In Pakistan, the term ‘accountability’ has mostly been used in the specific context of countering corruption. Though countering corruption is an important aspect of it, accountability is a multifaceted, broader and rather a complex phenomenon. Accountability, in its most general sense, signifies a particular characteristic of an individual or institution whereby they are held responsible and answerable for the performance of a particular function or task. Therefore, an efficient accountability regime essentially includes a number of diverse tools to promote this sort of culture of responsibility and answerability. Regrettably, we, after choosing to narrowly define the broader phenomenon of accountability, have somehow badly failed to evolve and enforce a comprehensive accountability regime in Pakistan. Similarly, we could also not impart a healthy culture of accountability to our national discourse. More worryingly, we have yet not established any significant anti-graft body to effectively counter corruption even in accordance with our narrowly-adopted notion of accountability.

There have been a number of flaws and shortcomings in our national accountability discourse as well as successive accountability regimes. To begin with, we have long been obsessed with the idea of establishing a single and centralised national anti-graft body to perform the entire task of accountability in the country. Consequently, there have been a number of ‘accountability bodies’ at national level like Ehtesab Cell, Ehtesab Bureau, and NAB etc. Since accountability is a complex and broader conception, there is always required a comprehensive accountability regime comprising multiple strategies and techniques to effectively combat corruption at different levels through various institutions and agencies. Therefore, it is quite unrealistic to expect a single anti-graft body to eliminate corruption at all levels. Unluckily, this is what we have long been doing in Pakistan in the name of accountability. We have only been focusing on a so-called premier anti-graft body to completely curb corruption rather than mobilising all our institutions and agencies in the country meant to perform similar tasks.

Though mere a political slogan, the idioms like “accountability for all” and “across-the-board accountability” have essentially been an important part of our national accountability narrative. To many, these idioms infer that a single anti-graft body should deal with, and hold accountable to all, including those who are generally referred to as “holy cows”. In fact, this inference or demand is impracticable and flawed as well. Undeniably, in principle, each individual and institution should be accountable and answerable for their conduct and actions to someone else at a certain level. But, it doesn’t mean that they should be made accountable to a single particular body. Indeed, the nature and working of each institution demand a specific accountability apparatus. Supreme Judicial council (SJC) is a constitutional body mandated to probe into allegations of corruption and professional misconduct against the judges of the superior judiciary. Similarly, armed forces also possess an effective inbuilt institutional apparatus for their internal accountability. NAB currently doesn’t have the institutional capacity to thoroughly look into professional affairs of these ‘sensitive’ institutions. Therefore, the internal accountability mechanism of these institutions should be sensitised and mobilised rather than calling for extending the jurisdiction of NAB to them.

In my last column, I recommended to establish two parallel but eccentric anti-graft bodies at the federal and provincial levels to streamline the process of accountability in the country besides removing constitutional and jurisdictional anomalies associated with this very practice. There are already functioning various agencies at the federal and provincial levels to perform the task of accountability in some way. The proposed anti-graft bodies can certainly eradicate corruption in collaboration with these federal and provincial agencies. At the federal level, Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has the institutional capacity to look into the matters involving financial corruption, smuggling, illegal human trafficking and money laundering. Similarly, at the provincial level, Anti-Corruption Establishment (ACE) in an important agency mandated to handle complaints of corruption and misconduct against the provincial public servants. These agencies should certainly be made more proactive and vibrant to combat corruption instead of only relying on NAB.

Based on the principle of ‘administrative accountability’, there have also been established the institutions of Ombudsman (Mohtasib) at the federal and provincial levels in Pakistan. Appointed by the government, these Ombudsmen work independently to represent and safeguard the interests of the citizens. They can address the grievances of the general public after receiving and investigating complaints of maladministration and violation of rights. Similarly, Tax, Banking and Insurance Ombudsmen are also currently functioning in Pakistan to deal with their respective sectors. These Ombudsmen should certainly be made more active and vigilant to adequately protect citizens’ rights in the country.

An audit, both internal and external, is also an important tool to ensure accountability and good governance. This is an objective and independent examination or evaluation of the financial statements and accounts of an organisation to determine if they are accurate and in accordance with the applicable rules, regulations and laws. The Constitution of Pakistan has placed great emphasis on the very tool of audit to ensure financial transparency and public sector accountability in the country. Auditor General of Pakistan (AGP) is an important constitutionally-appointed person, who acts independently, and enjoys a secure tenure of service in line with the judges of the superior judiciary. The AGP’s organisation is the Supreme Audit Institution (SAI) in Pakistan, which is responsible for auditing the accounts and financial affairs of the federal and provincial governments as well as agencies. Regrettably, there has hardly been any serious endeavour to make this crucial constitutional institution work proactively and independently. Last year, the post of AGP remained vacant for five months. Now, besides improving the institutional capacity of the AGP’s organisation, an effective mechanism of internal audit should also be introduced in the public sector agencies and organisations. Indeed, these audit bodies can play an important role in evolving an efficient accountability regime in Pakistan. Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is the apex parliamentary watchdog which examines the AGP’s report regarding the revenue and expenditure of the federation. This national watchdog should also be mobilised to curb public sector corruption in the country.

An efficient regulatory regime also has a role in ensuring accountability. A regulatory body generally preforms two basic functions - formulation of some specific standards, and strict enforcement of these standards. In this way, it not only sets the rules of the game but also does ensure the compliance of these rules by all the players in the playground. So, a regulatory body somehow acts as a watchdog and a whistleblower at the same time. Essentially in line with the well-known prevention-is-better-than-cure principle, NAB has also recognised the regulators as an effective tool to prevent and contain corruption in Pakistan. Its Prevention Committee claims to assist, advise and guide the regulators in their efforts to ensure good governance through internal controls and accountability. At present, a large number of regulatory bodies are active in Pakistan; mostly at the federal level e.g. State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), Security and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP), Competition Commission of Pakistan (CCP), Higher Education Commission (HEC), Pakistan Bar Council (PBC), Pakistan Medical and Dental Council (PMDC), Drug Regularity Authority of Pakistan (DRAP) Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority (OGRA), National Electric Power Regulatory Authority (NEPRA), and Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA).

The Public Procurement Regulatory Authority (PPRA) is a federal autonomous body encrusted with the task of prescribing regulations and procedures for public procurement by the public sector originations of the Federal Government. Similarly, the Punjab Public Procurement Authority (PPRA) is active in Punjab. These regulatory bodies are supposed to ensure compliance of public procurement rules by the public sector organisations while procuring goods and services. However, we have seen that some public sector organisations often ignore these regulations while making public procurement. Unfortunately, most of the regulators in our country have utterly failed to properly perform their entrusted tasks since no government has ever seriously tried to improve their efficiency and institutional capacity. Some structural and functional reforms are direly needed to improve the working and general efficiency of these regulators. They must be allowed to operate freely, and independent of the political interference. These regulatory should be manned and headed by certain honest, upright, efficient and dedicated persons. They need to be made more efficient, vigilant and attentive towards their primary institutional responsibilities. These objectives can be achieved by making them independent and accountable at the same time. 

There is desirable a comprehensive, inclusive and multipronged anti-corruption strategy to eliminate rampant corruption from Pakistan. A single anti-graft body can certainly not adequately perform this burdensome task. Therefore, all the aforementioned investigative, audit and regulatory bodies should be properly reformed and mobilised to give rise to an efficient accountability regime in Pakistan. Without evolving this sort of comprehensive accountability regime, I am afraid all our endeavours to rid Pakistan of corruption will eventually turn into a disappointing fiasco. 

(To be continued)

The writer is a lawyer and columnist based in Lahore.