Government goes online
Although government e-services are now providing many essential administrative services, some people still have little faith in them, Ahmed Abu Ghazala logs on
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Dealing with official documents remains one of the tasks that consume the time and energy of many Egyptians. However, the government e-services have not provided a much better alternative yet
Standing for hours in long queues in the hot corridors of a civil affairs institution to deal with an official document is no east feat. Instead, it can sometimes be a daunting task and one that has been the butt of jokes in many Egyptian films.
One recent film comedy to hit cinemas, for example, Asel Aswad (Molasses), depicts a young Egyptian who has lived in the United States all his life and takes time off to visit Egypt. He has to get an Egyptian passport and ID number, and his difficulties in doing so represent what many others have had to suffer, falling into a mass of red tape that can take days to sort out.
However, in order to improve things in October 2000 the government decided to launch online administrative services in order to cut back on the bureaucracy and inefficiencies of many government departments. The project was kick- started in July 2001, and according to the original plan the project's third phase, in which all basic government e-services would be available to all, was supposed to be completed by 2007.
The plan included various services, including paying telephone bills and fines for traffic violations, settling official documents like family and birth certificates, and inquiring about other services, like taxes and transport.
According to Gamal Ghitas, editor of the magazine Loghat Al-Asr (Language of the Era), which specialises in technology, computers and communication, the e-government plans have two main purposes: "to provide people with a bundle of online services, instead of exposing them to the bureaucracy of having to deal with government employees directly, and to facilitate coordination between different government departments."
Many people who have used the government e- services have praised them, like Mahmoud Khalifa, a freshman engineering student at Misr International University. "My brother told me to renew our car licence online two years ago, and the service was very fast and the licence was delivered to my door. It certainly beat standing in long queues, being exposed to official affronts, and then having to pay bribes to employees," Khalifa said.
Al-Ahram Weekly journalist Nevine El-Aref also views, and pays, her traffic bills online. Logging onto the e-government website at www.egypt.gov.eg to view her bills, she saw that she could also pay them. Because she was anxious about paying with her credit card, she decided to pay manually, choosing this option because it would still be more convenient than paying at a police station. "Two days later, to my surprise," El-Aref said, "a delivery man arrived at my place, took the traffic bills, and gave me the new licence after checking my ID. It was amazing."
E-services now facilitate many other government services. Next month, for example, sees the final phase of the smart subsidy cards project, one of the most important of the range of government e-services. Subsidised goods are made available to poor people under a government scheme, including sugar, rice, cooking oil and tea. Under the smart card system, each person receiving subsidised goods will be issued with a smart card and password. "He then goes to the vendor, types in his password and puts his card into a machine that shows the amount of subsidised goods available to him and their prices," said Abdallah Badawi of the Ministry of Social Solidarity in the Giza governorate in an interview with the Weekly.
Badawi said that the smart cards had already been successfully implemented in other governorates. "The system obviates any attempt at cheating," he said. "Now people will be able to access the exact amount of subsidised goods allocated to them, and sellers will not be able to sell such goods elsewhere to gain money."
Badawi added that thanks to the new technology any governmental department would be able to check the goods offered by any vendor at any time. "Starting in July this year, smart subsidy cards will be activated in all Giza districts and across the country as a whole, finally putting an end to the problem of the disappearance of subsidised goods."
However, despite the successful trials of many e-government services, implementing them more widely has not been as smooth as might have been expected. Some people still prefer not to use online services, either because they don't have access to computers, or because they do not trust the system to behave correctly.
Fathi Suleiman, a taxi driver, doesn't have a computer, but many of his friends and relatives do. "My cousin renewed his ID online," Suleiman said. "He said he received it after 10 days and that the service was good." Yet for all that Suleiman seemed to be unaware of the full range of administrative services available online. While the state does not renew IDs online, it will provide replacements if the original is lost.
Suleiman added that, "to be honest, I don't use the Internet, which is why I prefer to do things manually. If I was told I had to go to a certain office to take care of various documents, I would prefer to go there than attempt to do things online."
Refusing government online services is not confined to those who do not have access to the Internet, however. Mohamed El-Husseini, a young man working in advertising, applied for a family certificate at the Nasr City police station. Yet, when he went to the station after the two-week waiting period to get the certificate, the original clerk wasn't there, and another clerk told him that the clerk could be back in an hour, or could be back the next day, "we don't know his schedule."
El-Husseini left the station feeling annoyed, but when he was asked why he hadn't simply applied electronically, he smiled and expressed scepticism about the process. "I had the same idea when I wanted to renew my ID, but they still required my presence at the police station to finish the papers," he said. For family certificates, a lot of documents are always required, El-Husseini said. "How are we supposed to get these papers to them? Are we supposed to scan them?"
(In fact, e-services are not available for services that require photographs or personal documents. Since family certificates require a lot of personal documents, they can only be issued electronically to those who have already submitted all the required documents.)
Gihan Helmi, a mother of two boys, echoed El-Husseini's point of view. Wanting to deal with some official documents three years ago, she still had to spend long days queuing at the Mogammaa building in downtown Cairo in order to settle them. "Perhaps things are better now. But that was my experience," Helmi told the Weekly.
Ghitas explains some of the problems with the online services by saying that some of them are not electronically ready. "Although there are good electronic applications in many areas, in other areas, like insurance and the ministries of health and justice, the services don't work properly online, and this is also true for some property services."
According to Omar Samy, director of electronic development at Al-Ahram, there are also incomprehensible omissions in some of the e- services provided. "I wanted to renew my ID, and the government has all my personal data. So, why should I go to the police station and waste a whole day for a service that I could easily have done online in a couple of minutes," he asked.
"I also have a visa card from Al-Ahly Bank, which is one of the state-owned banks. Yet, I wasn't able to view my account online for three months. I am not even talking about purchasing online during this period. I should have been able to view my visa card account online the next day at the latest," Samy said.
The quality of the services provided by the state-owned banks was also one of Suleiman's complaints. "Why don't they fix the computer networks of the state-owned banks," he asked. "I have to go to Bank Misr's Al-Thawra branch in Heliopolis every three months in order to pay the instalments on my car. I have asked about paying at other branches and the answer is always negative. Aren't all these branches supposed to be computerised and connected?"
Many government e-services are also under- utilised. Despite the fact that an estimated 15 million Egyptians currently go online, only one government service, university admissions, is viewed more than a million times, a number that includes frequent users. Usage rates for other government services, such as for birth certificates or booking transport tickets, are clicked far fewer than a million times.
People's disregard for government e-services may be one reason for the disappointing click- through rates. "The citizen doesn't trust the real government, so how can you ask him to trust the electronic one," asked Ghitas, adding that people had also been disappointed to find that the electronic services had not always behaved better than the non-electronic ones.
While Ahmed Abu Bakr, an engineering student, follows the latest communication technologies and government e-services, he has never personally dealt with them. "I don't trust them: an error might occur after I pay, for example, resulting in my losing money. Or the services may not provide enough security, allowing anyone to abuse my personal data."
Yet, despite the lack of trust on the part of many people, Ghitas nevertheless said that, "if the government departments are serious about implementing e-services, then they can transform all their services into electronic ones, for example by confining pension payments or university admissions to electronic services only."
If the government were to do that, he said, "everybody would use the e-services."
This suggestion raises questions about people's readiness to do so, especially among people for whom literacy is an important consideration. Thirty per cent of the population is still illiterate, and they will have great difficulty using e-services. Nevertheless, in Ghitas's view if people are able to access e-services easily and quickly, then everyone will use them, even the illiterate. "Even if we confine these services to the literate, this will still be a substantial achievement," he said.
Other reasons for the limited uptake of online services include confusion when it comes to understanding the services provided. Ahmed Salah, a senior engineering student at Cairo University, hasn't used any e-services, for example, because he thought he had to pay by credit card. "I don't have a credit card to pay online," Salah said. "This is the first time I've heard that I can pay a delivery man who comes to my place. Of course, now I'll be using the e-services."
Yet, for Samy the achievements of the e- services are still insufficient. "There are some good things, like the issuing of birth certificates, but the services are still quite restricted," he said. The government has also promised e-services that haven't been implemented, like paying water bills online, while other services that have been put online, like renewing car licenses, only work intermittently. The car licence service has been off-line since January 2009 for maintenance reasons.
Even those online services that do work effectively have not been marketed properly, Samy said. "You shouldn't provide a service and then take it back, as people will distrust you. Also, you shouldn't provide services that cost a lot of money and effort, but aren't used because people know nothing about them," he said, adding that marketing should be multidimensional and should take place both online and in more traditional media.
"We have provided links to the government e- services at the Al-Ahram website, but that is not enough," he said.
The government's Information and Decision Support Centre, affiliated to the cabinet, last year conducted a poll that showed that only 38 per cent of the population was aware of the government e-services. Moreover, the percentage of those actually using the services didn't exceed 15.
Though the Weekly contacted the Ministry of Administrative Development, which is responsible for providing and maintaining the e- services, several times no official was available for comment.
Will the e-services get better? According to Samy, "the problem is that the e-services started more than seven years ago, and some 700 separate services were promised. Nevertheless, many of them have still not been activated. The services started out with strong momentum, but they have not experienced sufficient continuous development." The best services are those dealing with transportation, he added, including booking EgyptAir and railway services and a few bus companies.
"UN reports have said that the development of e-governance in Egypt is not going fast enough," Samy said. "This is strange because Ahmed Darwish, who is the minister of state for administrative development, was the one responsible for the project's kick-start, and he is the one managing the e-services."
According to the UN's 2010 E-Government Survey, though Egypt is globally ranked 23rd for its e-services, it is still placed only 86th in world e-government development rankings and is preceded by many Arab and African countries, such as Bahrain at 13th, the United Arab Emirates at 49th, Kuwait and Jordan at 50th and 51st, Saudi Arabia and Qatar at 58th and 62nd, Tunisia at 66th, Mauritius at 77th, and Oman at 82nd.
Nevertheless, despite the problems with government e-services, it is not clear that those wishing to do things the conventional way will be any luckier. Intending to travel abroad last year, I needed a family certificate to prove my military exemption to clear my departure. While all the arrangements were finished within a week, it would take two weeks to get the family certificate. Since I didn't have the luxury of time, I resorted to asking a clerk I knew personally to help me with the bureaucracy. After a tedious day spent standing in long queues and hot corridors at the Abbasiya Civil Affairs Station, thanks to my friend the clerk I finally managed to get the family certificate, all within one day.
This experience can be compared to my experience of e-services. Trying to acquire the certificate online last week, it took just two minutes to type in some personal information in the application, as well as my address, ID number and contact information. Three days later, a delivery man knocked at my door and gave me the certificate.
The service was fast, easy and convenient. But it still took three days. As far as the online services are concerned, if they work well, they are generally quite speedy. On the other hand, manual services can sometimes be faster, even if they do mean long queues or identifying the right employee.