New technology misses the mark

Admiring a clutch of shiney new PCs did nothing to improve my mood as I smoldered in all-too-familiar queues at the Dubai Department of Naturalisation and Residency.

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By  Rob Corder Published  June 4, 2002

There's an incongruous mixture of devices on the desk of every official at the Dubai Department of Naturalisation and Residency. Brand-new Compaq PCs with sleek black 15-inch flat screen monitors dominate the workspace. But the mouse mat doubles up as an area for placing two or three official rubber stamps.

There is also plenty of paper. Passports, of course, must be handed over for identification purposes. But they are not scanned electronically (as they are at the airport).

Instead, an official keys in the details using two fingers of one hand. (The other hand clutches the passport. If the desk had a little stand on which to rest the passport, visa processing times could be cut considerably because officials could use two hands to type.)

Official paperwork seem as prevalent as I have seen over the ten years I have been visiting this government department, and certainly there seems to be no reduction in the amount of stamps, signatures, photographs and receipts required.

Speaking Arabic is still a prerequisite of clear communication here, despite the department's function being the processing of foreigners. Expecting any official to master Arabic, English, Tagalog, Hindi, Urdu, etc, is beyond reason, but having several language speakers available (as airlines such as Emirates manage on every long haul flight) does not seem too much to ask.

Queuing is also still a key component of visa processing (although the visa cancellation section does have brand new chairs to sit on). As is visiting several officials, rather than just one.

The only procedural change I have noticed over previous visits here is that payments for visa stamps now have to be paid with the ridiculous eDirham card (which you have to queue up to buy).

The appearance of brand new PCs in the midst of all this manual paper-based bureaucracy suggests that the most important components of a move to e-government — changing procedures and systems —have taken a back seat to buying flashy hardware.

The 15 inch flat screen monitors are cute, but they didn’t make the hour and a half I spent waiting for stamps and signatures move any more quickly.

With the visa cancellation complete, I wondered whether I had been daft to visit the government premises at all. Perhaps I could have saved myself a lot of time working through the procedure on the Internet.

Alas, the web site, www.dnrd.gov.ae, is merely an information site and does not accept transactions of any kind. It could have saved my driver a trip, because it does allow you to download and print official forms that used to be only available from the ministry. But I had to turn up in person for the visa cancellation.

The information on the web site was, however, enlightening. In many ways, it proves my hypothesis that little has been done to streamline procedures in the ongoing march towards e-government.

Take, for example, the department’s explanation of which subsection handles residency:

The Entry Permits Section, according to the Web site, issues visas of residency; but the Residency Section undertakes the responsibility of issuing the residence permit. Of course, both will require a payment, and this is the responsibility of the Administration and Finance Section (and don’t forget to queue for your eDirham cards because they don’t accept cash).
So much for a single window into government.

The good news is that progress is being made in many parts of Dubai’s government. A sense of realism has also kicked in. For example, after an initial 18 month timeline to implement Dubai’s vision of e-government, it has now been accepted that this was a little ambitious. Government officials I have spoken to over the past few weeks refer to the first 18 months of the project as ‘Phase 1’, and now allude to a five-year programme that itself will probably be open-ended.

That, in my mind, is a sensible plan. It will give time for some deep thought to be applied to the problems of departmental integration, workflow, human resources, procedures, chain of command, accountability and the use of IT.

It will take the pressure of people to make cosmetic changes, like the installation of under-utilised top-of-the-range PCs.

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