E-government grows up

The Middle East’s e-gov initiatives continue at pace. While the visions of online services that remove the region’s bureaucracy inefficiencies remain, there has been a subtle shift to more realistic short-term goals.

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By  Greg Wilson Published  June 3, 2004

|~|egovman_m.jpg|~|Dr. Ahmed Al Mohandi, director of Qatar eGovernment|~|For the last four years e-government has dominated the ICT agenda across the Middle East. From Cairo to Amman, Manama to Doha, Dubai to Muscat and Riyadh to Jeddah, governments have been making huge information technology investments in an attempt to curb bureaucracy, create greater transparency and fundamentally reform the way they operate. The host of government projects has fuelled IT spending in the region and made the local market front of mind for many international vendors. Visits from the likes of Intel’s Craig Barrett, Carly Firona of HP and Microsoft’s Bill Gates, bear witness to the importance vendors attach to the Middle East. During e-government’s honeymoon period, technocrats promised a myriad of online services would run across departments, slashing red tape, saving time and money and providing greater customer service. But several years down the line, the vision has yet to turn into reality. Instead of a single portal hosting government services, businesses and consumers are often faced with a collection of standalone and unintegrated services from a number of different providers. The dream of integrated services, spanning across a number of different departments or ministries, largely remains unrealised. “Services that cross boundaries between two organisations are much harder to deliver,” says Dr. Ahmed Darwish, e-government programme director, Ministry of Communications & Information Technology (MCIT) Egypt. “When we started work I used to describe these kinds of services as science fiction. We have only just delivered our first [cross department] service,” he adds. E-government’s generally slow progress has widened the credibility gap between early expectations and the reality four years later. It has also shown those initial plans to be wildly optimistic. “When we started an e-procurement project, we were expected to deliver the solution in four months. But although connecting machines is easy, reinventing the process is harder,” says Mahmoud Ali Khasawneh, director, e-government programme, CIO, The Kingdom of Jordan. “You can do a lot of damage if you talk about projects too early. It is easy for people to lose faith,” he adds. In an attempt to bring a sense of reality to Egypt’s e-government drive, Dr. Darwish has made a conscious effort to lower the general public’s expectations. “I don’t want to start doing a lot of [marketing,] which might later backfire,” he says. “I don’t want to deceive people that their lives are going to become [a bed of] roses. It is not going to happen like that, it is a very long trip,” he adds. The absence of any statistics — either on user numbers or spending — certainly hasn’t helped to fill the credibility gap. Numbers generated by an ITP.net spot poll made for some interesting reading. Of the 216 people who responded, 50% claimed that they never used a government e-service. A further 30% said they used an e-government service once a month. Only 14% of respondents of claimed to be using e-services everyday. Compared to the Middle East, initiatives elsewhere in the world have managed to gain traction rapidly. Speaking at ITP Events’ Middle East eGovernment Summit, Pauline Tan, director, infrastructure & technology, Government Chief Information Office, Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore, outlined the growth in user numbers for its ecitizen.gov.sg site. ||**|||~||~||~|Within a year of launching the site, the authority had handled 400,000 transactions. By June 2003, the site was managing one million transactions from its top five e-services and had recorded a staggering 23 million hits by the year-end. Since kicking off its e-government initiative in 2000, the 43km long island has invested a massive US$1.5 billion dollars to build a shared IT infrastructure — including a number of shared databases — capable of supporting 1600 online services through a multitude of channels. “Serving people is at the heart of our strategy,” Tan told delegates. “We’re taking a many agencies, one government approach that enables us to be agile, effective and efficient.” There are signs that some local e-government projects are gaining momentum. For instance, Dubai Municipality has racked up 300,000 online transactions from the local business community, since introducing its first online service in September 2001. It expects to breach the 400,000-transaction mark in the near future. “Every time it is taking us less time to record 100,000 transactions,” comments Ahmed Hashem Bahrozyan, head of e-government services, IT department, Dubai Municipality. “It goes to show, more and more people are using [e-services]. They are becoming a part of people’s lives,” he adds. Obviously, the Middle East has some way to go before it catches up with the likes of Singapore. In fairness, regional e-government initiatives have to overcome low PC and internet penetration. The situation is compounded by the generally low usage of credit cards. “[E-government] is in the early stages in Arab countries, so it is difficult to judge how successful [it has] been so far,” says Sami Sunna, research manager at Arab Advisors Group. “Low penetration in terms of fixed lines, PCs and internet, low computer literacy [and] awareness and little Arabic content — these factors have combined to limit the impact of e-government,” he adds. Regardless of issues relating to GDP per head, geography and demographics, the Middle East’s e-government drive must reach a new level of maturity. There are a number of factors that indicate the relative immaturity of regional e-government services, including the low number of true cross-departmental services, disorganised or non-existent marketing and little focus on alternative channels, such as mobiles, kiosk, service and call centres. ||**|||~|Jordan_CIO_inside.gif|~|Mahmoud Ali Khasawneh, director, e-government programme, CIO, The Kingdom of Jordan|~|Aside from the challenge of expanding e-government services and reach, many governments must address the fragmented nature of IT purchasing and leverage inherent economies of scale, face up to the inevitable and hire third party service providers and finally implement some method of measurement. The existing infrastructure and services reflect the early dash to get online, rather than a focus on service reform. “When we started on the [e-government] bandwagon everybody was jumping on, calling for a portal, networks and this and that, but we are now all hitting the same roadblocks, which we should have known were coming,” comments Jordan’s Khasawneh. The initial rush to get online has done little to break down the information islands or management fiefdoms common within government. Changing the mindset and installing a customer-centric point of view is likely to take years. In the meantime, some e-government initiatives have focused on specific services and kept complex questions of integration, information sharing and change management to a minimum. “It is very tough for ministries to believe government is in fact one agency and that they share resources,” says Dr. Ahmed Al Mohanadi, director of Qatar eGovernment, The State of Qatar. “There is extreme difficulty in penetrating these organisations. I have succeeded and I have failed. [Change management] is continuous; you have to punch through walls — it is not easy. E-government is a challenging project because it is about reform. It is never easy to ask somebody to reform,” he adds. Qatar has attempted to marginalise change management issues. After conducting an extensive audit of government systems and processes, the project team realised that the level of acceptance varied widely across government. “The culture of [IT] acceptance varies, and we were left to decide the best way to introduce change,” comments Dr. Al Mohanadi. The Qatar team settled for a dual approach that highlighted delivery of front end services, but consciously avoided an overhaul of back end systems, preferring instead to leave it to the ministries. “We put together the standards and the central [internet] portal that all government services must go through. We focus on the transaction and let them look after the back end,” says Dr. Al Mohanadi. In an effort to ease the change management pain, some local e-government drives have created standalone teams, outside the usual state apparatus. Qatar, Dubai and Jordan have gone to some length to create a third partner ‘broker’ to encourage cooperation and information sharing. Jordan has taken structural changes a step further with the creation of its National Information Technology Centre (NITC). The centre will have a wide reaching remit, which includes the management of the central government IT infrastructure and services, fostering cooperation and negotiating with the private sector. “The Ministry of ICT is a government body [and] a policy maker by history and nature. [NITC] is an implementation body with the ‘just do it’ [attitude],” says Khasawneh. The implementation body has a vitally important role the Kingdom deploys its ‘government on demand’ model. The idea is similar to the utility computing model, which enables customers to buy the IT services as and when they need them. Theoretically, government on demand will introduce greater accountability for IT investment within ministries, forcing them to consider business need versus costs. ||**|||~||~||~|“This model will introduce a greater level of responsibility. [Ministries] are hearing the e-government buzz word. But often they think only of the capital and not the running costs,” says Khasawneh. Another component that is commonly missing from local e-government drives is a coherent marketing strategy. Whether communicating with internal employees or the general public, marketing is a vital tool in winning the hearts and minds of users. Some local projects have been attempting to offer services internally to change the mindset of employees. For example, Muscat Municipality, has been developing an internal workplace portal to boost familiarity with the digital format. “We are making [staff’s] lives easier. We keep on adding services. Before they had to phone several people to find out about their salary or their holiday, now it is done through the e-mail and the portal,” says Yaqoob Al Bulushi, director general at Muscat Municipality & supervisor of information systems, Muscat Municipality. In a similar fashion, Egypt’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) has successfully used internal reference sites to generate interest in its government-wide enterprise resource planning (ERP) project. Initially, the ministry agreed to finance five projects within other government entities, but is now faced with overwhelming demand to from other ministries. “We have managed to get [the ministries] attention after the successful project here at the ministry,” says Dr. Darwish. “We are currently deploying at the Ministry of Finance, but we have more requests [for the ERP] than we can handle. This is going very well,” he adds. Marketing activities aren’t restricted to promoting internal case studies. Dr. Darwish spends his time evangelising e-government services to other ministries. “I am a preacher — I go around the government and preach to people about e-government and what it is going to do for them,” he adds. Arguably, effective marketing is the single biggest challenge facing local e-government initiatives. Countries elsewhere in the world have spent a fortune on marketing. For example, Singapore’s Tan has conducted numerous advertising campaigns across a variety of different media. But rather than invest in comprehensive marketing campaigns, many local governments have opted for a ‘build it and they will come’ kind of approach and not really invested in marketing. However, there is a growing realisation that marketing holds the key to the success of local e-government. Recently, Dubai decided to place a high priority on coordinating its marketing efforts through the formation of an advisory board. “We are still weak when it comes to proper marketing, which is something that we have been instructed by His Highness [Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum] to concentrate on,” says Salem Khamis Al Shair, e-services director, Dubai eGovernment. “He realised that there are so many brands that are not well marketed. We need to work hard on marketing e-services, in an effort to promote [our] services,” he adds. Dubai Municipality is already reaping the benefits of a sound marketing strategy. However, even marketing its services has required a change in mindset by the municipality to reflect the government’s shift from reactive to proactive services. “Typically, government is not good at marketing,” says Bahrozyan of Dubai Municipality. “We were used to people coming to us, but with the internet we’re trying to get people to use a different channel,” he adds. The municipality has used a variety of mediums to promote its portfolio of 76 online services. The department has run full page newspaper ads, held seminars, created focus groups and sent mail and fax shots to the business community. Probably the most effective tool has been the municipality’s growing reputation. “The community is very small and so ‘word of mouth’ is a strong marketing method,” says Bahrozyan. “If those companies that are using services initially and are happy with it, then other people will hear about it,” he adds. The municipality has also worked closely with the local business community to create local reference sites. Not only have companies been used to market online services, they have played a vital role in designing and improving them. “When we start the project we bring in at least three to five pilot customers,” comments Bahrozyan. “You cannot design a service without the involvement of customers,” he adds. Close partnership with the private sector is set to be an increasingly important aspect of the e-government landscape across the Middle East. Historically, IT operations in the Middle East have proved very conservative when using third party service providers. However, more governments are likely to outsource services in effort to address the skills shortage, deliver solutions cost effectively and provide economic support for home-grown ICT companies. ||**|||~||~||~|“You can’t compete with the private sector — that is the underlying rule,” comments Khasawneh. Singapore has successfully leveraged the skills and resources of its private sector. Currently, it leases components of its IT infrastructure from third parties, enabling it to reduce cost and keep pace with the rapid evolution of technology. Just how quickly such a model can be implemented in the Middle East market is in some doubt. “The leasing model might sound like a good idea because it will help [governments] plan well in advance. But is going to change from country to country,” says Dr. Al Mohanadi. Another significant differentiating factor between e-government work in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world is the proliferation of delivery channels. Surprisingly, considering the low internet and PC penetration in much of the region, many local governments have been slow to expand their delivery channels. However, Egypt, Qatar, Oman and Jordan are all working on service centres, which aim to talk users through online services. A number of countries in the region have expanded their citizen touch points, to include call centres, IVR systems and SMS services. Once again, Dubai has already generated considerable success with its AskDubai call centre service. Between June last year and April 2004, the call centre has handled 60,000 calls and 1200 e-mails. The proliferation of delivery channels is a priority for a number of local countries, particularly those with a low internet user base. “It’s about services, services, services, and I hope we will be able to add more and more channels to our portal, Bawada,” says Egypt’s Dr. Darwish. Egypt’s MCIT is experimenting with manned-service posts in 70 Post Office branches around the country. “Citizens can go there [to the Post Office] and receive assistance on getting an online service,” explains Dr. Darwish. The growing momentum behind alternative delivery channels emphasises the underlying notion of public sector reform. In much the same way that people realised it wasn’t e-business, it was just another method of conducting business, the same is true of the whole e-government concept — it is not about conducting services over the internet. Instead, it is about reforming and improving the delivery of services. “E-government itself is a misleading term — we should be thinking of public sector reform, with a twist of automation. Reform is our key performance indicator. It is not about the number of services — it’s about creating a sustainable strategy,” says Khasawneh. Effectively turning government on its head is going to take time. How rapidly changes can take place depends largely on the leadership focus and the ability to manage change throughout the hierarchy of government. Some local governments are claiming that streamlined services are already improving significant service benefits and comprehensive savings. However, until cross-departmental services become a part of our everyday lives, the average citizen’s likely to wonder what all the fuss is about. ||**||

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