There was a time when interacting with Middle East governments meant queuing up for hours in a dilapidated public building to speak with a disgruntled public servant.

Today, technology-savvy Middle East and North Africa (Mena) countries are shifting some of the most basic and time-consuming government administration tasks online. This is resulting in significant cost savings and improvements in service delivery.

The Mena region’s government authorities have had to keep pace with populations who now habitually use electronic communications to conduct the most basic functions of life.

The mobile phone’s capacity to carry out a range of services beyond voice communication has long been exploited by banks and other companies in the region. Now governments are also adopting this approach, adding the ‘e’ prefix to a range of online government service offerings.

Pioneering technologies

A recent study from US consultant Booz & Company – Customer-Centric e-Government: Modernising the Mena Region’s Public Sector – says that GCC states’ initial reluctance to use information and communications technology (ICT) has changed in recent years, with some countries, such as the UAE, now emerging as global pioneers in e-government.

The potential of the electronic media to transform public services goes well beyond ease of use; e-government is also challenging traditional governance structures.

The traditional model of government agencies operating as separate entities is no longer viable, says the Booz report. Rethinking government operations from a customer perspective and offering them in a consistent, user-friendly environment requires an understanding of how the public accesses services.

In a region where popular participation in the political process has lagged behind much of the rest of the world, this could have long-term implications for the way societies operate. But with Gulf states racing ahead with the rollout of e-government gateways – single portals that bring together government services – the more immediate payoff is better services delivered more efficiently to consumers.

GCC states have over the past five years mounted a sustained effort to move as many services online as possible. E-readiness strategies have been formulated in countries including Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Gulf authorities have taken a centralised approach to e-government, which has delivered dividends.

“Decision-making is far more streamlined in the Gulf than in other parts of the Mena region, enabling it to be more responsive,” says Ramez Shehadi, vice-president leading the IT strategy practice at Booz & Company in the Middle East. “With other governments, there tend to be multiple layers of decision-making and competing priorities.”

Saudi Arabiais a prime example. Its adoption of e-government has been remarkably swift given that its programme only began in earnest in January 2005, with the launch of the Yesser programme to provide an electronic portal to deliver government services more quickly and efficiently.

Before then, individual ministries undertook their initiatives independently, with the inevitable result that the kingdom largely failed to apply cross-government standards or redesign processes to reflect the potential of ‘e-enablement’, according to the E-Government Programmes report from US technology consultant Gartner Group published in April 2007.

Significantly, the Gartner report says, the kingdom now has a clearly defined governance structure, with a detailed national ICT plan in place, a dedicated ICT ministry and an e-government body.

But the centralised approach has its drawbacks. “In some cases, a purely centralised approach risks a duplication of government,” says Shehadi. “E-government can become a replication, on a new electronic platform, of existing services.”

Yet Saudi Arabia’s experience has been largely positive. Residents across the kingdom are now using e-government services in innovative ways, even processing re-entry visas via text message.

An e-payment system, Sadad, has emerged as a key part of the kingdom’s e-government effort. The e-payment platform links banks with billers to create a seamless environment for the public to pay any banking bill in any location as long as they have access to a PC or mobile phone.

Sadad won a UN public service award in 2008 as the best government project in the ‘service improvement’ category for the West Asia region.

The Saudi Arabia Monetary Agency (Sama), the kingdom’s central bank, is working to expand the programme to include additional sectors – for example, so that in the education sector, students can pay fees electronically.

Even the more remote corners of the kingdom are migrating services towards Sadad, with the underdeveloped Najran Province Municipality, near the border with Yemen, joining the system in September.

In the UAE, e-government is now a department in its own right. In March, Dubai e-Government was established, merging the Eservices and Government Information Resource Planning teams into one department.

In October, the Dubai government launched a revamped web portal that seeks to build a unified base to address the needs of the public through more than 2,000 electronic services provided by various government departments.

Dubai’s restructuring revolves around a new approach known as ‘life events’, where information and services are packaged according to the different needs of individuals, businesses and visitors. 

Regional blueprint

Bahrain, the smallest country in the Gulf, is seeking to become a test-bed for the wider region. The Bahrain e-Government Authority aims to become the GCC leader in this sector by 2010, offering a slate of electronic initiatives, from the national portal website bahrain.bh, to a mobile portal (bahrain.bh/mobile), kiosks and a national contact centre.

In October, Bahrain’s e-Government Authority signed a deal with the US’ Cisco Systems and local group Almoayyed Computers to establish an effective ICT infrastructure to support its e-government initiative, focusing on speeding up the delivery of e-government services, improving information management, and optimising investment already made in ICT infrastructure.

Over the next three years, the firms will work with the e-Government Authority on procuring and commissioning relevant equipment. The resulting ICT infrastructure will not only simplify government tendering and procurement processes but also help them in accurate budget allocation and efficient use of resources.

“Bahrain’s objective is to deliver up of 150-200 services through multiple channels – including the web, mobile channels, contact centres and kiosks,” says SM Hussaini, general manager of Bahrain’s Al-Moayyed Computers.

“Bahrain has always been in a leadership position in rolling out technologies. And there will be regional opportunities emerging from this. Bahrain could serve as a reference for the rest of the region.”

Mohammed al-Qaed, chief executive officer of the e-Government Authority, is seeking to establish a Bahrain-based centre that would exchange technical and administrative expertise in e-government between Arab countries.

Qatar’s integrated e-government programme, i-Gov, established in 2006, aims to pull together all the services provided by the various government agencies into a unified system.

The intention is to make all government interactions, information and transaction services available electronically via a single website, Hukoomi.

Hukoomi recorded a total of 1.4 million e-transactions by the end of 2008 and now has more than 300 e-services available. 

Beyond the GCC, the picture is mixed. The Booz report says that although the Levant is rich in human capital, its ability to implement e-government is marred by a lack of funds and economic and political instability. “They tend to have decentralised models in which agencies approach e-government individually,” says the report.

In Egypt, more than 20 government agencies currently offer online services. The country’s e-finance initiative, E-finance Egypt, was launched in March under the leadership of managing director Ibrahim Serhan.

E-finance Egypt is an e-payment service and infrastructure provider aimed at creating a nationwide platform for salary and pension payments. It is a joint venture of local banks National Investment Bank, Raya Holding, National Bank of Egypt, Banque Misr and Egyptian Banks Company (EBC).

Syria is rolling out a pilot project to test out e-government in the northern city of Aleppo, aiming to streamline public service delivery.

Residents of Aleppo can now apply for marriage certificates online, cutting down on the waiting period to register for a wedding.

Such initiatives suggest a regional consensus that technology can and should play a transformative role in the way governments interact with their various constituents.

Advances in technology are reshaping the way people communicate with each other and with their governments.

“The way that markets in the region are evolving, with waves of privatisation and liberalisation, has created a different demand profile,” says Shehadi.

“Through competition, people have become aware that they can have better-quality services for less money and a greater portfolio of differentiated services. Their expectations of how government deals with them have become more sophisticated.”

The common thread behind the Mena region’s e-government initiatives is that e-government must be a service-driven, customer-centric plan, embedded into broader society.

E-government could prove to be the first stage in a wider move towards an information society. The challenge is to find the right building blocks in the form of laws, networks and call centres, which make up the fabric of an effective ICT infrastructure. 

Political support

To create an effective system of e-government, governments need a comprehensive, holistic development agenda, with support from the highest political levels, says Shehadi. An empowered government entity should guide the process from planning and design through to implementation and operation.

The greatest e-government opportunity lies in national development, says the Booz & Company report. It will increase technological skills and computer literacy for citizens and boost private sector initiatives.

“A broader agenda is emerging with ICT as an enabler across all sectors,” says Shehadi. “People are now saying that as we have ICT-enabling government, can we also have ICT as a catalyst for our healthcare or education aspirations?”

The ripple effect will be felt through every economic sector. The goal is improving the overall socio-economic position in the country. “E-government becomes a cog in a larger wheel,” says Shehadi.

E-government timeline

2003 Dubai e-government initiative launches with the aim of offering thousands of government services online.

  • October-2004 Saudi Arabia Monetary Agency launches e-payment system, Sadad, allowing collection of customer payments electronically through all the banking channels in the kingdom, 24 hours a day.
  • January 2005 Riyadh starts e-government initiative, the Yesser programme, an electronic portal to raise productivity and efficiency in the public sector.
  • January 2006 Doha announces integrated e-government programme (i-Gov) to combine services into a unified IT system.
  • March 2009 Egypt launches its electronic bill payment service, with 293 pensioners using the system on the first day of operation.
  • March 2009 E-government launched as a new department in the UAE government
  • October 2009 Bahrain’s e-Government Authority signs deal with Cisco Systems and Al-Moyayyed Computers to establish new ICT infrastructure.

Source: MEED