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The wretched filing system in government offices: A tool for sinister bureaucratic control

The wretched filing system in government offices: A tool for sinister bureaucratic control

In the age when revolutionary reforms are taking place in the workplace, the archaic filling system still holds a crtically important place as a part of the official business in the government offices in Pakistan. Being labour intensive, the manual filing system always has a poor tracking mechanism. Besides, it suffers from untoward delay and has been lambasted for appalling mismanagement. Its movement invariably remains disorganised, cluttered and confusing. It obliterates creativity and ingenuity. Being, share wastage of time, resources and energy, this messy system has been spawning more problems than it resolves. This article is aimed at spotlighting some of the ramifications of the sick filling system on the overall working environment in the public sector entities.

Introduction

In almost all government departments and public sector organizations, official work is executed through the medium of office files. It is mainly paper-based, manually maintained and physically moved from. An ordinary office file is comprised essentially of three parts. One is “Content or correspondence” part, the second is the “Note” part and the third is the “File Board” which keeps the other two parts put together closely enwrapped. The Content part is the collection of all relevant papers, documents and attachments packed together in a hard form. The Note part, usually placed on the top of the Content part, denotes the movement of the file and carries the notes of the officials and officers on the note sheet, called “para”.  It is advisable to maintain separate files for each detached matter, subject wise and to keep and maintain its proper record.

Background

I joined civil services some 15 years back. Due to exigent circumstances, I had to start work from the day first. Soon I found myself in the middle of piles of office files. All day long, we have to deal with two things. Either we have to dispose of the pending files or to attend and organize the meetings. However, the file work was the overriding chore of the official business. Retrospectively, the same manual paper-based, filing system has been in vogue in our offices since inception. Some of my senior colleagues who served in the civil services for around thirty years recalled that the same system was in practice in the government offices ever since they joined. And strangely enough, nothing has changed in it, since then.

Movement

While disposing of official business, I noticed that the ordinary file, while attending a simple, run of the mill kind of correspondence from another department, took more than a month time, on the average while completing one cycle. For instance, whenever, a letter was received in the office of the secretary, it was mandated to be received in the centralized diary section where a proper diary number was allotted to the letter and was properly stamped before it was placed in the cycle for official treatment.

The manual filing system in government officesFirst, it used to be forwarded to the office of the PS to the secretary, where he used to diarise and place it  in a green folder before the secretary for initial and to mark it to the additional secretary. Then it used to be passed on to the office of the additional secretary through a proper diary book. The additional secretary used to mark it to the deputy secretary, the deputy secretary to the section officer, the section officer to the concerned superintendent, the superintendent to the office assistant, the office assistant to the senior clerk while completing one-way journey.

The Senior Clerk used to put up the letter as a PUC on a file, initiating the case with a “Red Entry” on the note sheet underlining its subject, mentioning the name of the department from where it was received and the date of the letter when it was issued. On the way upward, the office assistant was required to explain the content of the letter on the note sheet. The superintendent used to give some recommendations and to be routed through the same channel upward for approval of the secretary. Once approved, the file again used to follow the same route, downward, before reaching the office assistant who was required to put-up draft of the letter (DFA) for approval of the secretary. It used to follow the same channel before reaching to the secretary for approval.

Once approved, the letter/ PUC was all set to be formally replied. Nevertheless, in the process, the file used to move up and down, at least three to four times, as a matter of routine exercise. It used to take even exceptionally long, in the event, any query was raised by someone from among the top of the hierarchy.  In case, some required papers or attached documents were found missing, the file has to undertake additional multiple rounds tell it is finally disposed of.

Merits

Despite its inherent bottlenecks, the manual filing system had its own merits.  Being a good back up option for hard copies at the time of power outages, internet suspension and system disruption, being mundane in our office, the manual paper-based filing system saved the day. Besides, digitalizing everything was not considered as prudent, safe and secure. The perpetual risk of manipulation always threatened. However, with certain exceptions and for some unique problems, its demerits circumvented its merits.

Unique problems

The prevailing manual filling system involved complex, exhaustive and time-consuming process characterized mainly by poor check and balance and lack of accountability engendered inefficiency, entailed corruption and vulnerability to undue encumbrance. There were so many duplicate or loose (Kacha) files that at times it was cumbersome to find the original file or paper. Those files while bursting at the seams were generally filled up with so much of the extraneous information with multiple duplicate copies of the similar documents making it sufficiently hard to find the desired piece of letter or required information. While searching for some vital information, what I personally observed that one had to turn each paper in the file, multiple times, before hitting the required information.

Deciding to relinquish

During the course of my brief stint, as a civil servant, I meticulously observed heaps of files, gathering dust on the desks awaiting the return of the officers concerned from the foreign training or long service leave. Soon I felt suffocated. I quit the civil services, pretty early, for good. To carry on with my professional career, I opted for academia, aspiring to improve my level of educational qualification, explore new horizons and more importantly, to work in a professional organization that is less bureaucratic and somewhat free from the prevalent official red-tapism. But to my utter dismay, I found myself in the middle of the worst kind of bureaucracy which will be the centre of attention of my upcoming article.

About Dr Syed Hafeez Ahmad

Having a doctoral degree in human resource management, Dr. Syed Hafeez Ahmad is currently working as Additional Controller of Examinations, Khyber Medical University, Peshawar. He previously served the same university as Additional Registrar. These are mid-career level positions in the university's administration. Besides, he is working in the capacity of a team leader and founder of the Career Development & Research Centre, a startup launched in the Business Incubation Center of Khyber Medical University. He is having more than 18 years of professional experience in academic management with special interest in public sector higher education reforms, sustainability, academic leadership and universities' governance. He is a research blogger, Amazon associate and a YouTuber.

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