Enabling digital democracy
Manama, May 8, 2013
This article appeared in the May 2013 issue of The Gulf.
When a 7.8-magnitude earthquake triggered minor tremors across Bahrain last month, the Gulf kingdom’s interior ministry reacted instinctively through social media.
Guidelines on ‘How to act in case of tremors’ were quickly posted on the ministry’s official Twitter account, which is followed by about 115,000 people, in English and Arabic. Hours later, as thunderstorms and rain broke out across the kingdom, the ministry was urging people via Twitter to exercise greater caution on the roads.
With an internet penetration rate of more than 77 per cent - according to figures from US-based think-tank Freedom House - it is unsurprising that many Bahrainis now depend on the internet for news and public service information, and use social media to share their views, a trend which was notable during and in the aftermath of the country’s 2011 anti-government protests and unrest.
“We tell people whether the roads are OK or if there is danger,” says Aysha Abdullaziz Jassim, who works with the interior ministry’s police media directorate.
Maintaining what is perhaps the most active Twitter account of any ministry in the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) is a relentless job.
“We have a team of translators conveying information in English and Arabic round-the-clock and we also communicate with other departments to convey information, especially on the traffic,” she explains.
While the concept of providing snippets of public service information appears simple, it is in many ways just the tip of the iceberg for regional governments now investing large sums in a bid to better communicate with their populations. Governments in the Middle East and North Africa are, in particular, set to allocate a significant proportion of their estimated $17.7 billion IT spending for this year on strengthening their e-government systems, according to global IT research firm Gartner.
“The biggest spending will be towards strengthening e-government systems among the GCC countries, especially through greater “public private partnership contracts and framework agreements,” says Anurag Gupta, a research director with Gartner.
At a gathering of global IT experts at an international eGovernment forum in Bahrain last month, local ministries highlighted some of the latest advances in providing electronic services to citizens and expatriates.
Dr Abdulhussain bin Ali Mirza, the kingdom’s electricity and water affairs minister, said his ministry was already making consumers’ lives easier, such as enabling customers to request a new electricity connection online.
At a small exhibition running alongside the forum, employees from the kingdom’s eGovernment Authority, now in its seventh year of existence, were showing off a new search portal which, they claimed, facilitates access to the 280 e-services the authority offers.
The authority’s chief executive, Mohammed Ali al Qaed, says the portal was developed completely in-house, in two months. He stressed that enhancing service delivery, saving time and costs as well as satisfying customers epitomises e-government’s potential as an economic stimulus as regional states diversify.
“If we use ICT properly and make it part of our strategy, we can cut costs, we can cut lots of jobs from the government. We can stimulate the private sector, creating lots of private sector jobs.”
Al Qaed argues that e-governance helps improve accountability.
“[Saudi Arabia] linked all the budgets of ministries to the e-government programme, so they don’t spend a single riyal without getting approval from the e-government authority; so that gives them a kind of power to push the ministries in the right direction and try to coordinate all the efforts,” he says.
There are also cultural considerations regarding the concept of e-government in a region where, traditionally, people have preferred doing business face to face. Jassim Mohammed Mansoor, a quality management specialist with Bahrain’s finance ministry, says his ministry has held awareness sessions to convince people about the benefits and capabilities of e-government.
“We tell them, if you call, nobody will pick up the phone, but if you try to ask a question on live chat, you will get your answer within two minutes.
“At the beginning, we faced some problems because that is an element of change but once you believe in the idea, it will be changed.”
Since 2011 when the so-called Arab Spring erupted, regional governments are acutely aware of the power of the internet and the ability of citizens to express their opinions to a global audience. Daniel Castro, a senior analyst at Washington-based think tank The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, believes governments around the world have realised the importance of a more transparent approach, allowing more open access to data, as the costs are low and benefits are high.
“One of the things you see is that, when you have a Twitter account, it can actually be a person behind that and you can actually see the person and you can have Google Hangouts where you can actually talk to that person,” he told The Gulf on the sidelines of the Bahrain forum.
“It changes the dialogue from a faceless bureaucracy to one where it’s your neighbour and you know that they are actually working on your behalf, and that can actually be very positive both ways because a government’s agents can also be kind of desensitised towards citizens if they don’t see them interacting and this helps lower the barriers.”
Governments are also realising that data can promote innovation, with app developers and IT experts enabling governance through smartphones.
Dubai’s tourism and commerce marketing department, as well as its health ministry, have for example developed apps to help users explore the emirate as well as locate the closest medical facilities, respectively.
Robert Tercek, an entertainment industry veteran who has worked with MTV, Sony and the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), sees Middle East governments using technology to communicate with people and soliciting their opinions on decision-making, but warns against developing an overly-participatory system of governance. He cites the example of his native California, where a citizens’ initiative system has crippled policy making.
“Direct democracy can be an illusion, if it’s done poorly,” he says.
“Sometimes we are drawn to the idea that we’re running democracy in a completely transparent and completely participatory way but that word ‘completely’ implies that every citizen is involved in every decision. I think that is a recipe for chaos.
“These services are there to make life easier for the citizens, to make governments more efficient and more effective and so [Bahrain’s] eGovernment Authority is sharing best practices with other Gulf states.
“That’s a very powerful thing to do. It democratises technology, and puts technology in the hands of people.”