Jan 25, 2010

Man to machine

It requires political will to bring in technology that minimises the role of government officials in a department

By Nazakat Hussain

Tax collecting government departments are missing targets, compelling the government to get loans on terms that have never been seen as favourable by our businessmen. While it is often said that ‘holy cows’ must be taxed to get the country out of this situation, the commitment to bring the influential into the tax net has so far been confined to political statements. No government seems ready to pocket the cost. There is a need to streamline the existing taxpayers’ base.

Improving the working of the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR), to broaden the tax net, is considered an important task. However, those who are close to developments say that it only requires the political will to bring in the technology that minimises the role of clerks, tax inspectors, and evaluators known as appraisers. Machines can make a difference in this regard by making the tasks performed by human beings transparent and easy.

The term "automation" was coined in 1946 in the US but it is unfortunate that we have yet to fully understand the benefits of automation. Some government officials do understand the benefits of reducing human involvement in tax collection. Chairman FBR, Sohail Ahmed, recently said in an interview that automation is the key to success.

Nevertheless, the problem is that change is always resisted; people working in an environment since years do not accept it. We must remember that before the advent of automobiles, cart-making was a leading industry. Those who resisted new development at that time were doing a great disservice to society. Similarly, the mighty Ottomans resisted many new inventions. They described printing press as a satanic machine. What followed is history.

We need to understand that the future of our generations cannot be compromised because some elements resist positive changes. Information technology has replaced manual procedures and has boosted efficiency, transparency and save time of government departments as well as those who approach them.

Information technology has brought a revolution in many state-run departments and private businesses but many departments are still not ready to fully automate their working. That is a hurdle in the way of development. Transforming old and rigid manual systems needs great changes in managements’ mindset too.

Over the years, labour leaders, business executives, government officials, etc, have explained merits of automation. The biggest question focuses on how automation affects employment. There are other important aspects of automation, including its effect on productivity, economic competition, education, and quality of life.

In Pakistan, Customs Computerised System (PaCCS) was introduced in 2005 as part of the FBR’s modernisation programme. The system was designed under CARe while a consortium of three software companies Microsoft, Agility and AOS, developed the software. World Bank’s tendering process was duly involved.

After experimental implementation, PaCCS assisted government in enhancing trade revenues while maintaining controls and facilitating trade. It provided benefits to the customs in terms of efficiency and customer service. Significant reduction in clearance time was noticed and appreciated. This marvelous system also negated the role of intermediaries, eradicated corruption, and saved time.

In spite of proven success, the software was not allowed to be installed across the country, as those responsible for the task have remained undecided about it, which is not only reducing revenues but is also sending wrong signals to foreign investors.

The FBR staff has recommended hundreds of modifications in the state-of-the-art software. It must be noted that this software is being experienced successfully in dozens of countries without any modification. An official of the FBR says on the condition of anonymity, "It is difficult to bring in new concepts because of resistance by some staff members." The official is all praise for PaCCS that provides a paperless web enabled environment for submitting goods declaration and self-assessment of the Customs dues. This integrated customs risk management system which operates 24 hours a day is online with all domestic regulatory authorities and stakeholders.

During a recent seminar, President Islamabad Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Zahid Maqbool, said that modernising the customs department would help attract foreign direct investment. He said inefficiency has imposed a hidden tax on traders. In addition, he stresses the need to create awareness among businessmen because currently PaCCS has only 30,000 users. "PaCCS has enabled importers and exporters to file declarations to customs over the web from their offices, pay their duties on taxes at their nearest local national bank and clear cargo without ever having to visit any customs office or coming in contact with any officer," he added.

Dr. Murtaza Mughal, President of Pakistan Economy Watch, a non-government watchdog, is of the view that automated operations are resisted under the pretext that it will have a negative effect on the present system.

Giving his expert opinion, Ashir Azeem, team leader of PaCCS says, "There is a need for creating a dynamic system." He believes conceptualisation as well as implementation of the software is the need of the hour in this age of cut-throat competition. "Pakistan cannot afford to further fall down on the graph of global trade," he says. Explaining the various benefits that government, economy, and traders receive from this system, he says that it is imperative to install it across the country.

"The main reason for delay in recognising new technologies is the element of corruption. We are living in an environment where some government officials expect ‘gifts’ from others. This practice must be brought to an end to provide an enabling environment," says a government official who does not want to be identified.

No comments:

Post a Comment