Is Open Data the key to m-Government transformation in the Middle East?

True m-Government transformation requires governments to create open access to data based on common standards and more partnership with the private sectors, writes Dima Kandalaft of IBM

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Is Open Data the key to m-Government transformation in the Middle East? Governments should have a clear plan of how they will develop and deliver mobile apps, to enhance services to citizens, says Kandalaft.
By  Dima Kandalaft Published  June 15, 2015

Across the Middle East, governments are launching initiatives to explore the potential of a smarter planet through mobile government (m-government) programs and smart city projects. In fact, a mobile mindset is becoming the number one way to unlock value in both the public and private sectors.

Within this context we must keep in mind that m-government is about more than just offering online services through SMS or smartphone apps. While the majority of Middle Eastern governments have already started their journey towards mobile, only a few countries have taken significant steps towards implementing true m-government platforms.

In order to ensure strong and sustainable economic development for their constituencies, public sector leaders must embrace m-government. This will require wholly transforming their departments and agencies so that they can take full advantage of the opportunities mobile devices offer, from location-sensing to social and crowdsourced data, in a way that aligns to citizens’ increasingly individualized expectations.

To do this, local governments will increasingly rely on three essentials: a progressive attitude towards open data-sharing with the private sector, a clear vision of what issues m-government will tackle, and a detailed roll-out plan.

Open data for m-government

At present, there is little to no privatisation of public-sector functions like transport and utilities in the Middle East. In other parts of the world, inviting private enterprises to tackle public-sector challenges has been a strong driver of service innovations. Private-public collaboration could help Middle Eastern governments tackle standard m-government issues, like traffic congestion, in new and more efficient ways.

As part of their m-government roadmaps, the region’s leaders must also take steps to clean and align their data. Many departments and agencies are still siloed in how they capture, store, and parse data. For mobile services to deliver consolidated and 24/7 functionality, they’ll need a common standard with which they can access all sorts of information. As part of this ‘de-siloing’ process, IT leaders should ensure their roadmaps accommodate new security and privacy features for this data, to avoid potentially costly overhauls to services, apps, and processes in the future.

M-government platforms and integrated mobile services are essential for citizen engagement and economic development alike. They allow the region’s leaders to better understand their constituencies, individualize services, and improve their quality.

However, nothing short of full ‘public enterprise’ transformations — driven by open data initiatives — will render Middle Eastern governments truly mobile, or establish them as hubs for top talent and innovation on a global scale.

M-Government: More than apps

Governments and public agencies are under increasing pressure to maximize public budgets and create efficient public systems for their constituencies. To do this, an m-government vision should consist of far more than simply rolling out mobile apps. While many of the region’s government leaders have overseen some sort of push towards online services, they should resist the temptation to simply package these services for access through a mobile browser or app window. Citizens do not want apps. They want faster, more convenient, and more personalised levels of service.

Government leaders must offer consolidation in order to provide convenience and personalisation. Multiple apps and sign-on prompts, each for a different government service, can quickly turn a citizen’s user experience from delight into frustration. Government developers are now taking steps to integrate apps so they only require a single sign-on and portal, making it easier for end-users to interact with government services as a whole.

M-government requires public-sector agencies to offer mobile services not just to citizens, but also their employees. Mobile services are, by nature of their devices, accessible on a 24/7 basis. This means public servants must be on hand to respond at any time, or else citizens will naturally become frustrated when their queries or requests go unanswered.

Public-sector agencies can tackle this by offering their employees enterprise mobile apps which let them manage citizen services whether out-of-hours or in the field. Without being allowed to use their personal devices, for example, employees may simply reject using these apps in the flexible manner needed to adequately meet citizens’ expectations. These fundamentals must be resolved before any app makes it to the public, to ensure that their experience of new mobile services inspires their trust from day one.

Public enterprises and the mobile roadmap

The Middle East’s most successful adopters of m-government have relied on a clear vision of its applications from top government leaders.

However, vision is not enough. The region’s public servants must treat their departments and agencies as ‘public enterprises’ that compete for investment, talent, and economic development. Those who succeed in tailoring services to citizens at a world-class standard will reap economic dividends for years to come.

As such, going mobile needs a rigorous roadmap to succeed. Middle Eastern governments can establish these by partnering with IT solutions providers, national enterprises such as telcos, and industry bodies to ensure a sufficient level of detail in these plans. Moreover, the key to successfully embracing m-government is openness — both of governmental data and policy towards private-sector innovation.

By placing businesses and other stakeholders at the center of how governments shape their societies, smart solutions will radically alter the ability of governments to realise their economic, social and environmental objectives.

Dima Kandalaft is Smarter Cities Leader, IBM Gulf & Levant.

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