Electronic government capabilities - in which governments offer services online to citizens, businesses, other government entities, and employees - is a crucial part of a nation’s technological development. Although countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have taken strides in implementing e-government, there is still substantial ground to cover. To successfully implement e-government, MENA nations must take a customer-centric approach, and governments must create comprehensive, sustainable development plans, according to a new study by Booz & Company.
The rise of e-government
Traditionally, government services or information are obtained by visiting a government office in person. “Instead, electronic government (or e-government) models leverage Internet technology to make government services more efficient, reliable, expedient and customer focused” explained Ramez Shehadi, the Vice President leading the IT Strategy Practice of Booz & Company in the Middle East. Around the world, e-government empowers governments to become more customer-centric and to lead their countries in information initiatives. This is an essential issue in light of:
Global competition to attract investments and foster diversity in national economic development
Pressure for public sector modernization from citizens and companies
A desire for increased efficiency and service orientation in public administration
The drive for new ways to meet citizens’ needs and offer transparency and participation
An increasing digital divide between rural and urban areas.
“e-government is vital for MENA countries to be competitive globally, facilitate a conducive environment for foreign investments, and constantly support national sector developments,” said Raymond Khoury, a principal at Booz & Company. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries’ initial reluctance to information and communication technology (ICT) has changed recently, with some countries now emerging as global pioneers in e-government.
In the climate of economic development, reform, and bold commercial ventures, there is a strong opportunity to develop e-government as part of state reforms, thereby introducing a state-of-the-art customer-centric administrative system without the burden and complexity associated with the integration and maintenance of silo-ed legacy systems.
The greatest e-government opportunity lies in national development. It will increase technological skills and computer literacy for citizens and will boost private sector initiatives. “The widespread adoption of ICT will also bring cost savings to the state, particularly as a result of better productivity and effective decision-making,” stated Shehadi.
Prerequisites and barriers to e-government
A number of elements must be in place for an e-government program to be successful - including a stable political and economic environment. In addition, governments must have an e-government development agenda with a clearly defined timetable to allow for effective implementation. The country’s citizens must also be comfortable with the resulting new ICT services. “e-government services uptake is directly correlated to the capability of society to access the Internet and effectively fulfill service inquiries or transactions online” explained Khoury. The government cannot get a return on its investment without a society of stakeholders able to benefit from this new model of service delivery. Conducting effective awareness and informal education campaigns is one solution. This, however, needs to be accompanied by incentives for a larger group of customers to access the Internet.
e-government provides the platform for independent government institutions to operate in a de-centralized and de-concentrated manner - as long as they achieve certain performance goals. This will facilitate timely decision making and more efficient performance. “Allowing the private sector to run certain operations additionally allows for effective delivery of services, usually at a reduced cost. Human resource development in the public sector is also key in the creation of e-government,” commented Shehadi.
Legal and regulatory framework weaknesses are also hindering advancement in e-government. Only a few MENA countries have the laws and regulations that facilitate the roll-out and adoption of efficient and secure e-government. Laws that pose barriers to the implementation of e-government must be identified and removed - a sound legal and regulatory regime creates user trust and confidence, which in turn leads to greater use of e-government services.
“The MENA region will not reap the same overall benefits of globalization as other regions until e-government is adopted, as it advances national and international e-commerce and hence national and global trade. It is also a key function in the development of countries’ ICT infrastructure, making them more attractive to foreign investors,” said Khoury.
The state of electronic government in the MENA region
e-government adoption is occurring at varying rates in the region. Some GCC states’ bold leap into e-government has been fueled by leaders’ increasing recognition of the need for ambitious modernization. GCC countries however still score only moderately on a global scale. Other MENA countries are still lagging behind the rest of the world in the adoption of a more customer-centric style of administration. To become dynamic, customer-centric and efficient they must take a leap - but for these countries, effective e-government is still a long way off.
Across the MENA region, there is a need to create and maintain momentum now. This is subject to four fundamental criteria:
Authority: the power to effect change, whether by consensus, a mandate from above, or a combination of both
Ambition: a focused desire or intent for improvement
Ability: financial and human capital, whether incumbent or solicited from additional sources, allocated and utilized to achieve the desired changes
Agility: the capacity and willingness to obtain feedback, observe opportunities, and constantly adapt.
GCC countries have demonstrated their ambition in implementing e-government by the strides taken in recent years. In terms of authority, GCC countries have an advantage in their lack of autonomous bureaucracies. As for their ability, GCC countries are strong in financial capital but are lacking in human capital, and rely on imported talent. GCC leaders are keen to improve and adapt their government modernization programs to international best practices, exhibiting agility.
The Levant is rich in human capital, but its ability to implement e-government is marred by lack of financial capital, and ongoing economic and political instability creates a brain drain. “A lack of financial capital and intermittent political strife also restrict the region’s agility in terms of constant improvement and international best practice adoption,” Shehadi explained. A lack of authority hinders countries in the Levant as well. It is also not clear that the Levant has the requisite ambition to put the necessary resources into e-government implementation.
In terms of ability, countries need to develop financial or human capital or both. With increasing populations, these countries have enormous socioeconomic development challenges that require considerable financial resources. Although countries in the region derive their authority from a strong government, the public sector has more pressing concerns than e-government. Large public sectors also inhibit the region’s agility, as bureaucracy makes it difficult to adapt to changing circumstances. There is a desire to advance the public sectors in the direction of e-government, but many national issues have hindered a focused intent or ambition.
The customer centric mindset
Service is critical in transforming government from an autonomous and fragmented sector into a streamlined group of organizations acting on behalf of, and to the benefit of, customers. “The traditional model of government agencies operating as separate entities—meaning customers have to visit numerous separate offices—is no longer viable,” Khoury commented. Good service equals one user-friendly interface, be that physical through a one-stop-shop services center or virtual through a common government portal.
Rethinking government operations from a customer’s perspective and offering them in a consistent, unified way requires an understanding of who the government’s customers are. There are four very broad government-to-customer interaction models, based on different customer segments, namely: citizens, businesses, other government entities, and employees.
ICT can drive the change toward a service orientation, and hence customer-centricity. A customer focus and service orientation provide purpose, allowing governments to provide effective service to its customers. As a result, there will be increased efficiency and legitimacy.
Putting e-government in place
To create an effective system of e-government, it is necessary to have a comprehensive, holistic development agenda. “Sponsorship at the highest political levels is paramount, and the effort should be driven by a delegated and empowered government entity from planning and design through to implementation and operation,” Shehadi stated.
Three key dimensions must be taken into consideration in designing an e-government strategy. Environment, Readiness and Usage are each critical at both the level of specific government entities and across the government.
Environment: Political leaders must support the initiative to ensure it gets the necessary levels of sponsorship and drive. Other factors include the population’s level of computer literacy, awareness, and willingness to use e-government; affordability of ICT; local politics; budgetary requirements; and ICT infrastructure. The correct legal and regulatory framework must also be in place.
Readiness: Careful planning and design must take place in terms of technology infrastructure, collaboration strategies, and adherence to IT standards and architecture, as well as for IT resources and capabilities. The final part as relates to readiness is human resource management both in terms of staff abilities and the overall organizational culture.
Usage: This is the most crucial aspect as it involves looking at the actual service provision of the e-government. It should include service prioritization, examination of the most effective channels, and feedback on the direct usage experience. To prioritize services, the government must look at its entire portfolio of services, cluster them by common service themes, and then prioritize them for implementation. Linked to the prioritization process is finding the most effective delivery channels for each service. “Additionally, implementing a feedback mechanism to gauge customer satisfaction with the provision of government services through the different delivery channels facilitates a continuous improvement process,” Khoury stated.
Ultimately, the vision of leadership will drive the agenda forward, but there are key elements that are common to all: it must be a service-driven, customer-centric plan, it must focus on holistic provision of services and it must be embedded into the broader society. The development agenda must be rigorous and flexible and should recognize that there will be differences between government entities in terms of legacy systems, abilities, and budgets, and ensure a collaborative approach.
The development agenda is the basis for a four- to five-year implementation plan, which takes into account tactical and strategic priorities when determining which environment, readiness, and usage initiatives to enact at each point. “To ensure initial momentum, governments should launch a set of environment and readiness initiatives that offer immediate benefits,” said Shehadi. All of the necessary initiatives should be organized into a series of at least three waves for effective roll-out, to gradually build the program, develop capacity, and make sure e-government’s implementation isn’t hindered by an attempt to do too much at once.
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