x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Better public service through technology

E-government is growing in the Gulf, but some countries have further to go in improving citizen services by modern methods.

Increasing internet usage among citizens is key to making the most of e-government.
Increasing internet usage among citizens is key to making the most of e-government.

Governments in the Gulf have invested heavily in modernising their operations and service delivery to constituents. In particular, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have pioneered large-scale e-government programmes to gain greater cost efficiencies and better serve the needs of their citizens.

These investments, which have yielded measurable progress, will be critical as governments attempt to serve their increasingly connected populations. However, most GCC nations still have a way to go in achieving parity with other countries. GCC governments face key challenges as they strive to increase the adoption of information and communications technology (ICT) as well as ensuring its effective use.

To bring about lasting change in the public sector through ICT, governments must improve two key areas: environment and readiness. Environment refers to the conduciveness of the regulatory and ICT environments to accommodating e-government services. Readiness involves governments' ability to capitalise on opportunities created by an e-government programme, particularly in terms of common or shared resources or platforms.

In addressing the environment, GCC governments will have to examine the factors that restrict access to government services, thereby increasing the costs of service delivery, reducing citizens' satisfaction with government services and stifling modernisation efforts. To overcome these challenges, governments should develop comprehensive, well-funded, multi-year plans to ensure that four environmental factors are being properly addressed.

The first of these four environmental factors is political leadership. Within the past five years, the vast majority of governments have created dedicated, centralised entities to oversee ICT investments. This kind of high-level political sponsorship, which is essential for the success of any ICT modernisation programme, needs to be further developed. Central ICT entities should be supported by a clear mandate that is aligned with a country's aspirations and vision, and driven by a highly visible champion.

In addition, such bodies should be empowered to resolve any ambiguities or conflicts that arise, set a shared agenda across government agencies and secure the necessary human and financial resources needed to realise the vision. The second factor is the regulatory framework. Many countries in the GCC region have established a legal and regulatory foundation to facilitate ICT adoption in the private and public sectors. But one area in need of regulatory attention is the underuse of encryption and other advanced security mechanisms needed to gain the public's trust in ICT-based services.

As governments move towards ICT-based transactional services such as online licence renewals, access to civil records and property registration, users must be confident that their transactions are legal and that their sensitive information will not be compromised or misappropriated. The third factor is government collaboration. Although government adoption and use of ICT is on the rise, its effectiveness remains limited, in part because many government agencies still operate separately and sometimes even compete with each other. As a result, work processes and ICT investments are duplicated across agencies, increasing costs and contributing to inefficiencies.

When agencies do not share information, users are also affected as they often must interact with a number of agencies to complete a single transaction and typically end up providing the same information multiple times in different forms or applications. Promoting a collaborative culture between government agencies, as well as standardising ICT tools and processes, should also be a critical part of a government's ICT strategy.

The fourth factor is the ICT environment. Enhancing ICT and internet penetration and usage among citizens, businesses and government agencies is essential to making the most of e-government services; low levels of internet penetration limits the effectiveness of all other sector-modernisation initiatives. Governments should encourage access to broadband for all residents by driving down costs through improved competition, providing subsidies for specific institutions such as schools and engaging in public information and awareness campaigns. Moreover, governments should embrace mobile delivery platforms, as mobile penetration in the GCC is high.

In tandem with developing environment enablers, GCC governments must also ensure readiness by having the resources to help execute their transformation strategies. Governments across the GCC face tough challenges in building and sustaining their ICT capabilities, largely because of a shortage of skilled employees and the limited maturity of ICT planning and management processes, as well as a lack of co-ordination when it comes to making ICT investments. Again, there are four key elements to create readiness.

The first is people. Government agencies face a number of hurdles in hiring and retaining skilled ICT employees with relevant experience and certifications: many government ICT departments do not offer competitive salaries or structured career development. To compete on the global stage, GCC governments must improve their ICT services' quality and efficiency. Government agencies should first clearly document their ICT needs and identify the skills and expertise necessary to support ICT planning and management functions. Agencies should then develop a compensation structure to successfully attract and retain talented individuals with the required skills and expertise. Finally, agencies should develop structured training programmes to further the skills of their employees.

The second element is processes. Developing and implementing processes for planning, managing, operating and delivering ICT services is essential to ensuring the effectiveness of ICT. Departments within government agencies should adopt best-in-class ICT processes and develop resilient capabilities, especially around ICT planning and management, which are fundamentally lacking in the region. Processes should be well defined and documented, and aligned when possible with recognised standards to ensure predictability and promote standardisation across government agencies. Monitoring mechanisms should also be put in place to measure deviations and implement effective corrective actions in a timely manner.

The third element is technology. Our research demonstrates that GCC government agencies far too often address their ICT needs through stand-alone, piecemeal investments that lead to duplication and inefficiencies. GCC governments would increase their ICT effectiveness and reliability by taking a holistic view of their technology systems and optimising their ICT infrastructure through select consolidation and centralisation.

The fourth and final element is governance. One of the common failings of ICT investments in the region is that they deliver a variety of projects that few people find useful. Effective governance systems help avoid this by making sure systems are being deployed to address users' needs. To facilitate this, agencies need to document formal business requirements and implement structured performance-monitoring systems.

To ensure that these and other measures are included, ICT departments need to become more involved in their agencies' strategy development. Without collaboration between ICT and other departments, ICT will continue to be relegated to a reactive role, forced to respond to problems that have already arisen rather than being able to take a proactive role to keep such problems from arising in the first place.

Ramez Shehadi is a partner and Jad Bitar and Raymond Khoury are principals at Booz and Company