Arab countries reinvent e-services to drive economic growth

Fri, 2014-10-31 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

Efforts to create truly smart cities in Arab nations have been uneven so far and recent reports on government services leave no doubt there's room for improvement.

“Government services may be good in the big metropolitan cities, but if you are living in the villages and you get sick, you will die before you arrive at a hospital,” reads one passage in the 2014 Arab Government Services Outlook .  

The reports were developed by Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government and SAP. (The Governance and Innovation Program at Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government is a Council Advisor.)

While they found some services were working relatively well, it found far more that were crippled by bureaucracy and outdated processes. The countries have taken the report to heart and are in the process of reinventing services, an effort they hope will pay off with strong economic gains.

Opportunities for improvement
Overall, the report found services were better in higher-income countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But even there, a majority of residents aren’t satisfied. Barely a third of those living in the high-income nations said that government services were convenient. That number dropped to just over 20% in the lower tiers.

“Receiving government services takes a very long time and you keep getting transferred from one person to the other, neither of whom can help you,” said one resident. “All services are rooted in bureaucracy and this prevents the delivery of quality service to all,” said another.

Residents of the wealthier nations were the only group that found government websites useful, but they were also more likely to complain about shortcomings. Overall, while utilities and tourism sites are effective, people were overwhelmingly frustrated with public works, transportation and health care.

Cutting bureaucracy and improving e-services
For many Arab cities, improvements have been in the works for years and they’re using the report as a benchmark to demonstrate the progress they have been making as they develop solutions to address newly-identified problems.

Dubai Airports says its online services have helped greatly reduce bureaucracy, making it and the people who rely on it more effective. Businesses and individuals can now manage a wide range of requests, including work permissions and access and equipment requests through a website. The agency, which also manages the Abu Dhabi airport, says the e-services will cut operating costs in half and improve efficiency by two-thirds.

To improve healthcare, Morocco has streamlined the process of getting an appointment with a doctor. Thanks to a new website and other improvements, people can now get an appointment within a few days, as opposed to a few weeks. In Lebanon, a dedicated website is helping to make more doctors available. It significantly cuts the red tape doctors have to go through to get their licenses.

Oman, meantime, has reformed its schools, making it much easier to enroll and improving education for students with special needs. A new centralized admissions system reduced the burden on parents. Parents can now enroll their students online and they get an email or text message to acknowledge their application.

Oman has also eliminated enrollment quotas at some of its schools, making all seats available on a merit basis. With that change, all students that applied received the seats they asked for. Further, it now has dedicated staff in charge of special education, ensuring that students who need specialized help receive it.

Measuring ongoing improvement
The study identified another significant gap: relatively few people have an opportunity to comment on government services. While people in all Arab nations use government websites at relatively similar rates, people in lower- and middle-income nations get about half the opportunity to provide feedback as those in the wealthiest countries.

To that end, the countries say that they will become more customer-focused as they reinvent services so that they’re solving the problems that their citizens want them to solve.

"We live in an era where technology is increasingly empowering citizens and allowing for real collaboration models with government entities. With the increased adoption of smart cities and smart government initiatives, government services across the Arab World are set to become personalized to individual's needs - potentially enhancing decision making, citizen engagement and satisfaction," said Fadi Salem, Director of the Governance and Innovation Program, Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government.

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