BTOB: Mission to Bahrain 11 – 13 April

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Background

I was first invited to  Bahrain in late 2010 just two months before the so-called  “14 February Revolution”. I got the invitation from the e-Government Authority (EGA, http://tinyurl.com/6smaraj) which has been organizing the International e-government Forum for a few years. The meeting was planned for mid-May, three months after the protests. I decided to ask EGA counterparts if the meeting was still on. The answer was positive.  The Forum did take place but I was unable to attend due to scheduling conflicts vis-a-vis other missions.

I did however make this year (see http://www.egovforum.bh/) and used the opportunity to liaise with the Manama Country Office and explore ways in which we could support ongoing UNDP e-governance and ICTD programmes.

As an NCC, Bahrain, like several other countries in the region, has very different challenges from those of a typical developing country – perhaps aside form the governance issues at stake. In the eyes of  EGA’s CEO for example, if anything Bahrain is in a similar situation to Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall  where trying to join the world economy  more effectively was a key challenge amidst the lack of entrepreneurial and market skills. I will add however, and unlike Eastern Europe which at the time already had a highly qualified labor force and R&D community, Bahrain  faces the challenge of lack of sufficient local capacities combined  with high levels of legal migration of mostly unskilled labor. While money can certainly buy state of the art of technologies, it is certainly a bit more complicated  to develop  capacities of the local population to cater to the demands of a very dynamic and very competitive world economy.

The International Forum

Over 300 people attended the Forum, most of them nationals. In addition, 23 international speakers were part of the various panels and sessions. The Forum also included an IT Expo which comprised over 100 national and international companies -and probably helped attract more people to the sessions. Unlike many other ICT and e-government events I have attended in other countries, the participation of women was very significant. The organization of the Forum was impeccable  and the venue selected, the Ritz-Carlton hotel, luxurious.

The forum had five separate panels which covered topics ranging from traditional e-government to e-participation and open data. With one exception, all panels had at least five speakers and a moderator. While the quality of the presentations was excellent, there was usually not sufficient time to allow for debate among  panelists or for enhanced discussions with the audience. My session entitled Mobility comprised  a wide variety of speakers that spoke about the future of technologies with little on development or policy issues. My presentation (which is here: Bahrain-egov-2012-04-10) focused on our recent report on mobile devices and posed some challenges for the potential impact of this technology in development. However, it did not seem to be in sync with the other more technical presentations. During the Q&A session, I was the only panelist who got direct questions from the audience.

While the Forum was indeed a success, it can surely be improved. Just like in my session, other panels also included speakers that were addressing issues which seems not pertinent to the actual title and objective of the session. This probably ended up confusing the audience, specially those who were sort of new to e-government and ICT for Development. This can be easily addressed by asking speakers to focus in one particular issue within a given thematic area. In addition, panels included too many speakers which detracted somewhat on the content delivered. For future events, it will perhaps be ideal to reduce the number of panelists while increasing the number of sessions. Finally, in order to avoid a succession of 10-12 presentation per day, it could be a good idea to combine presentation panels with discussion panels. On the latter, speakers can be ask to give a 5 minutes oral presentation to address a specific topic and then ask the moderator to trigger debate within the panelists and then with the audience.

A video clip of one of the first panel is here: http://youtu.be/4HvZhO0IN4w

EGAs approach to e-government

There is no doubt that EGA has done some very important work in the area of e-government. EGA has managed to get the required political backing from the King as well as to recruit and/or develop  top notch technical expertise and managerial capacities. Within the spheres of government, EGA is recognized to be a very effective and efficient unit which performs exceedingly well vis-a-vis most other public institutions.

EGA’s approach to e-government is centered on e-services or the delivery of basic public services to citizens with the use of state of the art ICTs.  In doing so, EGA also addresses policy and regulatory issues, facilitates coordination among public institutions, furnishes technical support to them (on a demand basis), fosters public-private partnerships and provides leadership (and leading by the example) in the use of ICTs within public administration. According to EGA, there are now  over 200 services on line backed by related policies and regulations, security standards and customer service support..

Not entirely clear to me is the relationship between e-service delivery and ongoing effort s to modernize public institutions, in particular on the human resources management side.  At first sight, it seems EGA’s emphasis is on the technology side and thus capitalizing in the  potential efficiency that  ICTs bring to deliver better services to the public. A second theme is the wider use of mobile technologies to deliver such services. While EGA is starting to work on this now, it has essentially based its efforts on web bases applications  -in a country that has almost 125% mobile phone penetration (some sources indicate that Bahrain is one of the top ten countries in the globe with the highest mobile penetration; see http://images.businessweek.com/slideshows/20110213/the-20-countries-with-the-highest-per-capita-cell-phone-use/slides/9) while only  55 % have Internet  access (as I said during my presentation). Finally, interoperability is yet another dimension that needs adequate addressing – in say the same way that Korea did to get the 3,00o plus public services it has online today.

There is also the issue of balancing supply of  and demand for public services. According to one EGA’s partners, the demand for services currently online is below expectations; and apparently people are not making effective use of the platforms deployed. This seems to indicate that “market studies” to assess the real and effective demand for public services have not been implemented in a systematic fashion. This creates the well-know gap between supply and demand for public service delivery. Hopefully, mobile applications can help change this in the short run. But perhaps EGA should also adopt a more demand-driven approach to respond to citizens needs and quickly respond with innovations where citizens’ the demand is at the highest.

Interestingly, both the old and new e-government strategies directly mention “stakeholder engagement”  and collaboration as one of the key a priorities. However, it is not entirely clear how is this defined or employed in the actual implementation process.

There is also talk about converting EGA, which is currently under the Ministry of State, into a formal and independent center of excellence.

UNDP e-gov/ICTD Programming

UNDP currently has two programmes which are related to e-governance in different ways.

The first project supports the creation of an Arab Centre for eContent Development which is co-financed 50-50 with EGA (see http://www.undp.org.bh/Projectgov=72495.html). Project achievements are listed in the web site and, in addition, the end of project report provides further details see Project Terminal Report – 20120319).

The project ended in 2011 but a second phase of support is already in the works (draft prodoc is here: 20120129e-Government Bahrain project document phase II – Draft 4). The center has already been established and organized a series of activities. One of the key features for the second phase is the development of an Arabic search engine which caters to the specificities of Arabic language and regional context.  A full feasible study has already been completed (see: Feasibility Study – Arabic Search Engine – 2011 11 and the financial estimates are here: Financial Study Calc-Oct10-2011). The reports seem to be supporting the argument that the lack of Arabic content on the web is due to the absence of adequate tools and engines. More on this in the next section.

The second project supports the creation of a capacity development facility within  Bahrain’s Institute of Public Administration (BIPA, http://www.bipa.gov.bh/bipa/dynamic/endynamic.aspx?PgID=1). Building on Bahrain’s Economic Vision 2030 (http://www.bahrainedb.com/economic-vision.aspx), the project aims at increasing the long term capacity of public sector to improve policy making, strategic planning and service delivery (details and prodoc are here: http://www.undp.org.bh/Projectgov=61812.html). The project includes the creation of e-content and  the deployment of e-learning to cater to the needs of public sector employees. While I am not sure about the links between BIPA and EGA (if any), this project is similar in scope to South Africa’s e-skills initiative we are supporting.

As I arrived in the county a new initiative was already brewing. Sponsored by the University of Bahrain, the new initiative aims at establishing a regional Institute for Cyberspace Studies  which will apparently focus on the impact that new ICTs are having on society in terms of both the socio-economic and cultural dimensions. An early draft concept note was shared by the University early this week.

Policy/Programming Implications and Recommendations

EGA

  • While the current success of EGA is indisputable, the Authority has plenty of room for enhancing its performance and closing some gaps. The most obvious is the one mentioned  before on the gap between supply and demand for public services. While EGA might not be that keen in using participatory development methodologies, implementing “market studies” (via face to face, online, SMS surveys) to assess the priority demands for public services should be a harmless first step in this direction, and one that will in turn generate quick win win situations. UNDP has already assisted a few countries in implementing such studies and can bring its experience to bear here
  • EGA should also make more extensive use of crowd-sourcing technologies using mobile devices for capturing demand needs, delivering services and measuring citizen satisfaction on the quality and quantity of services provided. While mobile penetration is very high smart phone usage is still emerging, as are high speed mobile networks. There is thus plenty of room to effectively capitalize on mobile devices. UNDP recent report on mobile technologies can be a good starting point, complemented by UNDP’s policy advise in this area
  • EGA should also give more careful consideration to having an open data platform where basic information on finances and public investments for example could be made available. Although the current political situation might suggest otherwise, this could be a way to bring people together and see how government is responding to citizens demands
  • At the policy level, EGA can certainly benefit by having UNDP e-governance expertise and experiences as part of the current policy/advisory board. This can neatly complement the advise that UNDESA is currently providing by enhancing scope and providing additional on the ground comparative e-governance knowledge

eContent Development Center

  • As the first phase of the project has now been completed, a Phase II is now in the works. It is recommended that an independent output and outcome evaluation of the first phase is undertaken as soon a feasible. BDP can assist here in providing a methodology and a  range of experts that can be recruited through competitive bidding by the country office. The evaluation should inform in part the new activities that the follow-up programme should take up. While there is indeed a draft prodoc for the latter, an innovative programing approach could be considered which will allow for  flexibility in output definition and determination
  • The center piece for Phase II of the programme is the creation of an Arab content management search facility. In other words, the key goal is to create a national search engine. There are several issues here:
  1. The rationale for the creation of a 12 million USD search engine is based on the assumption that search engines store information that cab have cultural, scientific and national security impact and implications – and in doing so they make a lot of money. While the latter is probably true the former are not quite on the mark as countries, organizations, institutions, etc. can  easily block search robots and prevent their sites from being indexed at no cost
  2. There also seems to be a bit a mix up in the feasibility study between indexing web information and storage of information. Search engines only store indexed information about web sites that are open. But they do not store any primary information. For example, search engines have a hard time indexing databases even if they are online, etc. This is precisely why Open Data initiatives are relevant. Search engines in fact provide pointers to sites where the information is actually stored and maintained
  3. On the other hand, the issue with the lack of Arabic content on the web has little to no relation to search engines (Arabic or not). Today, there are in fact many tools out there, commercial and non-commercial, that allow the average Internet user to share content in local languages. As a matter of fact, one of the core principles of Web 2.0 technologies is the “democratization” of content where now any one with a connection can upload content for free in one or multiple platforms. In this light, the issue with the lack of content in Arabic seems to be on the user side  – and not on the tools or platform available. Adding yet another platform will probably not solve the issue. What needs to be assessed is the reasons as to why users in the region are not as active as others on the Internet  and are not sharing knowledge and information with others
  4. Saudi Arabia is also developing it own search engine. It will be important to try and link to them to see what have they learned from the process and how far are they in the development of the tool. I have already contacted the office in KSA to make this happen
  • A second core component of Phase II aims at building e-government capacity via a series of workshops. While workshops are indeed a key entry point, Phase II should also consider the creation of a Chief Information Officer’s (CIOs) community of practice network which could make use of a dedicated Web 2.0 platform to foster knowledge and experience sharing. This has worked quite effectively in other countries such as Iraq (which I have already contacted for support) and led to more effective awareness rising and e-government uptake within key line ministries. In addition, a CIO CoP can also support the idea of having a CIO for the whole of government, an idea that is already on the table and supported by EGA

BIPA’s Capacity Development Facility

Although I did not have a lot of time to discuss this project with the country office, it does seem quite relevant if we can link it to the other e-government initiatives we are supporting in Bahrain.

  • As mentioned before, some components of this project are closely related to the e-skills programme we are supporting in South Africa. One of the core outputs of the South African programme is to develop e-content and e-learning resources to build local capacity, increase employment, specially of women and youth, and foster entrepreneurship. South South cooperation here could be beneficial to both countries – and even others undertaking similar initiatives
  • There are several models that are being used around the world to develop e-content and e-learning platforms around the world. UNDP Bahrain should make sure to review these models and look beyond our own LRC. Again, the e-skills programme has identified a sound methodology that has been successfully used in Mexico
  •  The project can also benefit by doing a through capacity assessment of the public sector to determine needs and gaps and thus effectively invest resources on a demand driven basis. Here it will also be important to include in the assessment the current e-capacities of civil servants
  • The programme should also be explicitly linked to EGA and the eContent center UNDP is supporting

Institute for Cyberspace Studies

  • It is still early days for this project. At first sight, it seems Bahrain has concerns on the role that ICTs have played within the Arab Spring, including the 14 February Revolution in the country. The evidence that ICTs promote revolution is weak at beast. We have done some research along these lines (see https://undp.unteamworks.org/node/105402 ) which we can share with the University of Bahrain for further discussions
  • The proposal submitted after the mission ended (see Cyberspace Proposal_En)  while explicitly mentioning the above issue  does not do so as part of the four core activities it suggests. However this can be easily introduced in the first activity recommended on building the “national cyberspace environment”. UNDP must be careful here to avoid supporting an ICT environment where access to information and user driven content could be restricted in any way or fashion
  • I will send additional comments on this proposal later in the week

 

Raúl Zambrano
Policy Advisor
ICTD and e-governance
Democratic Governance Group
Bureau for Development Policy
UNDP NY

17 April 2012

 

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