Dial for government

While many US and European e-government projects have come unstuck, some Middle East governments are showing how good integration and management can help smooth the transformation process. Daniel Stanton rings the changes.

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By  Daniel Stanton Published  October 31, 2006

The pace of change is sometimes slow, but not when it comes to the modernisation of government services in the Middle East. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE have made government service reform a cornerstone of their moves into the information age, overshadowing many e-government projects in the Western world.

The success of such schemes has been dependent on good project management and planning from the outset. Dr Abd El-Rahman Sabry, director of ICT for the League of Arab States, told the recent GT (Government Technology) Summit, held in Dubai: “It is the responsibility of individual Arab governments as well as key stakeholders in the private and public sectors to choose which ICT projects they need to adopt. The selection process, however, should take into consideration certain criteria which we believe underpins a successful information society.”

He believes that the seven basic keys to the information society are infrastructure, human development, electronic works including electronic government and e-commerce, information, environment, information transfer, the communications and information technology industry, and supporting Arab digital content.

One of the early adopters of egovernment technology in the Middle East was Dubai.

“Being the first is always harder than the second or third,” says Salem Khamis Al-Shair, director of eServices at Dubai e-government.

He says that the need for the project was driven by two main factors. “One was that the world is shifting towards the digital economy and you cannot stay behind,” says Al-Shair. “It’s especially fast here in the region, so we wanted to be at the front.

“The second issue is that His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE vice president, prime minister and ruler of Dubai, sensed the need for improving government services in order to please our customers. This was a kind of a paradigm shift; previously governments delivered their services in any manner they wished because they know that there is no competition, but for us here in Dubai we know that we are competing against very modern and very aggressive cities in the world.

We’re not competing with other departments; we’re competing on the level of the city itself against other cities.

“So we had to compete with improving our services and pleasing our customers whether local customers in the local market, or the investors trying to find cities from where they can do business. It is easing the lives of anyone interacting with the government.”

Having begun automation in the 1980s, Dubai’s government employees were already acquainted with IT, but Al-Shair still had to overcome reluctance in some staff. This was probably due to the scale of the task ahead. “It was a leap, it wasn’t just a single step to be taken.”

There was also some resistance from the public. “e-payment is one of the issues where people are afraid of the technology,” Al-Shair says.

“They can do everything but when it comes to payment they are reluctant, so it is one of the gauges for us to see the adoption. [This year] we expect to reach 60 million dirhams’ worth of transactions going through our payment gateway - this is only for Dubai government entities. I believe that trust is very much better than when we started.”

Fadi Hindi, IT consultant, Dubai e-government, says that the dashboards recently implemented there have helped make it much easier to monitor the processes of egovernment in real time. “We can display anything we want to track that’s going through our production environment, so we can track the epayment gateway, the number of trade licences that are being communicated across government departments, for example,” he says.

The dashboard system also shows the level of eEnablement that has been attained by the government, displayed as a percentage. “We are one of the few e-governments worldwide, even the US and UK, that’s doing something like this where you can just look at a screen and see across the whole government where you are in the whole electronic transformation,” says Hindi. “This particular dashboard is a component of our integration platform. It’s a platform that we’ve developed internally within Dubai e-government. It basically interconnects all the different government departments.

We have all of the hardware, software and technology that came out of this office to make all of this happen, so on top of that we’ve also built this dashboard - what we call the business analytics dashboard - that sits on top of this integration and allows us to report on any of the information about the running of our production environment. 11 or 12 different departments have to use this centralised e-payment gateway, and these dashboards also monitor this.”

The dashboard can break down payments by type, and can raise alerts based on rules created by the user. “We have it down to the level of saying: ‘I want to be notified when there’s a failure, and I want to be notified when a failure is resolved.’ It’s down to that level of granularity,” says Hindi. “So someone can actually specify specific points in a particular transaction to say: ‘This is what’s important to me and if this happens I want to be notified. If this goes away I also want to be notified.’ That’s the idea behind it.

“You can see where there are problems, you can trigger workflow, you can trigger other processes. You can have the dashboard, based on certain events, trigger a workflow where for example I will get notified and then my architect will get notified, the support people will get notified and there are certain things that have to go through this process to resolve the error.”

Perhaps the biggest advantage of the dashboard is the real time aspect. Before it was implemented, Dubai e-government was using basic reporting, but it was not ideal. “It was after the fact, it was more of a reactive approach than a proactive approach,” says Hindi. “The beauty of the dashboard is that it gives you almost up to the minute information. It gives you the statistics, information and reporting on what’s going on in your production, and that’s a little bit different from waiting till the end of the week to get a report and finding that there’s some sort of a failure or an error.”

Omar Hijazi is CEO of Tejari, an eProcurement service, which has been closely involved with Dubai egovernment.

Hijazi believes that transparency is an essential element of e-government, and something that Tejari can provide. “How do you demonstrate that you have an open, competitive process that includes all sorts of suppliers, whether local or international, and awards business based on getting the best price or the best quality specification?” he asks. “You could do this completely through Tejari. It will log everything, every bid that was submitted, every comment that was made, every exchange of messages between the government and supplier, and also the awarding that happened online.”

Tejari integrates with most ERP systems and has been used by several governments around the region. “We’re in nine countries now, but the level of integration we’ve reached with Dubai is the highest,” says Hijazi. “We have a strong track record with the government, we’ve been averaging about 15% or 20% savings. Those are pretty substantial numbers when you think of all the millions of dirhams that go through government departments, and for some departments we’ve cut the procurement cycle in half. More and more of the government transactions are going online.”

Sun Microsystems is involved in many of the region’s e-government projects, particularly when it comes to security and identity management. Jamie Bliss, software sales manager, Sun MENA, says that Middle East governments are better prepared to avoid integration problems, having learned from egovernment projects elsewhere.

“Middle East governments are thinking about process integration from day one,” he says. “Whereas seven years ago in the UK that wasn’t really thought about to start with, I think lessons learned from other countries have been well applied in certain circumstances. They have very high complexity in terms of integration but it’s helped by the fact that they have access to technology that will enable them to take that further faster.”

Although it is relatively late in announcing its project, Saudi Arabia will have one of the world’s leading systems of e-government, according to one of the prominent figures in the project.

Dr Fahad Al Hoymany, minister’s advisor for IT, head of e-government infrastructure, ministry of communication & IT, Saudi Arabia, says that the Kingdom’s delayed introduction to e-government is not necessarily a disadvantage. “Saudi Arabia will probably have one of the best e-government infrastructures in the world,” he says. “We started late and there is always an advantage in starting late. You can learn from what everyone else is doing.”

Al Hoymany added that the egovernment project in Saudi was particularly focused on including all of its citizens. “By 2010 we want everybody in Saudi Arabia from anywhere in the country to enjoy world class e-government services,” he says. “We are not talking about an elite group of people that are going to be enjoying this service, we’re talking about everyone.”

The Kingdom’s e-government scheme will make use of a Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) as a way of verifying user identities. “We’ve been working on it for four years so far,” says Al Hoymany. “It allows people to authenticate themselves online and sign documents.We need to be careful that when we bring people online we are ready to cater for them and ready to protect them.”

He questions whether Gulf countries needed to cooperate on online authentication. “If you think of GCC countries as countries that have common interests, maybe they should start thinking about ways to make their electronic signature laws at least similar to each other,” he says. “If I get a digital certificate in Dubai, will I be able to use it easily in Saudi Arabia?”

Sameh Bedair, e-government programme director for Egypt, also sees challenges ahead for his country’s e-government plans. “Our vision is delivering services to our customers at their fingertips according to their taste and style,” he says. “There’s no one style that fits all. There’s no way to satisfy 75 million people without different channels and segmentation.”

He is aware that the needs of users are integral to the programme’s development. “We need community participation,” says Bedair. “The citizens will participate if you give them a lot of ways to participate.We have the potential to develop a one-stop shop based on community needs.”

The Egyptian e-government project has taken notice of schemes in other countries and hopes to have learned from them, but will also localise accordingly.

“We studied most of the implementations in the region and globally,” says Bedair. “We studied the Egyptian environment. The Human Capital Index in Egypt is not good because the illiteracy rate is high, so maybe people don’t want to use e-government to do government things. So we checked with the community to see if they wanted to do things this way.”

ITWorx, a Cairo-based company, has been supplying services to Egypt’s e-government projects.Wael Amin, president, ITWorx, says: “Governments need cost-effective and available ways to reach their citizen constituencies, and internet portals provide a very scalable, very direct and open way to do that.

“The second thing which is very important for the region is not just the access but also the transparency of these processes. Our region is always criticised for being relatively opaque, where government processes aren’t well defined and perhaps some of them might involve some element of corruption. Portals offer a way for governments to show citizens that the processes are simple, are outlined clearly and they can take advantage of them directly.

“The other aspect of portals for government is about improving internal operational efficiency. Governments now are moving from having lots of different disparate systems based on legacy technology onto government portals internally where employees are able to collaborate not just within a specific ministry or municipality but also across the entire country.” He adds that ITWorx has drawn on best practices in successful e-government projects from places like the UK and Singapore when implementing schemes in the Middle East.

Although Egypt’s internet penetration is growing rapidly, especially when it comes to broadband, it will be a long time before most of the population has access to online services. As a result, the government has come up with other ways to access them.

“What the government is now doing is using phone numbers to allow citizens to phone into a call centre and then the operator would use the e-government infrastructure to process the request on behalf of the customer,” says Amin.

“In Egypt now you can check your traffic tickets on your phone. And you can set it up so that when you get a traffic ticket you get an SMS, for example.”

Current channels for government services in Egypt include telephone services, face-to-face, email, instant messaging, interactive digital TV, and mobile services, known as MGov.

In all cases, technology needs to act as an enabler. “If the channel is slow, people will prefer not to use it,” Bedair says. “Security is very important when dealing with government services and privacy is a very important issue. People will put their trust in the channel if they feel it is secure and they can put their private information on there.”

Once technical concerns have been addressed, the e-government service should be able to surpass conventional government service delivery. “Using original channels, government services were not available 24/7 but they are now,” Bedair says. “The website is very accessible, fast, can be very secure depending on the system used, and privacy is high. An email service can be accessed at home or on the move. It is inexpensive and can be sent to many users at the same time. It gives 24/7 availability – that’s the ultimate goal of this service.”

The Egyptian e-government initiative is also offering services through digital TV, although this can only be accessed from the home, but delivery through PDAs and cell phones help give users mobility and allow them to access services irrespective of their location.With internet connectivity still growing in the country, e-government is likely to become increasingly popular, but Bedair admits that public enthusiasm for the project has a way to go. “Web applications are a must for government, but it’s not a must for the users and business,” he says.

Devoteam is a firm of consultants specialising in network and infrastructure services for egovernment, as well as the financial and telco sectors, and is currently involved with the e-government projects in Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

“Jordan started e-government about four or five years ago, so it’s maybe a few steps ahead,” says Osama Ghoul, managing partner, Devoteam Middle East.

“With the Saudi project, we’re working with them on several initiatives. They have a clear direction of where they would like to go and they’re really focused on that. They’re willing to plan and drive to become one of the top egovernment projects in the world.”

The company is able to draw on its experience in e-government projects in Europe, even though different countries have different needs from applications such as GRP (Government Resource Planning) programmes. “There are different models – some are centralised, some are distributed,” says Ghoul. “The legal structure means that knowledge in some places is considered public, and in some places confidential. These considerations have a major impact.” Ghoul also believes that the role of government has changed in recent years. “The government is now seen as a service provider. Delivering these services on time, with transparency and credibility is starting to play a major role,” he says. “It’s about giving the citizens and businesses a proper role to flourish, and giving a positive country and government image to the rest of the world. There are a finite number of investments to be made, and all countries are competing with each other. egovernment is an attractive pillar.”

While Devoteam conducts audits to determine how well egovernment services are delivering, part of that assessment includes the user experience. “In our approach we develop key performance indicators to measure the technical impact as well as the technical performance,” says Ghoul.

“Today, the citizens are really sensitive when it comes to services provided by one of those pillars and they will always demand more.We encourage our clients to conduct surveys of their customers.

“You can develop the best plans on Earth but the real test is the feedback you get from service users. They will be the real gauge of how well you did the job.”

“We're not competing with other departments, we're competing on the level of the city itself against other cities.”

“We started late and there is always an advantage in starting late.You can learn from what everyone else is doing.”

“There's no one style that fits all. There's no way to satisfy 75 million people without different channels and segmentation.”

“You can develop the best plans on Earth but the real test is the feedback you get from service users."

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