eStrategies Middle East EGovernment Roundtable
At a recent roundtable, government delegates from the Middle East joined tier-one IT vendors to explore how regional authorities are utilising technology to deliver services via the internet in order to improve the overall efficiency of the public sector.
The attendees delved into the concept of e-government, how it is transforming public services and businesses, leading to greater adoption of technology by the region’s citizens. “Governments in the Middle East have been considering e-government initiatives and they are looking towards the IT industry for the tools to enable a consistent approach to online service for both businesses and residents,” says Samir Mirdad, regional business development manager, public sector, for Sun Microsystems MENA.
The “Strategies for e-Government in the Middle East” roundtable, held at the British Embassy in Dubai, drew many conclusions about the priorities of e-government. The topics under discussion included the need to relieve the government of service burdens so they can focus on policies and regulating the state; the importance of support for projects from top national leadership; the need to weigh the costs and benefits of any project and the forming of close public-private partnerships to open societies and change values. The need for bespoke solutions for each country was also a critical point raised during the debate.
“The priorities differ from country to country; no one size fits all. Qatar is focusing on e-services, like Dubai, because of the nature of their constitution and the nature of their country. If you look at Egypt, you find they are focusing on driving economic growth and FDI (foreign direct investment). In Bahrain, the priority is unemployment, so we find various issues of e-government are being addressed in terms of the real needs of individual countries,” says Yasser Zeineldin, regional public sector director for Microsoft South Gulf.
Ajman was careful that its e-government project would not be a matter of “cut and paste” when it revamped the working environment for its government employees in an attempt to improve communication with government departments for citizens and businesses and ease the acceptance of the e-government concept. The Emirate’s initiative is not intended to be a replication of other programmes in the region, but involves the deployment of a complete and unique technology infrastructure designed to specifically support its e-government plans.
Driven by the vision of H.H. Sheikh Humaid Bin Rashid Al-Nuaimi, Supreme Council member and Ruler of Ajman, the aim of the development is to improve day-to-day operations of the various government departments. The project is also expected to bring in transparency and improve government-to-government interaction.
“The solution is tailored to fit the specific needs of the people and government departments of Ajman,” explains Gerard Newman, a partner at IBM business consulting services for the Middle East, Egypt and Pakistan, which is managing the project.
The establishment Bahrain’s e-government solution centre, allows the sharing of experiences with other governments, which can in turn influence other initiatives, according to Sheikh Ahmed Ateyatalla Al Khalifa, president of the CIO (Centre).
Indeed, the example of H.H. Sheikh Mohammed’s direction for e-government in Dubai was cited at the roundtable. Dubai launched its e-government portal, the first of its kind in the Arab world, in 2001. Representing 24 government departments, the project aimed to provide official online services for citizens and visitors through one site and was adapted from approaches taken by similar global projects to cater specifically for Dubai’s needs.
“The establishment of e-government in Dubai and the introduction of the e-Dirham on the federal level were the two main moves to achieve such goals. Now citizens and businesses are able to use various tailored services online and make payments in a secure environment. The availability of these services and the improvements in online service delivery are what have made the UAE an e-government champion in the Arab World,” says Newman.
In Dubai, the principle behind the Emirate’s e-government initiative is that it should follow a customer-centric model, with government departments transforming their services not just for their own benefit, or to be in line with procedures and policies, but to deliver the services and information the customer wants, according to Mahmood Ahmed Al Bastaki, business process re-engineering consultant for Dubai’s e-government.
Al Bastaki cites high internet, PC and mobile penetration as essential precursors to successful e-government implementations. This view is supported by Sameh Montasser, vice president of IT at Raya Holding, who says in order to provide better services for citizens, “the telecommunication infrastructure, broadband, having the internet available and PCs in order to be able to access such services,” are all essential factors in maximising on the potential of e-government initiatives.
The common goals of promoting employee productivity, and thereby reducing budget deficits, combined with the need to drive economic growth by attracting both foreign and local investors, are forcing regional nations to increase their IT budgets. As Mirdad points out, for every country, “It is about placing technology at the heart of how you regulate business and conduct affairs with other national bodies. The hurdles are considerable [as are] the investments needed in both technology and training.”
In order to overcome the hurdle of technology investment, regional governments are keen to share best practices and learn from the experiences of one another. In this co-operative environment, Bahrain’s launch of the Middle East’s first solution centre, which showcased the importance of open standard technologies, provides support to e-government initiatives across the entire region.
“The establishment of the centre will allow us to share our experience with other government organisations and enable them to access the latest open standards solutions, which they can in turn use for their own e-government initiatives,” says Sheikh Ahmed Ateyatalla Al Khalifa, president of the Central Informatics Organisation (CIO), the body responsible for regulating information technology within the Bahrain Government.
Bahrain is the first government in the Middle East to join a growing number of governments around the world that are adopting open standards for their e-government initiatives.
The open standards approach yields benefits for e-government projects not only in Bahrain, but also in the whole region as the solution centre will be linked to a network of IBM e-government centres worldwide and will provide strategic resources and practical advice and experience to teams working in the public sector throughout the Middle East. It will establish a strong link with European and other governments and offer access to best practices and experience from around the world.
“[This project was] a great opportunity to build a critical mass of resources for e-government in the region at a time when governments around the Middle East recognise the importance of open standards solutions as the way forward,” says Tom Francese, vice president of IBM software group EMEA.
As connectivity booms in the region and the internet rapidly becomes widely accepted, the Bahrain e-government centre will form an important step for the continuing integration of the strong, but disparate efforts countries in the Middle East have made in the direction of e-government. Rather than working in isolation, pulling in different directions, through an open standards solution, regional governments are able to progress quickly, learning from each others’ mistakes and benefiting from each others’ triumphs.
Indeed, the internet is now an accepted tool for purveying the message of Islam and it is unequivocally clear that e-government and internet platforms have no conflicts with Islamic law and are becoming an integrated part of the Islamic society.
Since traditional Islamic public law, referred to as Siyassa, depends on a consultative approach to making political decisions, international academics, such as John Strawson, professor of Islamic Law studies at the University of East London, believe the legal system could serve as a powerful driver for e-government, making the Middle East as a whole more e-government-friendly than some Western cultures and possibly serving as a means of return to traditional Islamic values.
“There is nothing in Siyassa that would forbid or limit the use of a computer for [consulting the public]; on the contrary, any effort to determine the will of the people is encouraged.