Delivering e-services

The region’s governments are implementing a number of key ICT initiatives and investing heavily in delivering a wider range of services to their citizens online

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By  Published  September 29, 2006

Governments have long been known for their bureaucratic attitude, but as more countries embark on e-government projects, it seems that the days of paper pushers are coming to an end.

Many countries are starting to realise the potential of e-government as a more cost-effective method of delivering services to the general public.

Users on the other hand who have tried such government services, often swear by their convenience, effectiveness, and ability to clear through the red tape.

E-government has the capability to radically change the way government departments deal with the public by making systems easily accessible, more integrated, efficient and more transparent.

As a result, it can improve the quality of government services, create interactions that are more open and facilitate less complex communication cycles.

The trend has caught on in the Middle East with the number of online government services growing each year. The United Nations, in its E-Government Readiness 2005 report, has cited that West Asia (which includes most Middle Eastern countries) has performed very well in 2005.

Notable performers, it said, included the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Syria, all of which have improved on their global rankings last year.

“All of the governments are actually putting a lot of effort in place, currently with specific things, looking at how they will deploy citizen services, whatever those might encapsulate,” says Jamie Bliss, software sales manager, Sun Microsystems Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

“Everybody is aiming to get e-government services in place,” Bliss adds.

“They are, maybe, a little later in the game than some of the North American and Western European countries, but there is a lot of investment going on in many ways;” says Chris Parker, managing partner at gov3, a UK-based global strategic consultancy that caters to thegovernment sector.

“The way the administration is structured they get quicker decision-making processes, which is an advantage for them so they are moving ahead,” he adds.

Gov3 has worked on several projects, the most significant of which was as part of the UK government’s Office of the e-Envoy between 1999 and 2004.

The UAE, which is considered a forerunner in the region when it comes to e-government initiatives, has set up portals that cater to different categories of end users, developing sections to serve the individual needs of residents, business, visitors, and government.

Impressive features of the UAE’s e-government projects, according to the UN, include up-to-date information, registration, and eTenders, which incorporate online bidding for public tenders.

Two more noteworthy portals, the UN says, are its e-Dirham portal for transactions, as well as its e-Forms portal for online forms.

“The way the administration is structured they get quicker decision-making process."

Regional aims

Raising the bar for e-government development in the UAE is Dubai, which claims to havealready 84% of its services available online, and hopes to round up that number to 90% by the end of the year.

It was the first to establish a mobile portal in the region, which provides access to services offered by several government departments and private organisations, such as traffic services, financial services, Islamic services, travel bookings, entertainment, and general information about Dubai.

Visa information from the Dubai Naturalisation and Residency Department is also available from the portal and payments to Dubai Police can be carried out through this electronic channel.

Meanwhile, the UN considers Qatar’s e-government presence as a regional best practice and on par with integrated services portals elsewhere in the world.

The Qatari government’s online presence is based on a central foundation that enables it to implement an inter-departmental approach to cater to both companies and citizens under one window.

The site offers many useful services, ranging from student registration and paying traffic violations to applying online for visas and permits.

In contrast to its neighbours, Saudi Arabia has yet to develop and implement a unified national portal. Currently, several ministries in the Kingdom offer sporadic online services with basic network features. This might soon change as the government announced plans to step up its e-government efforts.

With the Kingdom aiming to bring 150 of its services online by 2010, the government has pledged additional funding for the project of US$800million (SAR3 billion).

Dr. Fahad al Hoymany, who is the Minister’s advisor for IT and head of the e-government infrastructure department at the Saudi Ministry of Communications and Information, told delegates at the Government Technology Summit, held in Dubai last month, that “Saudi Arabia will probably have one of the best e-government infrastructures in the world.”

“By 2010 we want everybody in Saudi Arabia, from anywhere in the country, to enjoy world-class e-government services,” he adds. “We are not talking about an elite group of people that are going to be enjoying these services. We’re talking about everyone.”

Hans Ydema, senior vice president and managing director of Entrust Europe, Middle East, and Africa, believes that Saudi Arabia’s late entry in the e-government area can probably be attributed to its large geography.

“It is easier to provide more services in smaller countries than when you are talking about Saudi Arabia, which has more citizens than some of the other countries put together.”

“It’s much more difficult to provide services there than in countries like Bahrain and Oman, which already have e-voting solutions, where it is much easier to do business over the web. You can go in Bahrain and, literally, in eight hours establish a new company. You can use the web extensively over there,” he elaborates.

“This is actually the same trend that you see in Europe, for instance, where smaller countries like Sweden, Finland, or the Czech Republic are actually more advanced than the larger countries like Germany or France.

The UK is an exception in that they started five or six years ago with the serious approach of making government activities online and they have succeeded in bringing e-government to the citizens on an online basis,” Ydema goes on to say.

Bahrain is also making strides with its e-government development, signing Pricewaterhouse Coopers to implement a long-term strategy, overhaul governmental procedures, and evaluate the current e-infrastructure.

Work has also commenced to design an electronic gate that will offer three basic services: process traffic fines, renew expired driving licences and register job seekers.

Bahrain’s e-government project will be implemented using a four-pronged approach. Phase one will see all information released on government web sites with procedural clarifications. The second phase would allow all applications to be proc- essed via government web sites.

Citizens would also be able to print application forms provided on the web sites and later submit them in person or via post.

Under the third phase, all government transactions would be e-processed, via the internet, mobile phones, or other e-outlets.

The fourth stage will see all government departments integrated through the e-gate.

But however impressive the Middle Eastern governments’ online presence currently are, or even how grandiose their plans for the future, their e-government endeavours can not be considered successful until these services are utilised by a significant number of their citizenry.

“You will always have people that won’t adopt that way, but then again you will also have people that do because they understand the benefit of that."

Adoption rates

Most e-government portals, not only in the Middle East, are suffering from poor citizen adoption rates, which can be critical to the development of futuree-government services.

Salem Khamis Al Shair,e-Services director at Dubai Government, acknowledges that there is a trust issue involved when accessing online services, especially if the transactions involve making payments through the web.

“The main concern comes in payment, especially when there is credit card info done or any payment transaction will be done over the internet,” says Issam Mohamed Ali, senior manager, eSolutions practice, at systems integrator Itqan.

“But for other services, such as queries, all the people are using it heavily as we know it,” he adds.

“Trust can be considered why many people are not adopting to e-services from a commercial or government setting,” says Ashraf Sheet, a senior security consultant for Alpha Data.

“But the difference here between the e-government and the commercial sector is that on the commercial side you can choose the vendor you want to work with — if it is a bank for example, I can choose any bank. However, when you talk about a government agency, I can only work with that government agency. I have no choice but to work with them,” Sheet explains.

“Security is important but I don’t think it is slowing the adoption of e-government solutions and services. Of course, it also depends on the services we are talking about,” says Bashar Kilani, software group manager, IBM Middle East, Egypt and Pakistan.

“There are services where you are transferring money or funds. Of course, people will be much more careful before they give out their details and start sending money across the wire.”

“Other services where you are giving information or submitting applications or receiving updates and receipts, I think the security concerns are still important but are less than when you are physically transferring funds across the wire,” he continues.

“I don’t think security is a hindrance. The fact is people need to be a little bit more careful.

Many people today realise the value of online services and they understand that if large organisations, such as the governments, are making services available online, that they are taking the necessary precautions to make it safe and secure. They see the value and the convenience, and the time that they save by doing business online,” he states.

“You will always have people that won’t adopt that way, but then again you will also have people that do because they understand the benefit of that,” Sun’s Bliss (pictured left) adds.

“Usually what a government would do is measure the population against how many people are using the service.”

“But what you have to do is to understand that metric is to actually understand what is the demographic of the population. It is not surprising that they haven’t had a major uptake in some of the services that are being delivered but I’m sure they will have a lot of high-valued users there using the service,” he continues.

Gov3’s Parker, however, points out that lack of public support is a problem affecting governments across the globe.

“What I’m seeing now is that while a lot of the governments are now hitting the issues about getting services online and putting in the technology, they are also facing other concerns, such as how many people are actually using the e-services and how are they realising the benefits.”

“This is something that all governments all over the world are struggling with at the moment. There is really no point of putting services online if people won’t use them. And actually, you don’t just want people to use them; you want a lot of people to use them. You want this to become the primary channel that people engage with because, otherwise, you are just adding cost to the government.”

“Once you get mass-market use of these services, you can start really taking the cost out of the old way of doing government,” he continues.

“The take-up thing is a big issue. People we have talked to in the Middle East said that this is something they are increasingly concerned about.”

“Solving that issue actually involves some quite fundamental rethinking about how you design and deliver your services, and engage with your citizens,” he continues.

“It’s not in technology terms. The Middle East is really, in most ways, in the cutting edge of getting services online. But in terms of rethinking the interaction through a citizen model and building a marketing-led approach to design and delivery is something that all governments are struggling with,” he adds.

The lack of citizen engagement in the region, Alpha Data’s Sheet believes, can very well be blamed on the lack of PR and marketing support necessary to encourage the public to use the online services more.

“The marketing of these services is a little bit immature. There needs to be more talk about the benefits of these new services. Market awareness could be the main reason.”

“Plus, there are no standards within government portals for payment transactions. Some of the portals have payment transaction as easy as one--two-three. Some of the other portals require so many steps of authentication. There are no standards and there is lack of awareness for the citizens,” he adds.

“There is really no point of putting services online if people won’t use them. And actually, you don’t just want people to use them; you want a lot of people to use them.”

The next level

Parker believes that deployment of new security and authentication tools should be seen as part of a broader set of changes that governments have to implement, which, when executed properly, will allow them to move the quality of their e-government services up the next level.

“You need to see authentication as part of a set of changes that governments need to make. More advance authentication and data protection functionalities can allow youto start joining up services across different government agencies, and that is where there are some real benefits to be had,” he says.

“Having said that, there are an awful lot of organisational issues that need to be addressed as well. But once you start joining up services across agencies, then there is some potential to build some real new value-add,” Parker concludes.

The five stages of e-government evolution

Emerging presence is stage one representing information, which is limited and basic. The e-government online presence comprises a web page and/or an official web site. Links to ministries or departments of education, health, social welfare, labour and finance may or may not exist.

Links to regional or local government may or may not exist.

Some archived information, such as the head of states’ message, or a document, such as the constitution, may be available online. Most information remains static with the fewest options for citizens.

Enhanced presence is stage two, in which the government provides greater public policy and governance sources of current and archived information, such as policies, laws and regulation, reports, newsletters, and downloadable databases.

The user can search for a document and there is a help feature and a site map provided. A larger selection of public policy documents, such as an e-government strategy or policy briefs on specific education or health issues, is available.

Though more sophisticated, the interaction is still primarily unidirectional with information flowing essentially from government to the citizen.

Interactive presence is stage three in which the online services of the government enter the interactive mode with services to enhance convenience of the consumer, such as download-able forms for tax payment and application for license renewal.

Audio and video capability is provided for relevant public information. The government officials can be contacted via e-mail, fax, telephone and post.

The site is updated with greater regularity to keep the information current and up to date for the public.

Transactional presence is stage four that allows two-way interaction between the citizen and his or her government. It includes options for paying taxes, applying for ID cards, birth certificates and passports, license renewals, and other similar C2G interactions by allowing him or her to submit these online 24/7.

The citizens are able to pay for relevant public services, such as motor vehicle violation, taxes and feesfor postal services, through their credit, bank or debit card.

Providers of goods and services are able to bid online for public contacts via secure links.

Networked presence is stage five, which represents the most sophisticated level in the online e-government initiatives. It can be characterised by an integration of G2G,G2C and C2G (and reverse) interactions.

The government encourages participatory deliberative decision-making and is willing and able to involve the society in a two-way open dialogue.

Through interactive features such as the web comment form, and innovative online consultation mechanisms, the government actively solicits citizens’ views on public policy, law making, and democratic participatory decision-making.

Implicit in this stage of the model is the integration of the public sector agencies with full cooperation and understanding of the concept of collective decision-making, participatory democracy and citizen empowerment as a democratic right.

Source: UN Global E-Government Readiness Report 2005

Finding the right authentication solution

Firms are looking for more packaged solutions, and solutions need to address today’s more sophisticated internet users. Analyst firm Forrester Research has identified a number of key criteria for any solution.

Let customers use it anywhere. Solutions must not require firms to turn their customer support centres into technology help desks.

Solutions should not require any specialised computer software or hardware, such as requiring a particular operating system, browser, or peripheral like USB or PC card.

Because people use multiple machines (e.g. accessing sites at work and at home) as well as share machines (such as between spouses), the solution also cannot be tied to any one computer or assume that a computer is tied to any one person.

Be easy for customers to use. Solutions must be simple and intuitive to use and must not scare customers away with confusing or cumbersome technology impediments.

Otherwise, customers won’t use it, or they will flood the customer support centre with questions and complaints. The solution should support use by those with visual impairments, who employ special software for navigating the web.

Ease of use also extends beyond the isolated instance of any one business-to-consumer relationship to scale across multiple relationships. Thus, it also needs to be easy for customers to manage if the same solution were adopted by several organisations with which they do business.

Be cost effective. Organisations simply can’t afford to pay for rolling out strong authentication for every online customer if it costs too much.

So firms need to look at the total cost for the solution, including the original licence costs, annual maintenance fees, the cost of distribution and loss replacement if there is a physical element of the solution, and the maintenance implications based on the device’s resilience (hardiness) and longevity.

Provide appropriate levels of security. Naturally, the solution must adequately defend against phishing, spyware, hacking, man-in-the-middle attacks, and other threats driving organisations to adopt strong authentication.

The solution must provide protection during “normal” usage as well as during loss periods pending replacement of a device or card.

An added value is for the authentication method to work bi-directionally: customers can validate the authenticity of your communications to them. Organisations may also look for a solution to provide both strong authentication and digital signatures for transactions.

Be easily manageable. Closely tied to cost are the management issues associated with a solution. Solutions should easily integrate with the organisation’s web site, security architecture and applications, and should easily scale to support the size of the customer base.

Credentials should be easy to distribute, renew, replace in the event of loss, and revoke. Ideally, it would leverage any existing credentials (such as ATM cards, credit cards, or government ID cards) already distributed.

Work across different channels of interaction. Given the efforts to implement and roll out consumer strong authentication for internet activity, smart organisations will leverage the solution beyond the standard web browser environment.

They’ll prefer a solution that works with web-enabled PDAs and BlackBerrys, in phone interactions and at other points of service.

Source: “What to Look for in Consumer Strong Authentication Solutions” by Jonathan Penn, Forrester Research

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