The Information Broker

Dubai’s government is changing the face of its services. In the future they only want to see a ‘customer’ in person once. The rest of the relationship will be managed through a combination of virtual and physical services.

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By  Greg Wilson Published  August 26, 2001

24 government departments online in less than 18 months.|~||~||~|Dubai’s government is changing the face of its services. In the future they only want to see a ‘customer’ in person once. The rest of the relationship will be managed through a combination of virtual and physical services. Consequently, for the last 12 months topics such as quality of service, customer satisfaction, rapid delivery of services and information sharing have been topping the agenda as government agencies have all worked to deliver on H.H. Sheikh Mohammed’s 18-month old e-government initiative.

The culmination of the government’s customer-centric thinking will be the construction of an online window or portal, which looks into not just the processes of government but also into the lifestyle of the entire Emirate. The delivery of the portal, which still has to be given a domain name, will form the customer-facing lynchpin of Dubai’s e-government initiative. Other projects running in parallel to the portal, include the government-wide rollout of enterprise resource planning applications and the construction of an information network. Dubai’s one-stop-shop portal will be delivered early in October.

At the time of going to press it still wasn’t clear exactly which government services would be available, but it’s predicted that the government will deliver five services on the 10th October. A further nine services are due for delivery in January 2002.

The issuance of trade licenses, certificates of no objection, elements of the visa process and payment procedures are all tipped to be amongst the starting line-up of services on the government’s portal. “Once we get closer to Gitex we will announce many of these services,” says Salem Al Shair, director e-Services and member of Dubai e-Government’s executive team.

“We will make sure that these services have been refined before we put them online. The kitchen is working… If it [a particular service] is not refined we will continue cooking it until it’s better,” he adds.

Initially the portal will focus on information that individuals or businesses need to transact with the government. In terms of transactional services, the availability of cyber trade licenses is currently topping the agenda, says Al Shair. “We want to deliver services that are of use to people… like providing the trade licenses for example, because this is one of the first interactions between businessmen and the Government of Dubai,” he explains.

The portal project has been led by the Dubai e-Government’s e-Services Group, working in conjunction with Electronic Data Systems (EDS), and its sister company, AT Kearney. For the portal to deliver its full potential, the development team has had to tackle significant integration and change management hurdles.

In many respects the team has taken on a ‘brokerage role,’ operating between government agencies to create cross-departmental business processes and facilitate the flow of information. “We are the [information] broker between departments,” says Al Shair.

“For example, the [Department of Economic Development] requires information about an individual from immigration… they should have direct access to [immigration’s] backend application for this information. We play that [brokerage] role of taking information from ‘x’ department and taking it to ‘y’ department for the process to continue on the fly,” explains Al Shair.

The brokerage role has required serious integration work to connect multiple applications and databases in the 24 departments to the Vignette content management system. Although the majority of departments have some form of automated systems, many of these had been developed and deployed in an ad-hoc manner over the years, without any overarching IT strategy.

Other integration issues have been thrown up by government agencies, which have already web-enabled services as part of their departmental level e-government drive.

For the portal to provide a ‘seamless window’ into government services, it has had to incorporate the separate departmental web initiatives. In the short term it’s likely that existing web initiatives will continue to run in parallel to the government portal. “It will remain a mix for some time, until the departments feel convinced that they can give up their web infrastructure and use the portal,” explains Al Shair. “We’ll port what they [the departments] have and migrate the interface to the portal. Most of the transactions would happen over the portal and next to their backend. We’re not working in isolation. The application is still held by them, we’re just changing the look and feel of it,” he adds.

As significant as the technical interface issues — if not more so — have been the change management challenges, particularly when discussing the portal with departments with existing web-services. “Humans are always the hardest element to deal with… technology is easy compared with people,” comments Al Shair.

“We have to convince these departments that we’re not taking their project away. What we care about is performance and convenience for the end user,” not ownership, he adds.

To encourage those departments with existing Internet services to alter the look and feel of their site to match that of the portal, the e-Services Group is leveraging on the Dubai Excellence Awards. “For those that have already invested they are kind of reluctant to move forward,” says Al Shair. The “Dubai Excellence Award will be emphasising the performance, look and feel, and site availability. [Departments] will have to adhere to some standards in order to get good marks in this evaluation.”

Change management issues have also extended to the internal processes of many departments. A lot of time has been spent assessing the ‘as is’ business processes deployed in many departments. With the help of the business consultants from AT Kearney, processes have been reengineered for greater efficiency.

“Internally, they have had to make improvements because otherwise you’re taking the physical processes and its inefficiencies and putting it on the Web — which is useless,” says Al Shair.

“They have to worry about improving the way they do business and improving the application. We put it on the portal and we manage it on a day-to-day basis, making sure that the speed and performance is there.”

Although the e-Services team has been presented with people hurdles there has been greater awareness to the need for e-enablement and the need for greater information sharing.

“Everybody is trying to open up, they realise that the information is not theirs to control. It’s for the public, it’s for the people,” says Al Shair.

||**||Change Management|~||~||~|For the portal to present a seamless interface into government, it must also deliver a ‘single view’ of an individual or business. Currently, it’s likely that several different versions of an individual’s data exist across several different government databases.

To break down the individual silos of information contained within each department, the e-Services Group has to consolidate its customer information across departments to create greater data transparency and sharing. “We have a small population… in many cases the same person is repeated in the database, but many of these departments have already worked on their databases to clean the data,” Al Shair adds.

The e-Services Group recognises the likelihood that many Dubai residents and nationals will be registered in more than one database. However, as Dubai’s government departments have gradually moved towards the Internet there has already been significant database ‘cleaning’ going on, says Al Shair.

A ‘single-sign-on’ concept will also be introduced with the portal in October, to give each user of e-government services a single identity. Other departmental data will subsequently be built around the online identity. “[Customers] will come to a counter with [the] proper documents once. They will be recognised as an individual and be issued a user name and password,” says the e-Services director.

“That user name and password will enable you to receive services… and to conduct financial transactions.”

Efforts to consolidate existing information on the national and expat population will continue, as the government attempts to build a single ‘mirror image’ of the individual. “This process will take time, but I’m not a believer in throwing data and starting from scratch,” says Al Shair.

Exactly where Dubai Government will take its single identity number from is still being worked on. The e-Services team is working with the Ministry of Immigration and the Ministry of Interior. A final solution on a single identity number isn’t likely to be resolved until the UAE introduces a national identity number scheme, which is currently being worked on at a federal level.

For the time being, Dubai e-Government is working with the Ministry of Interior as part of this wider reaching project. “That project is ongoing at the federal level… we’re also working with Immigration here in Dubai to use a number that they have for single-sign-on. When the national ID number comes out we can swap over,” explains Al Shair.

Dubai’s taskforce is also collaborating with federal institutions on the legal implications of e-government. There has also been a focus group investigating international cyber laws. Their work has already been translated for the local environment and a proposal has been put forward by Dubai Internet City (DIC).

Within Dubai, there has already been training of judges and prosecutors to “give them an idea about possible rules & regulations,” says Al Shair. “Also this gives them an opportunity to see where these laws fit, and where they don’t fit, and make amendments where necessary.”

However, the refinement of e-legislation is likely to continue into 2002. “It will take time to go through all the stages of refinement and approval, but it’s coming. I foresee that by the middle of next year we will have regulations in place.”

Without a firm position on the legality of such issues as digital signatures, or other digital documentation it’s unclear how far the process of e-government can go.

For example, Dubai’s branch of the Ministry of Labour & Social Affairs has been building a digital record of residency and labour card applications for the last two years. It still has to keep hardcopies purely for legal reasons. However, says Al Shair “some [laws] have to be approved at the federal level, but we’re pushing the ones that Dubai can make a decision about.”

Theoretically, if the documentation doesn’t relate to federal affairs a legal standing on the use of e-mail, digital signatures and other digital documentation could be clarified overnight.

Even when the portal is up and fully operational, it’s unlikely that all government interaction will be conducted online. E-government services will always aim to reduce the time and effort when dealing with different government services. But the final result will be a mixture between physical and virtual services. “Constituents don’t care if a service is digital or paper-based, but they care about the time and effort it requires,” says Al Shair. “We have to mix and match. There are some documents that have to be there, but the digital format is not enough. [For example, individuals] need to send a passport to get the residency stamp in it. But if you can do things without having to leave the office that is an achievement.”

Running in parallel to work with the various government departments, the e-Services Group has also begun hosting focus groups with the different segments of the general public. The meetings primarily honed in on the needs and requirements of specific public segments. From the open sessions it’s clear that the scope and vision of Dubai’s portal stretches further than just government services.

Dubai e-Government is aiming to construct nothing short of an overall lifestyle portal for audiences living in Dubai and those thinking of visiting or investing in the Emirate.

Ideas spun round the focus group attended by ACN, suggested the site host everything from news, calendar services and e-mail functionality. The focus groups have been put together to come up with idea for the next phase of the portal’s development, sometime post-January 2002. Issues such as content development and content licensing are still being worked on. However, what is clear is that government intends to take a dominant role in Dubai’s virtual environment providing a complete window on the city-state.
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