Driving Change in the Public Sector

By Elie Khamisse

With the uptake of digital technology and its direct impact on several aspects of people’s lives, private and public sector entities need to adopt new approaches to cope with the fast-paced technological development while assessing its impact on the population from a socio-economical perspective. Quantifying this impact requires looking at how the digital economy contributes to the overall economic outlook and at indicators like inequality, inclusion, and the digital divide. The third sector, namely non-government organizations, non-profit organizations, and international development bodies, is continuously assessing the impact of the digital economy on society and accordingly highlighting recommendations that would inform policies for the general public’s good. On the other hand, public and private sector entities are now under pressure to change their business models to better deliver on the pressing indicators that influence a country’s positioning in the UN rankings.

As assessing the impact of change needs to consider a multi-dimensional model, this article focuses on how digital transformation impacts the delivery of services in the government and public sector. Change is inevitable; hence the next stage is to explore the key considerations. Despite the initiatives and investments carried out by governments, a study conducted by Gartner between April and May 2021 revealed that 55% of governmental digital programs failed to scale, although the pandemic accelerated the programs. To scale, governments ought to build on the momentum of disruption for digital transformation to leap.

GCC countries, mainly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are at the forefront of leveraging the momentum to accelerate digital transformations by re-inventing their governments’ services business models and maintaining citizen-centric approaches.

The need to change the Government and Public Sector business model

To adopt a citizen-centric approach, governments need to unify services and simplify offerings to focus on the areas the public deems most important. Moving away from legacy bureaucracy to deal with service requests, sharing data across the departments, and investing in digitalization will bridge the gap between the traditional methods of delivering public services and the new model required for a more efficient future. Introducing a digital engine enables integrating citizens’ data into a system that facilitates assessing customer eligibility. It will reduce waiting times and provide access to the necessary information to predict customer demand for specific services. Upon implementing this system, the public sector immediately becomes a proactive service rather than waiting for customers to demand.

The development of a digital economy can offer safe, secure access to all relevant data to allow ‘tracking’ of trends for demographics, break them down into various sub-sections, and reduce the administrative burden on the government by empowering individuals.

Outlook on a digital government and innovation in the GCC

The GCC is at the forefront of adopting a digital government. To begin with, this represents an opportunity for governments to expand on their achievements so far and their already strong positions in critical areas by assuming a worldwide leadership role in digital services. They may use two major structural strengths to advance digitization in the post-pandemic environment:

1. Demographics

GCC citizens under the age of 25 make up 54% of the population. They are at ease with digital services in all aspects of their lives as digital natives and have high expectations regarding availability, quality, and convenience. This produces a virtuous cycle in which high demand leads to widespread adoption and rapid development.

2. A largely urbanized population

The most regular consumers of online government services are those who live in cities, owing to better network coverage, greater education levels, and other factors. 85% of GCC people live in cities.

The GCC region accounts for three of the top four leading nations. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is second overall, and the UAE is third. The government of Abu Dhabi has established a singular portal for all government services, known as TAMM. It is built on a portfolio of more than 500 digital services and continues to grow. This transition was instigated by the growing dissatisfaction with the complexity of information on official websites. In many cases, it is an extension of a bygone era of public services.

TAMM provides more than 98% of government transactions in Abu Dhabi, either online or through mobile apps, and up to 85% of government service fees are collected online. The key to providing efficient online services is data. TAMM has enabled analytics to derive meaningful conclusions and improve services as it operates. The result is a seamless customer experience, a more responsive government, and a successful case study into digital innovation, which can extend to other sectors.

What is trending in terms of services in a digital government?

The UAE adopted a long-term strategy in 2014 to be among the most innovative countries by 2021. In 2020, according to the Global Innovation Index, the UAE ranked first in the Arab region and 34th globally. The strategy included 30 national initiatives implemented over three years. It encompassed adopting new legislation, supporting innovation incubators, building specialist national capacities, offering incentives to the private sector, and establishing global research partnerships. The strategy also targeted modernizing governmental work to be more innovative in seven key sectors, most notably renewable energy, transport, health, education, technology, water, and space.

Before the pandemic, the UAE was a leader in innovation and digital transformation. The UAE was the first nation to have a State Ministry for Artificial Intelligence (AI) – in 2017 – when H.E.Omar bin Sultan Al Olama took the role, a position he still holds today. Saudi Arabia adopted a similar ethos in 2016 when the Kingdom launched its Saudi Vision 2030. Digital transformation upends all aspects of Saudi society – from digitizing government operations to building Giga-projects, such as Qiddiya and NEOM. According to an IDC report, by 2023, digital transformation investments will account for 50% of government and enterprise ICT investments.

More than $2.13 billion of foreign investment have poured into Saudi Arabia’s IT market. The fintech investments grew from around $144 million in 2020, which was quite sizable, to almost $400 million in 2021. The Kingdom was also named the Top Digital Riser among the G20nations in the Digital Competitiveness 2021 Report. Both the UAE and KSA have very young populations-almost 70 percent of the Kingdom’s 34 million people are under the age of 30 – which means the vast majority have grown up using various generations of modern technology. Its use is intuitive and embedded into the fabric of society. It makes sense, therefore, for the government to follow suit.

The global pandemic has revealed that early adopters of digital technologies were better positioned to respond to and recover from the crisis. In both countries, government and private enterprises are moving toward a digital infrastructure. While the government enables remote healthcare, remote working, and distance learning, private organizations invest in big data and analytics, robotic process automation, and AI and machine learning to ensure business continuity. By 2024, Saudi Arabia aims for a government that is ‘Agile, Capable, and Innovative. It is expected to deliver a seamless Smart Government with the citizen at its core. The focus is on offering services to citizens and businesses targeted through their preferred channel, making services available anytime and anywhere.

The main enablers of a digital government

The development of a digital government requires buy-in from several inter-connected sectors.

First, the idea that a long-term strategy is enough-even if it has to be revisited and amended-needs to change. While changing plans is often seen as a setback, recalibrating its direction can result in an altogether more robust end outcome that tackles all three of the values identified by Saudi Arabia – agile, capable, and innovative.

Secondly, implementing the strategy requires a high degree of evolving digital skills and local talent in-tune with the needs for the implementation to be successful. This area needs to be supported by education and career training to allow talented individuals to pivot towards relevant specialties. These skills need to be accompanied by a mindset of innovation in an expanding digital ecosystem that champions digital transformation, convenience, and intuition. As supporting systems advance, the adoption of technology and AI increases across all sectors. The public sector will benefit from innovations that can be introduced through Public-Private Partnerships, which leverage specific expertise to improve service and improve people’s lives. However, one significant issue always persists, which is privacy and security. There is no escaping the potential problems caused by users inputting vast amounts of data, placing its welfare responsibility on a single entity. All activities must always, without exception, be supported by the most stringent policies and regulations to ensure the safety of information to make the services function to their full capabilities and are not abused or at risk. It is a difficult balance to achieve. However, it is essential for a high-performing public sector in the new digital era.

The following steps in building trust and maximizing the benefits of digital services:

As we enter the post-pandemic period, GCC governments may use the advances, technical capabilities, and lessons learned over the past years to accelerate the delivery of high-quality and trusted digital services. Now is the time to act decisively:

  • Continue expanding and improving on the already remarkable range of services available. Prioritize the services that are most important to citizens, focusing on convenience and ease of use
  • Give citizens authority over their data and place a premium on ethical data collection and sharing. This entails merging privacy and functionality into service design and delivery to provide citizens control over their data
  • Invest in data security. The GCC governments’ security is already a strength. Extending this accomplishment and knowledge into the field of data security is crucial
  • Establish ethical data and AI use norms, guidelines, training, and regulations in the public sector. Recognize the delicate balance between practical benefits and real-world social risks, and make a firm commitment to using these powerful tools in a transparent and ethical manner
  • Communicate proactively. Provide openness into how citizens’ data is used, saved, and shared by communicating the benefits of data sharing

With diverse options, widespread uptake, and typically high satisfaction levels, GCC governments are emerging as global leaders in digitizing their services. Their urbanized, relatively young populace expects and welcomes high-quality digital contact. These governments are on the verge of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If companies can modify service design and delivery to meet the security, transparency, control, and artificial intelligence concerns that currently weaken citizens’ trust, they will be better positioned to:

  • Develop their service offerings in a strategic way
  • Innovate new services and delivery models on a global scale
  • Leverage Artificial Intelligence responsibly and appropriately to provide more accurate, efficient, and personalized services as well as adapted evidence-based policy
  • Develop the knowledge, skills, and track record of use cases required to become long-term leaders in the sector

Now is the time for the GCC to grab this digital services opportunity to create confidence and maximum value as governments scale up their focus on the post-pandemic future.

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