Moroccan Roll Redux

A few days in Morocco certainly opened my eyes to a new view of e-government. I’ve spent a little time in ’emerging markets’ countries in the past, but not enough to have really understood all of the issues. I’d prepped on the issues by reading an excellent paper that John Gotze co-wrote on the “ten questions to ask” in developing countries. The fundamental theme of the report (as it says itself) is about “transforming government to be more citizen-centered”. The paper is a must-read if you are in the e-government space, whether in a developed country or not.

The issues there are significant – telephone infrastructure is limited, half the population is illiterate and so on. But the agenda for improvement is as ambitious as the issues are big – the King and the Prime Minister are committed to making changes: improving education, increasing the infrastructure, making Morocco an attractive place for inward [foreign] investment and, certainly, driving up tourism from the present 2.5 million visitors a year to 10 million over the next 7 years or so. There’s a lot to be done.

Many surveys are published ranking various countries against each other, noting the services that are in place (or, often, the ones that aren’t) and making comments about web site integrity, transactional capability or rate of usage of the key services. Another such survey is picked up by The Register, this one by CGEY and examining progress in European e-government initiatives over the last 12 months. Said survey makes some good points:

“Income-generating services have become the most developed on-line across Europe, but researchers said that substantial improvement is needed in the area of permits and licences”

“A worrying gap is also growing between on-line services aimed at businesses and those aimed at citizens. In nearly every country surveyed, the sophistication of the services for business is greater than that of services for citizens, and the number of business services available on-line grew 19 percent during the year, compared to just 12 percent growth for citizen services”

And, linking nicely to John’s paper … “E-government in Europe should now focus more closely on the transformation of government authorities into customer-oriented service providers”

I can’t disagree with that last point really, except I’m going to. It’s too trite really – especially in a country like Morocco where so much needs to be done at all levels of the economy and the population. My stance would be that change must start at the point of least resistance, most immediate benefit and fastest implementation, so that the government can (a) try out the new processes and business logic and understand what changes and standards have to be introduced, (b) experiment with some of the technology that underpins the initiatives and (c) prove to themselves, their population and the nay-sayers that something can be done.

So, for a developing country, it would make most sense (I think) to introduce changes to make it easier to start a business, easier to employ people and easier for foreign businesses to enter the country. You want to encourage entrepreneurial spirit as well as bring in established companies that will employ more people and contribute most to the economy. So a focus on business services is understandable – it’s also understandable because the rate of take-up for businesses ought to be faster (most will put systems in place for payroll, accounting, order management etc and all of these can naturally link to government systems). At a conference in Prague a year or so ago, the Minister for Information Technology in the Czech Republic told me that he thought 100% take-up of online services for businesses could be achieved in 4-5 years, but that it would take 12 years or more for citizens. Of course, all of it usually needs legislation to allow data sharing, a common identity number is also helpful – if the right conditions are not in place now, it takes time to get them in place.

Citizen services are essential of course, and they should be introduced taking advantage of intermediary channels – people who can do the translation, handle the technology and make sure people know what is happening (the UK equivalent might be the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, but there are many others). And that’s where I’ll disagree a bit with the report quote above, where it notes that revenue generating services are doing well (there doesn’t seem to be a conclusion on whether this is good or bad). For me it’s bad. Plain and simple. If you give people money online, they will pay it back online. If you make them give you money first online, the odds of high takeup are reduced – I think we have learned this a little (the hard way) in the UK. I call this fictitious service “give and” – the service where you find out what government will do for you and what you need to do in return. In some ways, it would be easier for a developing country to merge several local offices into a single building so that a citizen could visit and get all the permits, stamps and paperwork they need in a single visit. Then you design the process in that office to be simpler, and then you automate some of it with some kiosks, and then you make it fully electronic. Such a process would take time, but it would deliver the benefits needed step by step and increase the odds of success dramatically. In a country where few citizens are online and where education levels are low, a citizen-centered government is going to be difficult to do.

So, to finally disagree with the CGEY report, I don’t think the world needs any more benchmarking studies that say what’s online where, praise the countries that have increased the services online or whatever. It needs more reports like the one John was involved in, with some real case studies fleshed out. Developing countries want to learn from what everyone else has done, they want to take the things that worked and dump the things that didn’t, without going through all of the pain that was involved when we learnt the lessons (the hard way, I don’t need to add). That was reinforced at every meeting in Morocco – how did we do things, why did we do it, how did we cope with resistance to change and so on. There are several approaches to e-government that will work, but one of them will work fastest and best for anyone trying it. A few countries can contribute to that “best in class” case study. If that were to happen, then some of the countries who are now lagging could really start to make progress.

I really enjoyed my trip to Morocco. I’m only sorry that I barely saw any of what looks to be a beautiful country, with some fabulous architecture and a tremendous history. Maybe on another visit I’ll get to spend longer doing “tourist” things and contribute to the extra 7.5 million people a year that they want to attract.

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