EDITORIAL: Full marks to the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) for introducing a new online bidding procedure for direct purchase of overstayed, confiscated and seized goods from the Customs Department through the system of electronic auction (e-auction). Now what will all those who had rigged the system for years do? In one fell swoop the e-auction facility brings transparency to the whole process and deprives the usual bad guys of the opportunity of exploiting small loopholes in procedures any longer, at least in this particular manner. How Customs officials, with inside knowledge of what is to be auctioned and when, literally wrote the book on manipulating the system has become the stuff of legend and satire over the years. Yet sadly, no matter how much of an open secret this form of corruption was it still remained in practice till now, and taking the business online could well be the decisive nail in the coffin of the practice of insiders benefitting from auctions at Customs' House or the port.
Yet the proof of the pudding lies in the eating and one can, for now, only hope for the best since there really is no limit to human imagination and who knows what lengths those addicted to free, corrupt money will go in order to keep their illegitimate income streams flowing. The system seems pretty fool-proof for now, though, and anybody with a valid identity card may get self-registered as a bidder by submitting an online form available at the e-auction portal. The system will promptly display the highest bid each time one is received. After 72 hours, the highest bids/offers will be processed for customary approval or rejection from the concerned assistant or deputy collector, who will then make their decision within the next 72 hours. The whole process will be carefully monitored and the old way of planting agents with pre-determined tactics to sabotage auctions will just not get any space. In this way alone this measure could and should be a revolutionary step forward. It is also no secret that the Customs Department often takes the lead within the civil service in terms of foul practices because of problems just like these, and no manner of reform has so far been able to even remotely settle the issue. It now seems that the use of modern technology might finally succeed where all sorts of other measures have failed.
Once tried and tested - and there's no reason for it not to succeed provided those implementing it keep their eyes on the ball - this idea should be used across government departments. In fact, one thing that continues to make most government offices the very definition of inefficiency is their continued reliance on outdated and outmoded ways of doing their work. If you function as if you are still somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, and those within the system are able to ensure that practically no attempt at an overhaul is able to succeed, then you don't win much points for performance in modern times where efficiency makes all the difference between success and failure. Experience in most parts of the world has shown that an increased dependence on information technology (IT) also tends to enhance the use of data analytics, which is then used for achieving even better results.
FBR should be congratulated for taking this crucial step. It could not have been delayed any longer because it is under immense pressure to improve its working and increase overall tax collection. Hopefully, IT will begin making a difference sooner rather than later so that its use can be expanded within and outside the institution. Yet even if successful these will only be the first, tiny baby steps on a very long road. Therefore, it will test the government's commitment and patience since it will meet stiff resistance from those who are just too used to benefitting from the old system. And it's not as if such measures have not been tried before; regretfully almost always unsuccessfully. The Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) government has made a great deal about its commitment to civil service reform as well as its anti-corruption drive. Time will tell whether it has the kind of will that its predecessors did not.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2020