Increasingly, governments are feeling the pressure to provide responsive, convenient services that can be delivered sustainably, helping them to demonstrate leadership in the fight to protect our shared global environment. At the same time, governments must protect the privacy, rights and prosperity of their citizens, leading them to consider the best ways of providing access to services without compromising any of the above.
In addition to this, unprecedented events – such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the accelerating trends of extreme weather related to climate change – are prompting the current governments of countries big and small to re-examine the way in they provide citizens with access to essential information and services.
Let’s look at some of the key facets that govern the ongoing development of digital government service provision in the Middle East. In each case, we’ll highlight how these trends, tools and objectives are shaping the region’s digital governance transition with real-world examples and future predictions.
Going Paperless – The absolute basics of digitalisation benefits
Even in the late 1990s, before AI, before machine learning, before even the true potential of data analytics was understood by larger organisations, ‘going paperless’ was one of the first digitalisation goals to be actively pursued by government entities. This was partly because it was an easily understandable process, at least in terms of broad brushstrokes – take paper out of the equation, put everything into a digital format, simple.
Another key factor is the tangible nature of the benefits of going paperless. You don’t need a technology background to see that removing paper waste translates directly into operational cost savings, sustainability gains, and customer satisfaction boosts. The move from physical to electronic documentation and interactions was something everyone could get behind.
This has long been recognised in the Middle East, with respective ME governments acting as pioneers in this space. In December 2021, Dubai confirmed that it had realised the goals of its 2018 Dubai Paperless Strategy. This made it the first completely paperless government in the world, as it had eliminated paper-based transactions from all 45 of its government entities:
“These entities provide now more than 1,800 digital services and over 10,500 key transactions… cutting paper consumption by more than 336 million pieces of paper. The strategy has also helped save more than Dhs1.3bn [$350 million] and over 14 million working hours across the Dubai government.”
In Saudi Arabia, their government is not far behind. National digital transformation is a core pillar of the country’s Vision 2030 strategy and providing digital government services is a crucial yardstick of this wider journey. Current estimates suggest that government services in Saudi Arabia are more than 85% paperless, and will be fully digitalised by 2023.
But if the benefits of going paperless have been acknowledged and pursued for decades, why aren’t all governments operating wholly digital services today? Even the governments of low population countries need to maintain a vast range of services and transaction methods, which are frequently made more complex as citizens are required to prove their identity, nationality, property ownership and so on. Even today, ‘wet ink’ signatures (actual handwritten – not scanned – signatures on physical paper) remain a commonplace requirement in routine government/citizen transactions around the world.
If the past few decades have taught us anything, it’s that moving away from our millennia-old practice of putting our faith in physical paper documents is neither quick nor easy. Governments also typically have large, unwieldy ICT legacy systems to work with (or around!), further complicating the task.
Even so, Dubai Government has shown that it can be done. With governments around the world keener than ever to reduce their environmental impact, you can expect to see a ramping up of paperless efforts and milestones as the decade unfolds. In Qatar, the Ministry of Culture reached 100% paperless services by late 2020. Meanwhile, February 2022 saw Kuwait’s government launch its Sahel app as a new and improved way for its citizens to access government services and complete transactions easily, quickly, and securely, all the while eliminating the need for paper forms. Since its launch, over 250,000 completely paperless transactions and certificates have been issued through Sahel.
Digital signatures – Gaining speed while ensuring security
Leading on from general paperless efforts, the importance of provable, attributable, secure and transparent signature collection and storage is essential to the daily business of citizen-facing government services. This really is the bread and butter of those government departments involved in issuing everything from driving licenses to legally binding contracts and declarations.
Like the concept of going paperless itself, the digital signature is a well-established idea that has yet to penetrate the realms of government services as thoroughly as it should have by now. While most governments around the world allow their use, they tend to only be allowable in limited circumstances, often running alongside the previously mentioned ‘wet ink’ handwritten signature system.
The main advantages of digital signature systems that make them so appealing to governments include:
- Added security – Unlike a piece of paper, electronic documents signed digitally can be stored more easily and reliably. And, thanks to the advances of encryption verification technology, it’s easier than ever to detect if anyone has tampered with the signature.
- Standardisation – Rather than having dozens of competing formats for validating/processing/storing signatures and the signatories’ intent, the adoption of digital signatures provides a route for easy standardisation. This makes things simpler for users and more efficient for government departments, prompting fewer mistakes and rejected forms along the way.
- Speedier processing – Paper forms that need to be printed, filled out and signed by hand, and then physically mailed to the appropriate address represent a punishingly long turnaround time. Digital signatures allow citizens to complete and sign such forms in their own time, in the comfort of their own home, utilsing their digital device of choice. This frequently cuts processing times for critical government documents from days or even weeks to mere minutes.
- Increased customer satisfaction – Whenever citizens are given the power to digitally complete and sign forms in the manner described above, it invariably delivers a satisfaction boost detectable by the government department enacting the digitalisation measure. Resultant services are quicker, easier to use, and significantly more convenient for the end user.
As with paperless initiatives, various ME nations are pioneering the use of digital signatures in government services. In December 2021, the UAE issued a new electronic transactions law designed to promote legal certainty in electronic interactions. Put simply, it promotes a new legal framework for the comprehensive acceptance of electronic transactions in all walks of life, including legal and government interactions. The law outlines the rules, procedures and standards to be used in electronic signatures and, crucially, this law has no exemptions, even for trickier areas such as property transactions. This follows on from the government’s decision to mandate its UAE PASS as the only digital ID useable by its citizens to access government services.
Ultimately, this is indicative of the UAE’s desire to bring all government-to-citizen transactions under a digital umbrella from start to finish. As a pioneer in this area, where the UAE leads, other ME nations will follow.
Data Analytics – Data is the lifeblood of government service improvement efforts
All private industries are painfully aware of the necessity of capturing, analysing and leveraging the priceless data that flows through every facet of their operation. Failing to do so can hamstring the efficient delivery of services, as well as any improvement plans. This all applies just as strongly to the public sector, and even though many governments have been slow to adopt comprehensive data analytics solutions, they are catching up.
We’re seeing instances from around the world of major public/private partnerships (PPPs) in this area. Governments want to make the best use of their data, and are increasingly willing to let private companies help them do so. This changing attitude is concurrent with the general acceptance of ‘open data’ setups in government, which are designed to improve transparency and minimise corruption.
As well as improving citizens’ trust in their government, this open data approach is vital for maximising the value of said data. Opening government data to the private sector allows companies – utility providers, for example – to better analyse usage patterns, paving the way for intelligent changes that will make services better for the people actually using them.
Saudi Arabia’s government has come a long way in this regard. The Yesser programme, launched in 2005, got the ball rolling in terms of encouraging government departments to adopt digital technologies. Then the 2011 launch of the Open Government Data Initiative took the participation of citizens and private companies to another level. In 2022, the National Data Management Office (NDMO) continues to expand the open data ecology of the Saudi Government, while encouraging private firms to analyse government-held data and problem solve and/or create new opportunities for PPPs.
However, there’s still some way to go before the Saudi Government and other ME governments can make full use of their data. In its detailed look at the role of data analytics regarding talent retention in Saudi government institutions, PwC says:
“Globally, many government entities and organisations still struggle with inconsistent and siloed data structures. This greatly impacts data quality including its accuracy, completeness, consistency, and reliability as well as the opportunity to effectively use the data. This is mainly driven by the use of old record systems that are heavily reliant on paper records as well as numerous data inconsistencies, gaps, and duplications in some of the deployed digital record systems.
The report goes on to highlight the importance of Saudi Arabia’s national data bank that consolidates datasets from more than 80 government institutions. The overall message here is that the more open, consolidated and inclusive governments can be in their data analytics strategies, the better. Provided they can find the right partners to bring said strategies to life, this is the pathway towards better decision-making and better citizen-facing services overall. Such partners need to be experienced in catering to government requirements on privacy protection, data confidentially and all regulatory measures relevant to their undertaking.
Document Automation – Smoothing off rough edges in government services while communicating with greater consistency
In the digital signatures section, we explained how standardisation of processing and validating documents can be a huge efficiency boon for any government entity. This is one of the main drivers behind the adoption of document automation by such organisations.
Governments across the world constantly find themselves needing to issue new or updated document types, ranging from visas to permits, licenses, legal contracts and notices of payment or transaction completion. This represents an ever-increasing web of document types that government workers and citizens must wade through to find the correct one that covers their current circumstances. So many of the stereotypes of government bureaucracies being grindingly slow in their operations will originate in problems regarding the overly complicated document-based processes they maintain.
With document automation, government departments can create intelligent templates suitable for the creation of new document types that are wholly consistent with previous versions. Automation solutions will allow them to preconfigure any rules around privacy protection, relevant government policies and legal terminology, etc. Not only does this stop the department wasting time and resources starting from scratch whenever a new document is needed, it also helps eliminate errors, inconsistencies and plain old confusion in the end users – the citizens themselves.
As well as creating documents, document automation can also be a gamechanger in terms of processing. Government departments can set up automated workflows for everything from requests for supporting evidence to flagging potential fraud, approvals, storage, and further steps in specific case management.
While document automation is still in its infancy in most government circles worldwide, we anticipate that this is due to change sharply. Back in 2018, HE Omar bin Sultan Al Olama, the UAE’s Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, said that the UAE Government could save a predicted $106 million annually in document-based costs alone through the adoption of automation technologies including blockchain and AI. The beginning of the 2020s has only strengthened this trend of document automation appreciation worldwide. Already, the global document management services market is experiencing rapid growth from $34.21 billion in 2019 on its way towards a predicted $57.56 billion by 2027.
Creating good governance for everyone, everywhere
While we’ve focused on Middle Eastern efforts and success stories around digital government service provision for this blog post, it’s vital to remember that this is a rapidly developing global trend. Leading by example is the order of the day, whether the issue at hand is environmental sustainability, social inclusion, fairness and transparency in government, or one of hundreds of societal problems. As such, citizens are looking to their governments to lead the way in transforming their society for the better.
As the means of providing government services changes, the very nature of government service provision itself is changing too. Traditionally, major government departments the world over have gained a reputation for lagging behind their private sector counterparts when it comes to innovating and embracing new technological tools to deliver their services. As recent examples demonstrate, this stereotypical view is becoming outdated. Today, governments – particularly in the Middle East – are eager to harness the power of private enterprise’s innovative elements, adding them to their own. As such, the digital transformation of government services is accelerating, both regionally and on a global scale.