E-govt: Thanks to Vision 2030!

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Technology is meant to make our lives easier. Electronic communications and services are great tools to help service providers give us more at less. With computers, robots and fast communications, a highly trained staff in a small office can efficiently serve a great number of people at a very low cost.

Customers may cut expenses, time and effort by logging in a bank website from the comfort of their offices, homes or smart phones to manage their accounts, transfer money and pay bills. No need to waste time and fight traffic to get to a bank branch before closing hours, fill forms and stand in long queues, just to make a deposit or a withdrawal. You may do all of the above and more at the nearest ATM faster, easier and quieter.

Government’s bureaucracy was slow to catch up with the private sector. When it finally did, the full circle of easier modern life was complete. Now, you may manage your time and energy in ways that were not possible before. Time-consuming errands are down and out and productivity with comfort is up.

Here are some recent examples of what it means to have smart E-government services. I have recently received an email from the Interior Ministry with a questionnaire regarding its electronic services.

A week earlier, I got a text message informing me that my request has been received at Jeddah “Reception and E-Services Center.” And yesterday, a second SMS arrived confirming that my file has arrived at the Interior Ministry in Riyadh. The message supplied a reference number, a website link and free 800 number to track progress.

I can hardly believe that these advanced services are being provided in Saudi Arabia, today. The E-government was a dream to us, since its inception in the United States, a couple of decades ago.

Today, we are enjoying the reality of that dream in many applications, in both government as well as private sectors. The winner, I believe, among all state departments, is the Interior Ministry, and not only in e-services, but also in traditional ones.

Their Jeddah reception office is a good example. It is situated at a prime location and the ground floor of a stately building on the King Road. Its design is styled more like banks than government offices, with open space and glass walls, overlooking the highway.

There is a zero congestion outside and inside, with walk-in “customers” received at once by well-trained receptionists, authorized to advise on procedures, and take in your request, register it in the electronic system, and give you a card explaining how to track your request online or by calling a free number.

All in all, it took me less than ten minutes to finish since I came through the door. It was quite an accomplishment, even in comparison to bank services — considered the best in Saudi Arabia.

Another good experience with the ministry’s services was when a relative had to call the police to help him with his psychologically disturbed son. Within seven minutes, two cars arrived, using GPS location, as transmitted by the caller’s mobile. It was enough time for the son to escape in his car, but not far enough for them to catch up with him.

They treated the young man with kindness and kept him locked as they called in the Red Crescent and waited for them to arrive an hour later. Then, they escorted them to the mental health hospital.

Ten minutes, after his call, my relative received an automatic call from the police call center asking him to rate their service from 1-4. He smiled as he chose 4, for best and fast, and asked me in amazement: “Is this really happening? I wish there was a higher number to give them!”

Today, many time-consuming services are done online or over the phone. Passports, national and residency IDs are renewed via the Internet or the many offices and self-service machines located in shopping malls.

Similar services are provided by other state departments, such as the ministries of Justice, Labor, Foreign Relations, High Education and major cities municipalities. But none of them is even close to the extensive services provided by the Interior Ministry.

What prevents other public departments from doing the same? Why couldn’t the Health Ministry, for instance, make life easier for us, by providing more sophisticated services?

Thanks to Ministry of Interior for leading the way. Thanks to Saudi Vision 2030 for making E-government a stated goal. I hope other ministers and companies will follow this lead and provide us with higher quality services, using latest communication and customer care tools and techniques.

— Dr. Khaled Batarfi is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. He can be reached at: Kbatarfi@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter: @Kbatarfi


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