As local governments race to position themselves as ‘IT-hubs’ the machinery of government must increasingly mirror corporate behaviour in the use of IT to enhance customer services.

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By  Greg Wilson Published  October 31, 2001

|~||~||~|G overnments throughout the region are racing to reinvent themselves and grasp a handhold in the knowledge economy.

The initiatives vary in there speed and depth in each country, but the objective remains similar — to equip a country to survive as an economy based on information rather than physical assets.

In much of the region this trend is characterised by huge national telecoms infrastructure investments, a fierce stance on intellectual copyright and the construction of an attractive investment environment.

Building an IT hub also means radical changes within the governmental machinery. Bureaucratic, labour intensive systems have to be swapped for efficient, customer friendly services capable of adapting to change.

“The whole drive of Sheikh Mohammed’s vision is reinvention — we have to keep changing if we want to develop ourselves, develop our nation and develop the region,” Mohammed Gergawi, director general, Dubai Technology Electronic Commerce and Media Free Zone, told delegates at an ITP.net conference in Dubai.

E-government is “good for three entities; it’s good for the government — it will kill a lot of government red tape — but it’s also good for business and finally it’s good for people,” explained Gergawi.

The migration to service-centric thinking within Dubai’s government has leapt forwards over the last 18 months with the installation of a government information network (GIN) and the introduction of a ‘shared services model’ within government. Shared services — classified as common technology needs across government — will include the delpoyment of centralised ERP applications, e-mail and the development of a LDAP-based government directory.

“The departments are focusing on their core systems, their bread & butter. But whatever common services there are in terms of functionality we are centralising and serving,” explains Thani Al Zaffin, director, department of Government Information Resources Planning, Government of Dubai, H.H. The Ruler’s Court (Diwan).

||**|||~||~||~|However, the huge IT investment firmly has its roots in a services-mentality, explains Al Zaffin. “We like to think of Dubai as a corporate — Dubai Inc. — so we want to have a network, and we want to use technology in a really effective and efficient [manner]. The objective is to achieve the effective management of government resources,” he adds.

Dubai isn’t alone in its move to ‘corporatise’ its government machinery — Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi, Qatar and Oman are all pursing e-government objectives at different speeds.

The establishment of an online government portal is widely proclaimed as the defining flagship project for local countries as they position themselves as IT hubs.

Theoretically, a citizen will be able to login to the site and access integrated services, regardless of “where the information is coming from; whether it’s the Ministry of Finance or the Ministry of Economics,” explains Dr. Ahmed Darwish, professor of computer engineering, Cairo University & consultant to the Egyptian Ministry of Computers & Information Technology (MCIT).

“[Users] want to go to a single online destination and have all their services integrated for them, rather than have to investigate three different web sites to get the information. A citizen-centric philosophy has the [processes] integrated in the background [and users] don’t have to care which service comes from which ministry,” he adds.

But building the centralised government portal is the end game for many e-government strategies. Although constructing informational sites or even automating selective transactional processes within government is relatively easy, a fully operational portal demands staggering levels of system integration and data consolidation, delicate change management skills and long-term planning.
At the time of going to press, Dubai Government’s portal site is poised to launch.

The portal, which is based on Sun Microsystems Solaris/UltraSPARC machines, a Vignette content management system and Oracle’s database platform; will initially offer approximately five ‘cross-ministry’ services. An additional nine services will be added by January 2002.

According to, Salem Al Shair, director of e-Services and a team of EDS consultants have been playing a pivotal role ensuring the flow of information and business processes between separate departments.

“We’re playing a 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.

Although some seamless services will be delivered from Dubai’s government window, many of the departments sites will continue to exist in parallel and be integrated — in terms of look & feel and backend integration — over time.

Egypt’s move to develop an online government window has already achieved an early success with the delivery of online payment of Telecom Egypt bills. Two further services are tentatively due sometime next year.

However, Dr. Darwish is cautious about the development of the portal saying it will take time to deliver all 728 governmental services.

“We have a long way to go,” says Dr. Darwish.
Qatar, Bahrain and Jordan have all openly discussed the idea of a government portal. However, in all cases work is ongoing.

Mohammad Al Amer, director of computer services, Central Statistics Organisation, The State of Bahrain, stresses the pan-government nature of portal projects requires a huge shift in mindset for state employees.

||**|||~||~||~|Only by embracing a citizen-centric mantra will governments break down the silos of information and create the necessary seamless services, he exlpains.

Al Shair adds, “3% of the effort was the technology, but that is not the issue. Humans are the issue,” he adds.

“Change management is key — [e-government] changes the way you do business, it is changing the way you deal with clients, it is about improving the processes within,” he adds.

Tackling change management requires strong leadership at the highest level of the political structure, which is then replicated throughout the governmental machinery. Within Dubai, Bahrain, Qatar, Egypt, Kuwait and Jordan top-level members of government have stepped forward to play the sponsorship role in e-transformation projects.

If government is to be reinvented then “continuous leadership has to exist, throughout the highest areas of government to the lowest levels of the organisation,” says Al Shair.

Dubai Municipality offers a practical translation of Sheikh Mohammed’s e-government mandate. To tackle change management within the municipality — one of the largest department’s in Dubai — a steering committee has been established that has members from the six key sectors that make up the departmental structure. “It’s a challenging process to make sure that everybody is working in the same direction… that everybody is working on the same page,” explains Ahmed Hashem Bahrozyan, head of analysis & design unit, systems development section, information technology department, Dubai Municipality.

“Each service we introduce has its own steering committee. Each committee involves people that are directly or indirectly involved or affected by that service. It’s not just a case of loading this on the user,” says Bahrozyan.

Alongside strong leadership, continual communication is needed to build awareness to the challenges and reasons behind the changes. “We have to continue reminding people it’s about easing customers lives, interacting with government and contributing to establishing Dubai as an economic hub,” says Al Shair.

Jordan’s Ministry of Post & Communications — soon to be officially renamed the Ministry of Information & Communications Technology (MICT) — has spent the last 12 months outlining it’s e-transformation strategy.

According to Dr. Fawaz Hatim Zu’bi, the minister of Post & Communications, Jordan, initial change management efforts started with the IT managers within each ministry.

“But we found the buy-in from the top level wasn’t there. We had to redirect our approach. We asked the secretary general of each ministry to be responsible for finishing their e-government project within their ministry,” says Zu’bi.

“Since then the processes has moved much faster. In the next phase, what we’re asking is that they assign and bring people in that are capable of taking on this task. We are going to be responsible for the implementation, ” he adds.

Change management headaches have been eased to a certain degree in countries such as Bahrain and Kuwait, due largely to pre-existing centralised systems, which has helped to create an atmosphere more conducive to sharing information and processes.

Bahrain has had some form of data sharing since the establishment of the National Data Set in the early 1980s. This has helped change management issues over recent years, as the island state networked its governmental sites, migrated its entire government to Oracle Financials and is currently implementing Oracle HR across the Civil Service.

||**|||~||~||~|Managing change “isn’t as complicated in Bahrain as it might be in other places. We have been doing this for years now,” says Al Amer. “We are used to sharing information between ministries,” he adds.

Kuwait’s Ministry of the Interior (MoI) took advantage of the post-war reconstruction in the 1990s to implement a strong centralised IT infrastructure. The MoI, which is responsible for an estimated 60-to-70% of government services, is making a concerted effort to enhance delivery channels through call centres, IVRs, ATMs and the Web.

Managing change has been a case of juggling several variables, including “knowing what is politically and technically possible,” says Fahad Jafar, general director, MoI Kuwait.

The project teams “can then deliver clearly defined ‘early wins.’ Early success stories help to illustrate the benefits of automating different government procedures,” he adds.

The MoI is working in parallel with Kuwait’s year-old E-government Council to push Internet-practices throughout the rest of the state organisation. However, when deploying web-based services across other ministries the lack of automation in some state agencies poses a challenge.

Jafar is currently working on the development of a preliminary methodology to automate the less IT-literate governmental agencies. “We’re putting together a methodology that can help organisations agree on common terminology,” says Jafar.

“Trying to have people achieve a common set of standards and terminology is a big achievement at the national level. But we still have the challenge of enforcing this methodology and trying to move people from an ad-hoc way of doing things to a standardised way of [business]. We are providing them with the tools and methodologies to enable them to manage change within the organisation,” Jafar explains.

Egypt has also been working to develop the necessary rules and regulations to ease the transition to e-government. Dr. Ahmed Darwish, consultant to MCIT, expects the initial wave of e-government legislation to be released at the beginning of 2002. The standards and documentation work include ‘configuration templates’ which outline the bare necessities that departments need to go online.

However, MCIT isn’t a process owner — and it’s up to the individual departments to “mature enough that they can take care of their own networks,” Dr. Darwish explains.

Arguably the biggest hurdle facing every regional government beginning an e-government project — at whatever level — is the availability of skilled human resources. The situation is compounded by the strict timelines attached to many projects.

||**|||~||~||~|Commonly, consultants have been contracted to aid in business transformation and in some cases implementation. Regardless of widespread use of consulting services, organisations have to be careful not to be too reliant on them.

According to Dubai Municipality’s Ahmed Bahrozyan, the best consultants can do is provide a guide, “but we have to provide the necessary information and make the key decisions. People can fall into the trap of thinking that a consultant will do everything. But we have to take our own share of the responsibility.”

Although the consultants can alleviate some of the pain caused by the lack of skilled resources, departments are finding it necessary to build up the capabilities of in-house IT engineers.

The Dubai Municipality has found itself maintaining dual development teams, one for its Internet applications and one for its internal applications. The web team is using technology such as Java and XML, which has required a lot of knowledge transfer.

“It’s been very difficult given the short timeframe to have our people trained. So we have been using partners [Sun and PwC] to develop the applications. Our people have shadowed them to make sure that they get the right level of skills transfer,” explains Bahrozyan.

||**|||~||~||~|Creating an IT-savvy civil service is also an urgent priority for Egypt as it embraces e-government. Dr. Darwish explains that although developing greenfield government sites may solve legacy system headaches, generating the necessary skills base poses a huge challenge in its own right.

“There is a huge programme for human resource development,” directed at the Egyptian youth, but the government “hasn’t started its focus on providing employees with training,” says Dr. Darwish.

Consequently, much of the forthcoming e-government project work will be done with consultants and local partners. Any project will carry with it a “high skills transfer priority,” says Dr. Darwish.

For example, the initial phase of MCIT’s ERP rollout will focus on the ministry itself. A side effect of the roll out will be the creation of a skilled ERP cadre that can be outsourced for further implementations. Successful deployment within MCIT will also provides a reference site that can be taken to the rest of government community, explains Dr. Darwish.

However, just educating government agencies isn’t going to be enough — for the full impact of e-government to be realised — the citizen also has to be included.

When looking at countries such as Jordan and Egypt — with low PC penetration and Internet subscribers — e-government drives are running in parallel with massive IT-literacy campaigns.

Bahrain has been working with the general population to increase their awareness of virtual services. Earlier this year, the country’s experiment with automated election automation was a roaring success. Users merely had their national ID cards ‘read’ by Symbol 2D bar code scanners.

“The system was very popular, we verified people on the fly,”explains Al Amer.

With many regional governments currently committing to long-term IT projects e-gov is going to continue to top the Middle East IT agenda. However, the majority of projects are going to focus on internal infrastructure rather than an e-government portal.

“E-government is an ongoing process... it is going to take time before we see the full results,” says Al Shair.||**||

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