E-government: giving SMBs a helping hand?

The Gulf’s small-to-medium business sector contributes to more than 60% of the region’s economy. But now, it is the government’s turn to help them. They need online services, more affordable technology, and global reach to thrive and, in turn, help the economy. Windows Middle East explores current e-government services available to SMBs, and how they can be helped further.

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By  Vijaya George Published  February 26, 2002

I|~||~||~|Red tape is the bane of every citizen. And in the Middle East, time spent waiting in queues as well as not being able to speak Arabic means dealing with the government can be a nightmare. But all this is due to change—gradually. Dubai has initiated that change in the Arab region by introducing e-government, a new channel that will enable people to avail of government services from their home or office through the Internet.

An investor no longer has to waste his time at the Dubai Economic Department (DED) to renew his trade licence or apply for a new one. Businesses can log onto www.dubaided.gov.ae to reserve a trade name, apply, renew, modify or cancel their trade licences or commercial permits, pay their fines through the Web, ask queries or submit complaints and suggestions online. The Web site also provides information about the list of documents required to process each request. This provides companies with an easy interface to carry out administrative jobs without much fuss. Although such services are useful for all businesses—small or big—they are, significantly, more important to the small trader because he does not have to employ another person to get this work done.
“This service is a dream for SMBs,” says Ayman Abouseif, marketing director of Oracle Middle East and Africa. Oracle has been working closely with some of Dubai’s government departments such as DED to develop their e-government initiatives. “Now, you could be the managing director of a small company and take care of all this in a few minutes by yourself.”

Abouseif explains that processes such as renewal of trade licences, visa applications and renewing vehicle registrations are more burdensome, complex and frustrating for SMBs in the real world because they don’t have an administration department to take care of such legal procedures like the big companies. But with e-government, the way you operate with government departments has been revised and made more convenient.

||**||II|~||~||~|E-government is not a fancy trend simply started to follow after the fashion of governments abroad. Community service and cutting the red tape apart, Samer Chaar, general manager of Compaq Gulf and Levant, a key solutions provider to the region’s e-government initiatives, cites two chief reasons for enabling such services. One, is the “the low cost of conducting transactions” and the other, is “to trigger more possibilities for SMBs to access a wider audience.” Yasser Zeineldin, marketing manager of Microsoft Gulf, which has played a key role in e-enabling government departments like Dubai Chamber of Commerce & Industry (DCCI) and Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce & Industry (ADCCI) adds that this initiative “is also about attracting foreign capital and repatriating investments made by local people abroad.”

Whatever the reasons cited, several sectors stand to benefit from the project. And developing it has not been an easy task. Mohamed Ali Alabbar, director general, Department of Economic Development explains: “We have not merely moved the old paper-based filing process online, but have extended the advantage of new Internet technologies internally and streamlined our internal processes in an attempt to encourage operational efficiency and transparency into our operations.

“In the process, we have had to revisit our traditional way of doing things, creating more public access to information as well as making the Department more accountable to the public. We also had to establish a new infrastructure of e-government networks involving other government departments and service providers, including banks and Etisalat.”

||**||III|~||~||~|The UAE government, and particularly the Dubai Emirate, is the first in the region to deploy e-government services. Jordan, Egypt, Oman, Kuwait and Saudi are each at a different stage of delivery that will eventually lead to e-governance. Oman, for instance, is focusing on managing its human resources first and will offer services to the public later. Likewise, Bahrain is putting a financial system in place first that will integrate all its departments together in a major government-to-government strategy. The next step will be to e-enable them and make their services available in the next 18 months to its citizens. Jordan is still promoting the concept of e-government among its citizens. The UAE has worked differently. Some of its services are available online to the public. Meanwhile, it is running parallel IT educations projects in its schools to train the next generation to use the Internet comfortably to source information and carry out transactions so that they emerge from their schools as fully-fledged e-citizens.

Yet, there are others who are still discussing the possibility of implementing e-government services. Some have balked at the thought of making government policies transparent. Others are procrastinating owing to the enormity of the task involved. Judging by the announcements made over the last year by different departments of the Dubai government about their online services, it seems that they have not been intimidated by the thought of the all-round adjustments they have had to make to the way they have been conducting their operations over the last many decades and to their perception of the end user. And the online fever is catching on. Any department that may have been slack also seems determined now to keep pace with the rest.

Electronic processing of labour transactions from the Ministry of Labour, for instance, will be appreciated by all businesses. Currently, its services are only available to 100 companies. But Mattar Humaid Al Tayer, minister of Labour and Social Affairs is reported to have promised that the services of the Ministry’s e-unit, which handles all electronic transactions, will be available soon to other companies as well. More importantly, they will “not be restricted to large companies alone. Any establishment that has a technology compatible with our system can establish a link with us and make use of the facility,” he reassures.

A substantial number of the Dubai government’s Internet services are available only to companies in the free zones. Dubai Airport Free Zone Authority (DAFZA), for instance, has designed a service that will speed up all requests sent by its customers including on-line processing of visa applications, residence, licence, health, ID cards and the renewal of such documents. Customers can check the status of their applications on the Web site. The free zone’s online service also allows investors from outside the UAE to apply through its Web site for an office at the zone’s premises. Relevant documents can be scanned and sent through the Web site’s secure server. Due to the nature of the business of most of DAFZA’s clients—some of who are courier companies—that tend to require customs clearance, the Web site also links up to E-mirsal services offered by Dubai Customs Authority so that they can proceed online with their customs documentation as well. Similar services are available to investors at the Jebel Ali Free Zone (www.myjafza.co.ae) and Dubai Ports Authority (www.mydpa.co.ae).

||**||IV|~||~||~|More general information, however, about investing in the country, related rules and regulations are available at the Web sites of the Abu Dhabi and Dubai Chambers of Commerce & Industry. The Dubai Chamber (www.dcci.gov.ae), for instance, offers a range of online services to its 60,000 members. This includes online submission of applications for essential documents by exporters such as Certificates of Origin and an extensive business directory equipped with a search engine that will enable visitors to search and access business-specific information about DCCI member companies. So, a potential leather goods investor, who is looking for a company trading in related goods in Dubai, can search the Chamber’s directory for the same.

Like the Chamber, services from Dubai Municipality (www.dm.gov.ae) also target all companies. Previously, requests submitted to the Municipality for no-objection certificates (NOC) that contractors and consultants needed for work such as excavations, building roads and drainage networks took several days to process. This also demanded that the person go to six different departments at the Municipality before eventually getting the document. Now, the customer can apply online and the system routes his request to the concerned person in each department. When the certificate is ready, he is notified by email. He can download his NOC by clicking on the link in his email. Relevant documents can be scanned and submitted online.

However, there are a few glitches. For one, only end users registered with the department can avail of these services. The Municipality is currently working on enabling online registration for its customers. “Until then, the customer has to come to us once and register one administration user. He can, in turn, create user identities for specific users within his company and only they will have access to the information,” assures Ahmed Hashem Bahrozyan, head of analysis and design unit, IT department, Dubai Municipality. Another problem is the lack of an online payment facility. For now, they have worked around the problem. Says Bahrozyan: “The NOC is free-of-charge anyway. But there are other paid services where contractors, consultants and other firms can apply online for and receive test results for engineering materials and food products along with various certificates from Dubai Central laboratory. For this, the person has to come once, physically, to give us the sample for testing. At that time, we ask him to make the payment also so that it is done in one go. Later, we publish the results online and notify them.” Certified private laboratories in Dubai can also benefit from DCL online services by linking the results of their tests to DCL electronically.

There are other departments such as Etisalat (www.etisalat4me.com) and Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA www.dewa.gov.ae) that have forged ahead with an online payment facility. DEWA has a special section for businesses where they can pay their bills online, apply for NOCs, new connections, make local purchases and participate in tenders.

||**||V|~||~||~|These departments have also taken care to provide 128 bit encryption, which is the highest standard of security commercially available. This ensures that all information and credit card details that are submitted on the respective Web site are encrypted. Farooq Hassan, marketing manager of Comtrust (www.comtrust.co.ae), which provides the e-commerce infrastructure for most of Dubai’s government departments that have an online payment facility assures us that the security measures adopted by the company are the highest available worldwide. Sceptics can log onto Comtrust’s Web site, create a test account and see how some of the processes work. It also allows the end user to enrol for a sample digital certificate, answers frequently-asked queries from clients and provides related information that assures the end user about security issues.
The same security measures were first adopted by Dubai Police traffic Department to allow people to pay their traffic fines online. Now, those services have been extended to include online registration and renewal of vehicles and drivers licences. For a small company that has even one car, renewal is no longer an issue thanks to e-government.

The UAE is way ahead of the rest of the region in deploying services to its public. But, it has a long way to go before it actually runs an e-government. “The delivery of e-government goes beyond the delivery of online services,” explains Simon Moores, UK e-government advisor and futurist thinker. Moores says online service delivery will become as common place as ATMs tomorrow. What will make the difference is when the processes and infrastructure of various government departments are seamlessly integrated into one common management system. For instance, application for a visa could involve two departments like the Ministry of Labour and the Naturalisation department. Ideally, the application should be submitted online to one department and the system should route it to subsequent departments. Right now, due to lack of integration or the necessary infrastructure, each department does only its bit. The end user will then have to take it from one department and resubmit it at the next. Eventually, this should be sorted out so that submissions are made only at one gate by the end user.

Following his own experience in the UK which is currently working towards such integration, Moore’s advice as he toured Saudi Arabia and Bahrain this February was to ask governments to work towards developing a single strategy so that all departments of a government work together. “What has hindered progress in some GCC countries is that their e-government is being handled by an entire committee and this, sometimes, makes it difficult to arrive at conclusions. In the UK, we have an e-envoy, a single point of control. That is the same reason why deploying services in Dubai is easier than in other countries in the region. It is because the final decisions are made by one person. Sheikh Mohammed essentially functions as that single point of leadership and this has its benefits,” he says.

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, himself, clarified this point when he announced the e-government initiative a year earlier. “Our aim is for Dubai to be recognised as a leading centre in the new economy involving close cooperation with leading edge companies specialised in the development and creative applications of technology. To accomplish our aim, we need to redefine and transform our understanding of the role of government. I shall personally lead this transformation.”

||**||VI|~||~||~|But once the transformation has been made and online services deployed, governments will need to look deeper at how to better the economy through e-government. The 100,000 plus SMBs that contribute to more than 60% of the region’s economy will need a helping hand in getting more affordable technology, the necessary expertise and global mileage. The onus will rest with governments to take up their cause and provide the impetus to make it happen.

“Right now, services are available. But we must ensure that these services reach the small time investor—like a travel agent or even a small restaurant manager,” says Abouseif. He stresses the need for more Internet kiosks in the city and to transform existing typing offices to Internet Centres. “The simplest form would be to use the existing infrastructure and retrain typists to use the Internet and give Web services to those who do not know how to use the Net.” The small trader, who doesn’t know how to use the Internet should be able to go to such an office, where people at the Centre can download the relevant application form from the government site and fill it up for the applicant.

His other recommendation is more futuristic and aimed at helping small traders who can’t communicate at all. He suggests that every trader be supplied with a read-only smart card with all his personal details on it. When the trader goes to an Internet centre, he can hand his smart card to the typist for the latter to key in any information. When the application is done, he can take his smart card back with him.

On a parallel level, “the government must also increase the export of the SMB because we are a region that imports more and exports less,” states Chaar. “The total strategy should be to correct the import versus export deficit in our region. And to do this, we must increase the reach of the SMB to the global audience by providing them a window to the world.”

These are strategies that will happen once the basic infrastructure is in place. But as Chaar reiterates, “The government will have to make the first move because only the public sector can drive the e-government initiative through changes in policies and regulations that will allow the private sector to contribute to the economy.”||**||

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