, which regulators do not control. Hence, not only will people within the restricted locality still be able to see those advertisements, but more people around the world can see them as well.

Second, it is important to question if, since regulators are so entrenched in the problem to which they are a solution, they unwittingly perpetuate the problem? This observation comes from ‘Shirky’s principle’, which states that “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution”. Further, regulatory economics tells us about ‘regulatory capture’, which happens when instead of protecting public interest the regulator is more keen to protect the commercial or political concerns of special interest groups. When the interests of a special group take priority over public interest, society is harmed and the purpose of having a regulator is defeated. So the government needs to put in place mechanisms to check if regulatory authorities are falling prey to ‘regulatory capture’.

Third, bans sometimes disrupt the economic activity of a nation. For instance, in March 2015, when India placed a ban on beef, it led to a loss of income for many people. Farmers found it difficult to find buyers for their cattle. Most of the farmers resorted to taking loans to cover their major expenses. It was also reported that many related industries were also severely affected due to this ban. Bans that are imposed without addressing the real social taboo or any due cost-benefit analysis can lead to losses than benefits.

Fourth, bans may also increase the cost of doing business and the cost of products in a country.

Bans have psychological repercussions as well, as described by Adam Grant (organisational psychologist and a professor at Wharton School of University of Pennsylvania), that can cause them to backfire. First, there is the issue of ‘reactance’. According to Grant, “When someone discourages you from doing something, you often feel that your freedom is being threatened, which motivates you to regain choice and control by doing exactly the opposite.”

Bans have an inbuilt self-destructive mechanism. Simply, if something is not allowed to an individual, it becomes all the more appealing to him or her. Hence, this then provokes people to doing it even more than before. For example, banning a book or a product can tremendously generate a great deal of free publicity.

Second, there is the issue of ‘rebound’, the idea that when someone warns you not to think of something or if your thoughts are being suppressed, your mind has a tricky way of thinking more about it. For instance, if someone asks a person particularly not to think about a certain term or an idea they tend to think more about it. A very simple daily life example of rebound effect is that of dieting. When a person is on a strict diet and try to suppress thoughts of sugary products like chocolates and candies, they end up consuming it even more. So ‘rebound’ actually makes a person more prone to thinking about that very thought which is prohibited.

Last, we may encounter a problem of ‘curiosity’. This is the principle of reverse psychology whereby people become intrigued when something is not allowed and therefore investigate. Adam Grant notes in one study, “psychologists asked 159 people if they had ever deliberately tried to get people to do something by recommending the opposite. More than two thirds generated a convincing example, and reported using reverse psychology an average of 1-2 times a month, with relatively little difficulty and high effectiveness.”

Most people react differently when bans and regulatory bans are enacted, and bans hardly fulfil their purpose. We saw an example of this when Indian films and TV shoes were banned in Pakistan . People could not resist the temptation and started watching shows and movies online, and piracy became even more rampant.

Bans are a growth industry in Pakistan; they give an illusion of power to people. Behind this illusion of power, regulators think that bans are going to solve problems. However, it is important that both economic and psychological effects are taken into account for bans to be productive. It is ill-planned bans that wreak havoc.

This opinion was published in The News on 07th August, 2016.