Not only is technology causing an impact on economic sectors' performance and activities, but also affecting the manner through which people interact and communicate. And governments are efficiently exploiting this technological advancement via unified platforms that offer public services referred to as e-government portals.
Bahrain has made major steps in this regard. The country ranked 24th in the UN E-Government Survey 2016 and managed to reserve the first place regionally, a place it has successfully held for four consecutive times since 2010. Bahrain was followed by the UAE (29), Kuwait (40), the KSA (44), Qatar (48), and Oman (66).
In September 2017, the Information & eGovernment Authority of Bahrain (iGA) implemented the ‘Cloud First’ policy that enabled the migration of the authority’s systems to the cloud, turning Bahrain into one of the few countries in the region where the public sector takes such an initiative. And in January 2018, after four months only, iGA announced that it had achieved 91 percent of the National eGovernment Strategy 2017 objectives, accomplished most of its key performance indicators, and reached over a million transactions made across all channels.
During the Gateway Gulf Investor Forum, Wamda had the chance to interview the CEO of iGA, H.E. Mohammed Ali Al Qaed, to further explore everything that has been achieved so far pertaining to e-government systems — what the challenges and future projects are, especially with the anticipated arrival of Amazon Web Services in the country in the first quarter of 2019.
When did you launch the e-government in Bahrain, and what have you achieved so far?
For a long time, Bahrain has been a pioneer when it comes to technology, having proprietary networks and the first government-wide data network. It is one of the very first countries where the government has established a unified network to which everybody must connect. But what we lacked between 2001 and 2005, when many countries had started to introduce services to citizens, was the fact that every ministry was doing it in a different way. We didn’t have a proper portal for integration and implementation. When the Supreme Council for ICT was established in 2005, headed by H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, Deputy Prime Minister, the first thing we had in mind was to develop a strategy [for e-government] which was announced in May 2007. Then iGA was established in August 2007. Our first strategy’s objective was to deliver all the government services through four electronic channels: A portal, mobiles, call centers, and kiosks in order to provide customers with the freedom to choose the channel they prefer, while making sure the service is unified. The good thing about this strategy is that we got the leadership support from the beginning. We got the budget and the structure, which gave us the flexibility to move in the right direction. The strategy was meant to deliver by 2007, and we successfully completed all of our objectives: 200 services were under one roof, and the four channels were established. We also led a thorough study that revealed that 80 percent of users were satisfied with the use of these e-government portals. One of the objectives was for Bahrain to become number one in the Arab world in terms of e-government as per the UN Index, and we achieved that milestone in 2010; and since then, we have kept that position in the next four consecutive reports.
Bureaucracy is the first burden that faces innovation, so how important was it to overcome it?
Even if you are introducing technology and e-government, people would try to go around. We reviewed examples in other countries that have established e-governments; and even though they have one portal, they would have hundreds of linked services, [— i.e. they redirect you to another website to reach the link you are seeking], but it’s not end-to-end. What’s meant here from day one is to do it right from the beginning as per the instructions of His Royal Highness, as we don’t have the luxury of redoing it. We don’t have the time, and we don’t have the money either. When we delivered, it was clear and mandated that all the government services should be on the portal and fully integrated with other services. [Many services were reengineered to be optimized and] some services went through three waves of reengineering. On a yearly basis, His Royal Highness picks 25 to 30 services to be properly reengineered in order to optimize their usage and get up to 100 percent of usage satisfaction. We even attempted to change the laws and the regulations to match with these provided services. Our portals offer so far 200 services, [ranging from basic ones, such as obtaining birth certificates, to more complex ones, such as licensing a business]. Birth certificates are issued in just three days and delivered to the citizen’s doorsteps, whereas this paperwork used to require no less than 14 days to be finalized. The whole process is much cheaper, but we have to take out the ego and the power associated with some official posts. [Some ministries, to preserve their power and authority, still tried to overpass the system and drove customers away from it. But eventually they had to abide by the rules after being penalized.] In fact, it is not just about the reduced expenses; but rather about transparency and efficiency, along with the trust of the private sector’s investors. I have met many investors who said they tried to open a business but were required to have a physical address. But they are not able to have one because they do not have a bank account; and to have one, they should have a commercial registration...It's a cycle that you cannot get out of. Now, many of the regulations have been changed in order to simplify these steps. We are going through a cycle of service improvement. The first cycle is already done, the second is coming soon, and the third is planned for next year.
What were the obstacles that you faced, if not usage?
The accuracy of the available data was a main challenge. [The efficiency of the automated system depends on the available information, and if this is not accurate, then the whole system won’t be functioning properly.] Cleansing the data and making sure the process of collecting and updating the data is robust, without adding new bureaucracy layers, is key. Make it simple but accurate. This is one of the things that helped Bahrain become the first regionally that has one portal that has multiple centralized portals. Our National Payments are centralized, as we have a National Payments aggregator. We also have a national government infrastructure, so people could find any needed data. Another very important national system, is the national complaints and suggestions system. Before that, everybody had their own suggestions and complaints boxes; and entities had different means to collect data. The problem with that is not the bureaucracy of collecting complaints, but the trust in the outcomes, because it is in the hands of the people you are complaining against. This is why it is better for everybody to use one unified system.
Did the implementation of e-government create a high rate of unemployment in public functions?
[Following the implementation of e-government] the Minister of Commerce once came to a meeting and stated that he had 40 employees he didn’t know what to do with them. But in fact, he had a shortage in many other areas within his ministry, so he retrained some of those employees in order to be in charge of new tasks and responsibilities. Those who were not open for training took retirement packages or went for other job offers, which still generated new job opportunities for other people.
What are your future steps?
We have introduced the first cloud policy in the region, and we are among very few countries to do that worldwide. [Our philosophy stated that] any government system should go to the cloud unless it can prove that it shouldn’t. Once we developed the architecture of the cloud with Amazon and made sure it was secure and approved, we proved that the savings of going to the cloud would be 30 to 60 percent. After implementation, we reached 60 to 90 percent, and in some systems 95 percent. Then the decision was that everyone should move to the cloud. We have so far migrated 480 government workloads in the past year, and we are planning to double or triple that in the coming eight years. When Amazon opens in Bahrain in the first quarter of 2019, almost half of the government systems will have migrated. We trained 400 government employees on how to use the cloud, and we are going to train an additional 700 in the coming few months. Thousands of Bahrainis outside of the government are already enrolled in these trainings because we know that the opening of Amazon in Bahrain will create thousands of jobs, and that we have to be ready; otherwise someone else is going to reap it. Having the skill set and the cloud in Bahrain will help the Gulf region because the connectivity will be much cheaper for them and the latency will be much less. We are changing the regulations and the laws to make sure we get the full advantage of this cloud policy.