Observations on a visit to a govt office in Karachi

Truth is stranger than fiction – who could have imagined that a country eats it’s young and once their souls and minds are gone it spits out the dried hollowed out husks into government bureaucracies around Pakistan.

You walk inside in the valley of the shadow of askew shelves groaning with files, all askew, stuttering fans stirring up yellowing pages under the light of flickering tube lights. People sit around listless, waiting for the next cup of tea and sms message, disturbed now and than by a visitor who mistakenly wanders in trying to get some work done, and sometimes by a peon shuffling around bulging files, in a endless cycle from desk to desk, sometimes only making the journey to the person sharing the same desk, other times all the way outside the room into an adjoining office.

Old steel cabinets stand locked behind many of the desks, the officers looking furtively around before unlocking and locking them every so often, not even trusting their own desk drawers be left unlocked, even while sitting two inches in front of them – perhaps someone will sneak in b/w their stomach and desk and steal the wonders contained within – a ballpoint perhaps, always in short supply, or a stamp pad if the desk belongs to a high ranking officer.

The human brain shuts down, simple logic becomes hard to follow. Introduce hope of lubricant into the system and suddenly neurons start to flicker to life, matching the flickering tubelights above. The only person looking busy in the whole place is sitting eyes glued on a pc screen, the back facing so u can only see his face, intent on the screen in front. Working? The very space-time continuum shudders, when a sudden reflection reveals the solitaire game, and everything slips back to it’s normal apathetic state.

“Atanu Dey”:http://www.deeshaa.org/ on the Indian educational ministry:

bq. Upton Sinclair had noted that it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it. That is a specific instance of the more general principle that economists consider to be a fundamental truth about human behavior: “Incentives matter.” The system does not provide the policy makers an incentive to improve the educational system. Conversely, they have an incentive to keep the system dysfunctional. Given the current structure of incentives, they would lose whatever advantage they gain from the existing system.

Tim Harford explained the rational behind the non functioning of third world government offices in his book “The Undercover Economist”:http://ko.offroadpakistan.com/2008/02/the_undercover_economist.html. Even than, watching the contorted functioning of a typical govt. office is like a surreal trip to Alice in wonderland, where Alice is Jamshad and everything else is endless variations of yellowing paper files piled up on desks, shelves and linoleum floors, where the teapot is made of tin and the cups the size of a thimble.

Tim Harford, though I agree with him, hasn’t spent enough time in observing the functioning of the Pakistani bureaucracy. I’d love to read his analysis of the shadow government which actually does all the work.

All successful companies in Pakistan employ a veritable army of people who go forth and deal with the government – since the govt. doesn’t function, these private people wade in and do what needs to be done.

The whole system would be so much more efficient if they just fired the bureaucracy and let the people who do the work anyways do it. The amazing part is that the system is so broken yet somehow the country still shambles on.

6 thoughts on “Observations on a visit to a govt office in Karachi”

  1. Well put – your description of the office evoked a clear picture, since i’ve been to many. Not because I was a govt employee, but because I am a citizen of this God forsaken country, from getting an NOC for taking OLevels to getting my drivers license.

    A lot has changed since then, a lot more of the ‘under one roof’ offices related to public matters have popped up, but a vast majority remain the same. And with the current youth avoiding anything to do with CSS, one can only pray for the future.

  2. I don’t think we should generalize so blatantly. I visited the under secretary for finance and his entire division in Lahore recently, and was pleasantly surprised. He had a degree from Princeton University, was very good at his job, happy to have been posted previously in Nowshera and Swat.. the whole deal. Oh, yeah, I had a really good cup of coffee too.

    He praised the Nazim system and showed me how it had allowed flexibility and a multitude of opportunities for people who were interested in study and bureaucracy. The CSS is a very different body of people now, more are foreign educated, more are getting in and out faster allowing less time for stalemates and corrupt activities. There are also a lot of expat kids coming to Pakistan to work in the CSS now. They are doing so only for patriotic reasons, the pay is still insignificant. I know of one such man who left his job at J.P. Morgan-Stanley to come to Pakistan and work in the government.

    Everybody just complains instead of getting up and doing something about it.

    There is no education, lets get it into our heads that no government is going to do anything about it. If every affluent person ‘adopted’ one child’s education, it would make a difference.

    There’s no point protesting on the streets. That only creates more chaos.

    My advice is to all is get off your ass and do something.

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