“An experience like no other”
“I have interviewed many people wanting to travel to seminars at the International Academy for Leadership (IAF) in Gummersbach, but never before have I interviewed an Accountant or somebody from the Finance department”, said the officer at the German Embassy in Islamabad during my visa interview. I am happy I could convince him that the finance department plays a steering role in local politics. After all, in government the finance department is responsible for the supervision and effective utilization of government (and, thus, taxpayers) money and indirectly for economic growth!
When I tell friends and family that I work for a German Political Foundation they are skeptical: many in Pakistan consider politics as a career a double edged sword. A year ago, I was skeptical myself. With a background in corporate finance handling large multinational corporations’ finance portfolios, allocating budgets for social development was a new experience all together.
Translating what I do as an accountant to what happens in the political governance system at the local level, I notice a lack of digital solutions to improve transparency and accountability by local government systems.
After two weeks at the IAF in Gummersbach and interacting with participants from seventeen different nationalities, I have come to a cautiously optimistic conclusion: Digitalization is an effective solution for citizen participation!
The time spent in Germany was an experience like no other. Moving away from our silos and interacting with like-minded people from all parts of the the globe in an effort to find solutions to common problems together is exciting and also humbling. Visiting Dusseldorf, Munster, Coesfeld and Monheim am Rhein and meeting various city level officials also gave me a glimpse into the inner workings of local political systems in Germany.
During my times in Germany, I learned about many practical and useful applications of technology to improve the quality of local governance to the benefit of the citizens. Allow me to highlight one example from the host country: the citizen’s friendly passport kiosk in Monheim am Rhein with automation of data entry, photography and collection of fingerprints of the applicant all is done digitally. Once the applicant has provided the machine all the needed information and paid a fee via bank transaction, she receives a ticket number and a date when to pick up the passport. Of course, the passports need a photograph: the machine adjusts the lense to the height of the applicant and also receives a digital signature. The kiosk is multilingual and has served refugees get official papers, we learned. While marveling this machine, I thought this could also be applied in Pakistan with good results. But overall application would face the challenge that only 27 percent of the population are internet literate.
Another major challenge in Pakistan is lack of systematic budget allocations for new digital infrastructures and budget tracking at local level by citizens. This, to an extent, is mitigated through the “Right to Information Law” which gives elected representatives and the media the right to ask for selected data and information about local level projects and budget allocations. Still, there exists a considerably need for transparency and citizen participation in the local government system to ensure that the people can identify and share problems and can track their issue resolution.
Therefore, in a nutshell, digitalization of such services holds the the key to citizens’ participation and transparency. These might sound like a big idea and overly ambitious, but I am cautiously optimistic!
Fariha Yousaf is currently working as an Accountant at the Project Office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) in Islamabad. She recently attended FNF-IAF's leadership program in Gummersbach, Germany on Local Politics and Citizen Participation. In this report, she shares her personal views.