Reinventing the UAE's e-initiative

Major GIA plans include a hosting service, intranet application for ministries, corporate website and federal portal, says Al Shair. (XAVIER WILSON)

The UAE General Information Authority (GIA) is currently undergoing a major revamp. Established 30 years ago, the agency has barely undertaken any noticeable programme in the past.

It is now the aim of its chief to reactivate the federal body and hopefully bring the UAE back to the top league once again. "What happened was there was no good execution in the e-government strategy," Salem Khamis Al Shair, Director-General of the GIA, told Emirates Business in an exclusive interview.

The GIA, which in 1980s was in charge of automation, was placed under the care of various ministries, and during the past five years had been operating with no clear directions.

"Every ministry has to play its role," he said. "Health, for example, should be under the Ministry of Health. Ministry of Finance's core expertise is finance and budgeting. It should not be involved in IT projects. They should come under the GIA. Once ministries start playing some other ministries' role, I think this is where dispute comes in."

Al Shair said the UAE had stayed in the comfort zone for a long time in terms of e-government services. And this has dragged the region's top-notcher 17 points lower. "Getting to the peak is sometimes easy, the harder part is staying there. I think we've stayed in the comfort zone for very long and we shouldn't."

In 2008, the UN eGovernment survey has ranked the UAE in the fifth position in terms of transactional services, just behind developed countries such as Sweden, Denmark, Norway and the US. It was ranked 32, the highest in the Middle East. But recently, its ranking dropped to 49, and lost the top rank to Bahrain, which went up from 42 to 13, in a global scale.

 

We have not heard much about the GIA. Even the website does not say much. As a federal entity, what does it do?

GIA is an old entity. It has been established in 1980s. It was in charge of the automation within the federal government. For the past five years, it has lost the thrust moving forward and maybe prior to those five years they were focusing mainly on training rather than automation. Training, however, was getting weaker compared to what the private sector was providing. Hence it started to lose its charm to the government. When His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and the Ruler of Dubai, launched the e-initiative in Dubai in 2000, 2001 and 2002, the Federal Government started to talk about e-government and the task was assigned to the Ministry of Finance rather than to the GIA. When it was in the MoF from 2002 until 2006, the outcome of that era was not satisfactory to the Federal Government. Another ministry was created called the Ministry of Government Development in 2006 or 2007 and it was assigned the e-government task. That ministry itself did not last very long. It was dismantled in 2008 in the last Cabinet formation. The e-government came to the GIA. Then I was brought in by a decree by President His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan to head the GIA in November 2008.

Running e-initiative at the federal level is a different ball game because most services are being done at the local level. There are only few ministries which have interaction with individuals or businesses such as the Ministry of Labour and DNRD. So what can we expect to see from the GIA?

I had moved from the local government [Dubai] to the Federal Government. Dubai and Abu Dhabi local governments are doing well in terms of e-government practices and standards. It's the federal level – the ministries, authorities and councils – that are lagging behind. That is why I was brought in to put the federal on a par with the local governments. The issue that we face is when international evaluations are conducted, they have to take federal entities because they deal with the country and not cities or emirates.

When we started the e-government in Dubai, there wasn't an equivalent in the Federal Government so Dubai was evaluated. The UAE in general was getting good marks – we were number one in the Middle East. But after the Federal Government started to have its own websites for their ministries, they got evaluated hence we dropped in the ranks. In the recent one we were bypassed by Bahrain, which had improved drastically not only in the Middle East but also internationally and we lagged behind.

And this is what we have been warning… that this could happen because at the federal level we were moving extremely slow. And if we don't focus in e-government, our international rankings – our competitiveness rankings – will drop behind other GCC states.

How does the downgrade impact the overall economy?

It doesn't impact the economy straight away. However, if we continue doing it, this will show that in terms of competitiveness we are not as good as the others and we're losing the number one position in the Middle East. Getting to the peak is sometimes easy. The harder part is staying there. I think we've stayed in the comfort zone for very long and we shouldn't. As His Highness Sheikh Mohammed always says success has no end line.

Your goal now is to bring the UAE back to the top?

Oh yes.

What have you done in the past year? And what are you plans, going forward?

We were hoping actually to change the entity from the GIA to Emirates E-government entity with a new decree emphasising the new roles. However, it took longer than expected and it is still dragging, which means we were not able to get our strategies approved and also the financial implications. Hence in 2009 and 2010 we don't have the budget to execute the action plan that came out of our strategy. Even though we got the initial approval on our strategy, the financial part of it was not approved.

Why is that so?

In the government, they have what they call the zero budget where a three-year plan has to be done. The GIA, as I told you, was dormant for the past five years; it was not doing much of the activities so the budget is covering operational expenses and salaries only. We don't have much space for projects.

Without this, you cannot execute the projects that will help all the ministries move forward. About 90 per cent of our projects are for the ministries and authorities. It is not for us as an entity. For example, the payment gate way, the SMS gateway, call centres, the government private network connecting all ministries, the data centres, the enterprise resource planning applications – all these are for the benefit of all the ministries. It serves everybody. But without the budget to do it, we are handicapped.

With whatever leftover of the small-size budget that we have, we have to spend on re-training our staff, because even our staff need to be retrained and rehabilitated.

Any undergoing projects or projects in the pipeline?

First is the hosting. We are in the process of finalising a deal to host and to provide the hosting service. We will provide this service to other ministries free of charge. We will save each ministry that will host with us minimum of Dh1 million per set-up and the ongoing expense of roughly 20 per cent of that.

Second, we will be hosting an intranet application that will be provided to all ministries. Third is their corporate websites. We will provide to them applications where they can change the look and feel and have their corporate website available immediately. That's another savings. And fourth is the federal portal, which will combine all the governments – local and federal services – having all the information required by residents, visitors and locals about the UAE.

How much budget will you require to push through these initiatives?

There are two studies. The first one, done by a consultancy firm, put a budget of Dh1.5 billion in four-and-a-half years. The second one, done by us, dropped the cost to half-a-billion, which is about Dh450m in five years.

Will you get this budget this year?

We should be getting that fund, inshallah in 2011. 2010 is the last year of the three-year budget period. For 2008, 2009 and 2010, we have a very small budget of Dh75m, which barely covers salaries and other operational expenses.

Will the projects you mentioned start next year as well?

No, they are almost done or concluded. The last one – federal portal – should be launched around summer time this year.

You headed projects in Dubai before, so is rolling them out at a federal level relatively easier now? Or are there challenges specific to the scope?

It is the people and decision makers. The challenge I am facing is with some decision makers who are not the right people to judge how the e-government should be run. As I said people should be responsible at what they know best and their core competencies.

Why was there less priority on e-government before?

What happened was there was no good execution in the e-government strategy. The ministry of Finance's core expertise is finance and budgeting. It should not be involved in IT projects. They should come under the GIA. Every ministry has to play its role; health, for example, should be under the Ministry of Health. Once ministries start playing some other ministries role, I think this is where dispute comes in.

One of the foundations of every developed country is a good, reliable industry data. Are you also looking at compiling data, as the name of the agency seems to suggest?

This role is not ours. There is a statistics centre launched by the Federal Government and they should look at combining from various sources. Every emirate has its own statistics centre, for the Federal Government, another one has been created which makes sense to take all these feed and start putting indices.

Will you be collaborating with them?

We will be collaborating with them in terms of displaying some of their researches.

A number of cyber crimes have been reported but aside from a vague statement from the banks, the people get to know very little about it. Some analysts said a lot of officials and executives are keeping their heads in the sand because of this non-disclosure culture. Can something be done to counter this culture?

Yes, I remember when we were in Dubai, we had some hacking incidents that happened in one of the sites that had weaker security in application itself and it was hosted with us actually. Through that site they were able to access another one or two sites and they were hacked. What we did was we went to the press and said we've been hacked, this was the damage and we were now taking action to rectify the weaknesses that we have and we were trying to chase the source of the hacker. As you rightly said, keeping our heads in the sand do us more harm than help us. Everybody will be sceptical, which most of the time is not right. If we talked about it openly it will help us.

If a bank has been hacked, should the authority disclose which bank, which branch, which ATM?

Yes, and also how it happened. So people would take precautions next time. Burglaries happen ever since humans were created. There is no foolproof system in the world. If the Pentagon and the White House had been hacked then who can say whatever they got is foolproof? But we can take precautions. That's what we can do.

Regarding the hacking incident when you were in Dubai e-government, was the hacker caught?

They were actually not able to reach the individual. But at least we know where the source came from – from Turkey. The police here didn't think that it's extremely significant for them to exert more effort and see heavy collaboration with the Turkish police. It is important the culprits get caught and indicted publicly in order for anyone else to think twice before doing such a thing. We should not treat this matter in a hush-hush way.

What are areas that need improvement in the UAE e-services?

We should have extremely secured data centres, they should not be in little rooms – this isn't the right way for a government entity. We should adhere to international security policy and standards. We should have the Computer Emergency Response Team people do their job – as we know they are now part of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority. They should be capable of immediately responding to any attacks that happen. We should have cyber police and we should have a national emergency plan.

 

PROFILE: Salem Khamis Al Shair Director-General, UAE GeneralInformation Authority

Al Shair was appointed by Sheikh Khalifa for this rolein 2008.

He was previously the director of eServices at Dubai eGovernment, and was appointed member of the Dubai eGovernment Executive Team by Sheikh Mohammed for setting up the Dubai eGovernment portal and leading the transformation from governance to eGovernance, while raising the community's e-literacy level to facilitate a new knowledge-based society in Dubai.

Born on March 13, 1962, in Dubai, he graduated with a BSc in computer science from California State University, and began his early career at Dubai Municipality in 1987, quickly rising to head the User Support Unit at the Information Technology Centre and head of GIS project. In 1993, when the Department of Economic Development was initiated, he joined the executive team that was assigned to set up the department, and then became joint director of the Information Technology and Finance Administration Division.

 

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