x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Got a question? Pick up your phone

Call centre aims to make Abu Dhabi a more responsive entity, streamline bureaucracy and provide accountability.

Jamila Amiri, above, assists a customer at the Abu Dhabi Government Contact Centre. The hotline fields questions about government services and general information about the emirate.
Jamila Amiri, above, assists a customer at the Abu Dhabi Government Contact Centre. The hotline fields questions about government services and general information about the emirate.

ABU DHABI // Iman Sayed always answers her work phone the same way: "Thank you for calling the Abu Dhabi Government Contact Centre. How may I assist you?" Many of the questions she hears may seem a little mundane, but they come in by the dozens every day: How do I pay a parking ticket? Where is Al Ain Municipality located? Where can I catch a bus? A few come straight out of left field. Do I need travel documents for my pet falcon? When is the best time to visit the emirate's beaches. Mrs Sayed and the other 60 customer service representatives at the call centre do something so novel with these questions that government officials believe it will help usher in a new era of transparent, responsive governance: they actually answer them. Before the call centre was established, it was not uncommon for people calling government offices about public services to get the run around from civil servants who weren't trained to answer their questions. They could be put on hold for apparently interminable periods or have their calls transferred from one department to another. Now millions of dirhams have been poured into a centre where calls in Arabic, English and Urdu are answered 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The walls are adorned with motivational words: Co-operation, Creative, Positive. "Customer service on any question, like on the Environment Agency or anything else, we can answer or at least guide the caller in the right direction," says Mrs Sayed, who was born in Egypt and speaks Arabic and English. The staff say they can answer just about any question, from the location of government agencies to how to obtain travel documents for that pet falcon. "The centre is here to prove to the public, and anybody in the UAE, that the Government supports them and is willing to serve the customer," says Rashed al Mansoori, the chairman of Abu Dhabi Systems and Information Committee (Adsic), which manages the call centre. Simply referring to callers as "customers" is a sign of a new way of thinking, Mr al Mansoori says. If Abu Dhabi is the product being marketed, he says, then the contact centre is one of the tools with which the emirate and its government departments are refined and packaged to the customers' liking. "My organisation is like the private sector, not the government," Mr al Mansoori says. "In this day and age you have to have your government work efficiently to bring quality service to the customer. Now many governments are retooling themselves to deliver quality services like companies are in the private sector. "The system is easy to use and it works. Today you can call us about any of the 23 government entities and you can have full descriptions of them - what they are doing, what types of services they offer - and you can register complaints or suggestions about them." Mr al Mansoori says the contact centre has performed well because, apart from providing information, it can also spot problems with provision of public services and keep an eye on public sentiment. Every suggestion, complaint and inquiry is logged on a database, processed by statisticians, then displayed on flow charts and graphs to show trends. Mr al Mansoori says the information is used to tackle anything from infrequent trash collection in the Western Region, to leaky sewers in the Manasir area, to attitudes towards government services. "Many people call and say that when they go to the municipality they don't have the step-by-step instructions available there," he says. Changes in thinking, similar to that shown by the call centre, are going to be more important for all government departments as the UAE increases its efforts to attract retirees and long-term residents from Europe, North America and Asia. So important is the contact centre's ability to survive that an emergency centre in a secret location is permanently staffed and ready to field calls should there be a network collapse or national disaster. Khalid al Yahya, an assistant professor of political economy at the Dubai School of Government, says globalisation has led to greater expectations for government services. "The window has been opened and once you open a window for change, accountability and transparency, it's very hard to reverse it," Prof al Yahya says. "Basically, you need to create new ways to respond to this. "In the past, people had low expectations ... [Now] people are very aware, very informed." Even the most autocratic countries in the Middle East - Saudi Arabia and Syria, for example - have introduced virtual forums where officials monitor feedback on policy from residents and businessmen. Mr al Mansoori admits engineering such changes in Abu Dhabi has not been easy. "Any government organisation anywhere feels sensitive about sharing its information," he says. The solution has been a shift in the Abu Dhabi Government's organisational structure, with dozens of its agencies and departments recently being placed under Adsic's authority. Now, not only does Adsic outrank "every single department", says Mr al Mansoori, it has influence over the budgets of the agencies with which it co-ordinates. Service Level Officers act as middle men, receiving requests from Adsic to give to their bosses and providing information to contact centre employees to pass on to callers. Municipality SLOs can check up on the status of an application for a building permit, for instance, while their police counterparts can relay complaints about crime in a particular neighbourhood to police officials. (SLOs and contact centre employees are supposed to answers caller inquiries within two working days.) "We need to build trust with [the other institutions], to show that we are here to help them, not pointing out their mistakes," Mr al Mansoori says. "Our goal is not just finding problems; it's to enhance service." It remains unclear whether the centre can address other governance issues such as access to legal recourse and accountability. After several calls to the centre by The National, telephone operators seemed unfamiliar with the Abu Dhabi court system and the legal process in general. They also were unable to explain the process of paying parking fines. In case of major government errors - such as the recent problems with the Emirates Identity Authority's deadline for identity cards - it is also not clear if eGovernment initiatives such as the call centre can press officials to feel accountable for decisions. According to a 2002 report by Nasser Saidi, chief economist of the Dubai International Financial Centre, and Hala Yared, eGovernment "can be a meaningful and efficient instrument for tackling ... institutional reform and trimming national budgets". Yet, the report also concludes, eGovernment "is neither a panacea nor an end in itself, but a potent implement, a powerful tool useful for addressing complex policy issues". Mr al Mansoori hopes the contact centre and Adsic's initiatives will one day make Abu Dhabi the standard bearer of quality governance. "We're trying to be one of the best five governments in the world," he says. "When people think of standards of comparison, we want them to automatically say, 'We want to be as good as the Abu Dhabi standard'." The contact centre hotline is 800-555. hnaylor@thenational.ae