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A few days ago, this newspaper reported that the US has accused the Federal Bureau of Revenue (FBR) for using pirated version of VMware software. Stories like this do not cause a nation-wide hoo-ha; this is a country where intellectual property rights (IPR) are not respected as rights ought to be. But for government organisations, stories like this aren’t just a reflection of poor IPR regime, which the state ought to champion instead. It is also a reflection of FBR’s long unresolved human resource problem; any IT professional worth her name would not sign off the use of pirated software at an organisation as important as the revenue arm of the state.

In June last year, the World Bank approved a project called Pakistan Raises Revenue Project (PRRP). Just how different would the outcome of this project be is another question, considering that both the outcome of bank’s last major FBR-related project – the famous TARP – and the bank’s own performance on that project was labelled “moderately unsatisfactory”.

But under the PRRP, the FBR was to hire a Chief Information Officer (CIO) to lead the development and implementation of IT initiatives at FBR, and direct planning & implementation of tax administration IT systems in support of core business functions in order to improve cost effectiveness, service quality and business development. That resource hasn’t been hired as yet, even though the advert for that opening was out in September 2019.

The hiring of CIO at FBR is a part of federal government’s own transformation roadmap, which includes strengthening of technical streams for core tax administration functions for career FBR officials (e.g., auditors, lawyers, business intelligence analysts) and by externally hiring specialists for horizontal functions such as procurement, human resources, and communications.

The recognition of FBR’s human resource problem isn’t new. The TARP project that ran from 2004 to 2011 recognised that problem well, and some steps were also taken in that direction. But clearly, those measures weren’t enough. A few years later when Masoud Naqvi’s Tax Reform Commission (TRC) finalised its report, it said that “there cannot be two opinions about the need for major improvements” in FBR’s information technology and human resource.

Talking about why the FBR ends up producing “guesstimates” at best for revenue projection, the TRC noted that “more than 90 percent of FBR’s staff consist of persons of grade 16 or below with head count of about 20,000”. The total officer above the rank of grade 17 and above are 1,966,” adding that this 90 percent staff are the people who are “surplus in the organization, lack ability, do not have the skill sets needed by FBR at present time and are in-fact counterproductive.”

In comes a new study recently published by the National School of Public Policy. The paper titled “FBR human resource management policy:  issues and challenges, suggested policy intervention to increase productivity” flags that “currently there is no research available that identifies the issues and challenges with respect to FBR’s human resource management policies, or which suggest human resource management intervention with a view to enhance productivity of FBR.” That in itself is a rather surprising finding; it makes one wonder about the scope and depth of research conducted by the World Bank under TARP, and by the TRC.

Written by Abdul Jawwad, an employee of Inland Revenue Service, the paper states that although job description for all significant positions in FBR were developed way back in 2006/2007, “a comprehensive job analysis of all jobs has never been done in FBR”. Nor have job specifications been developed in FBR while job descriptions are not provided to the Federal Public Service Commission (FPSC) for recruitment of the officers.

Such HR malpractices naturally results in poor recruitment and in turn impairs FBR’s productivity. But perhaps the point to ponder over is how could FBR (under TARP) even develop job descriptions in the absence of job analysis. HR 101 informs that a comprehensive job analysis is critical to develop job description and take decisions on other HR aspects such as recruitment and selection, job evaluation, compensation and benefits packages, performance appraisal, analyzing training and development needs. Coming up with job descriptions without a comprehensive job analysis is simply winging it.

The consequence of this shoddy work on job description speaks for itself. At the one end, there is inequity among FBR’s employees in the same grade of employment posted in different departments, simply because of workload inequities that was were not analysed because of want of job analysis. At the other end, Jawwad writes that officers “who do not have inclination towards laborious and technical tax work or who do not have a firm grip on accounting, start relying more and more on the speed work done by the inspectors who do not have any such responsibility officially prescribed in their job description.”

In another disappointing find, Jawwad notes that the FBR does not have a career management policy.  “The officers do not have a well-defined career path in terms of postings transfers and training and development schedule. Promotion of the officers from 17 to 18 and 18 to 19 and so on create an immediate expertise gap in the field for which there is no succession planning” whereas lack of rotation in different functional areas lead to a tunnel vision.

It is quite understandable changing FBR’s human resource constitution will be a disruptive and time taking exercise. But progress report for FBR reforms under PTI’s regime has been arguably poor thus far.

The January 2020 progress report on institutional reform proudly boasted that “Policy Board of the FBR has been separated and located in the Ministry of Finance”. But in reality the first and last meeting of that board was held in February 2019, which is why the PM has recently been approached for reactivation of tax policy board. When progress is so poor for an agenda item that announced with much fanfare then one can only imagine the state and progress of reforms on agenda items (such as HR) which aren’t considered as important by those obsessed with macro-indicators.

(Read also BR Research’s ‘Reforming FBR: don’t wing it’ and ‘FBR sunset’ November 15 & 16, 2018)