If you want a passport in Pakistan, you wait in line – possibly for hours. You might get to the passport office at the crack of dawn to avoid the queue. The process might be unclear, and there might be people – “agents” – waiting outside the office, offering to help: “For a few hundred rupees, I can fast-track your application.”
The government of Pakistan is trying to fix these problems, including the requests for bribes, rude treatment, and inefficient processing. Their approach is simple and creative and made possible because there are an estimated 123 million mobile phone users in the South Asian nation – about 64 percent of the population, according to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority.
Beginning this fall, staff at each of the passport office’s 95 locations began collecting the cell phone numbers of all passport applicants. Shortly after each visit, the central headquarters sends the applicant a text message: “Did you face any problem or did someone ask you for money?”
“What we try to do through this service is to reach out to the applicants and get feedback right from the source itself,” said Usman Bajwa, director general of Pakistan’s immigration and passports division. “To me, that is the most authentic feedback on the quality of service that’s provided.”
And the applicants are giving feedback in thousands of text messages – around 25,000 per month. Many of the responses are positive, but the office tracks most closely those that have to do with corruption or staff attitude: “I went after the office time and I was asked by agent to give 1000 rupees,” said one visitor to a Bahawalnager office.
“Nothing is organised in the passport office. Everyone is taking money to provide you services,” said an applicant who visited a Faisalabad office.
“I was the first person in the line before the passport office opened. But due to people bribing officials and security guards my token number was pushed back to 25,” said a third respondent in Lahore.
Cell technology has been used to successfully improve service delivery in Pakistan before. In Lahore in 2012, for example, municipal health workers used cell phones to track mosquito control efforts and cases of Dengue fever. Thanks to the data collected, the government was able to make health workers more accountable for their prevention efforts and better target insecticide spraying. Dengue-fever-related deaths went from 350 to zero.
In the Punjab province, one civil servant’s efforts to deter bribe-seeking has evolved into a service-monitoring program that sends 12,000 text messages daily to recipients of government services such as driver’s license issuance, land registration, and income assistance. More than nine million citizens have been contacted, and more than a million have responded.
That civil servant, Zubair Bhatti, first driven by a desire to protect citizens from bribe requests, is now a senior public sector specialist at the World Bank. He has been working with the Punjab government, the national passport office and others to increase government accountability and improve service delivery through the use of cell phone outreach. He believes this approach has promise because it shows that the government is trying to improve itself, rather than reacting to change pushed by civil society or individual citizens.
“This is not your usual helpline, hotline,” Bhatti said. “Because most countries already have it. People have been writing letters to emperors and kings for [hundreds of] years. There’s nothing new in that. But the emperor reaching out to the citizen. That’s new.”
Bhatti said the approach has value partly because it builds trust in a country that doesn’t see a lot of proactive engagement by the government. He said that many citizens are simply happy to be asked for their feedback. This has also been evident in Albania, where the World Bank is supporting a replication of the Pakistan citizen-feedback approach.
Bajwa, of the passport office program in Pakistan, said this is the first nation-wide initiative of this type. He said that when his division received individual complaints, responses would be slow, and often the complaints would get buried. Now, the network of 95 offices, which sees between 10,000 and 15,000 applicants daily, collects data that is analyzed in the central headquarters. Certain complaints, including allegations of corruption or rude behavior by staff, merit follow-up calls.
And a monthly report prompts action. After just two months of data monitoring, Bajwa has reassigned two heads of passport offices, and delivered warnings to 25 lower-level officers.
“The staff working in the passport offices is now more aware that any applicant who walks into that office will have an opportunity to respond to an SMS from the Director General itself and to give us feedback directly to the headquarters,” he said.