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Government 2.0 and the role of social media in the Middle East

By on Mar 16, 2011 No Comments

Dubai School of Government

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The Dubai School of Government (DSG) is one of the leading research and teaching institutions in the world, focused on public policy in the Middle East. I reached out to Fadi Salem, the Director of the Governance and Innovation Program in the DSG think tank, to hear his thoughts on the role of government 2.0 in the Middle East.

Q. Thank you Mr. Salem, for your time. Could you briefly describe your role at the Dubai School of Government (DSG) as well as the role of DSG?
A. Fadi Salem is the Director of the Governance and Innovation Program in the think tank arm of the Dubai School of Government and Racha Mourtada is a Research Associate with the Program.

The research program conducts research and programmatic activities focusing on policies for government innovation and development through information technologies in the Arab states. The objectives of the program aim to support nurturing a culture of innovation in society, promoting participatory, inclusive and transparent government models; and enabling more responsive and efficient governance through effective adoption of information technologies.

The Dubai School of Government (DSG) is a research and teaching institution focusing on public policy in the Arab world. Established in 2005 in cooperation with the Harvard Kennedy School, DSG aims to promote good governance through enhancing the region’s capacity for effective public policy.

Q. As you look at the Middle East, which countries do you consider as leaders in government 2.0?
A. Government 2.0 (or the utilization of participatory technologies or social networking in governance) has shifted the concept of e-government from its traditional model to a more holistic ‘government-as-a whole’ which promises to:

  • Allow governments, private sector and citizens to collaborate on public service delivery in an innovative manner;
  • Usher in a new era of digital policy-making by providing citizens with the tools engage and participate in relevant issues, through applications such as wikis, online forums and social networking tools.
  • Foster inclusiveness and engage citizens in government processes, taking governance to a whole new level of ‘e-participation’.

E-participation in particular has been identified as an integral part of e-government and the key to its evolution to truly connected government, by creating more transparency, reducing barriers and offering citizens various channels by which to engage in policy-making. Taking a look at e-participation as an indicator of progress in Government 2.0, Bahrain leads the Arab countries in UNDESA’s e-participation index rankings in 2010, coming in at number 11 as the only Arab country in the top 20, with Tunisia a distant 2nd at 39.

These rankings are not the only indicator. There have been government 2.0-related initiatives in other countries, such as the UAE, for example. The UAE eGovernment, has developed and recently launched, with the Dubai School of Government, social media guidelines for UAE government entities to support the e-participation drive in the country. Additionally, surveys conducted by Dubai School of Government across UAE government entities indicated that awareness is high within the UAE society and government of potential benefits of government 2.0 components. For example government officials cited social networking sites in the workplace as one of the top three technologies for fostering collaboration and trust within and between government agencies. Most also agreed that social networking tools would be useful to engage with citizens and about 30% of Dubai government entities have an official organizational policy regarding the use of Web 2.0 technology and social networking in the workplace, with another 30% planning for one in the next 3 years.

Q. What is different about the countries that are leading in government 2.0 and those that are further behind?
A. If we talk about the Arab countries, there are several factors to consider, which impact the transformation of government towards Government 2.0…

  • The technological revolution: Aspects such as ICT infrastructure and Internet penetration vary across the Arab world, with the GCC generally being more advanced than the rest of the Arab world. For example, internet penetration grew 450 percent in average over the past decade. While social media usage is on the rise across the region; according to Arab Social Media Report, there was 78% increase in number of Facebook users across the Arab world in 2010.
  • The demographic revolution: Youth between the ages of 15 and 29 constitute about 30% of the population, and they are for the most part tech-savvy and eager adopters of technology and social media. (75% of Facebook users in the Arab world are in this demographic, according to ASMR).
  • The social revolution: Web 2.0 and social media promise to allow more citizen participation and engagement with government, which was glaringly apparent in the protests and uprising sweeping the Arab region. Though not all governments have embraced the use of social media to engage with their citizens, many are realizing its potential and are paving the way towards a more inclusive Government 2.0 model.

Perhaps the most important obstacle of these is changing the mindset towards both engaging citizens in policy-making and public service delivery, and in using Web 2.0 tools and social media to do so. Arab societies’ usage of Web 2.0 affiliated technologies is mostly portrayed negatively by the Arab state and media. Largely, conceptions of societal embrace of Web 2.0 technologies within Arab countries have been limited either to “controversial” utilization of such technologies in interactions between societies and governments or it was narrowly focused on the “wasted” resources and energy by youth on online activities.

Breaking through these preconceived notions and changing the mindset within Arab governments is the starting point. The countries that are leading in Government 2.0 have recognized the importance of engaging with citizens and embraced Web 2.0 tools and social media as tools for good governance and citizen participation. They have developed Web 2.0 policies and promoted training and capacity building for government officials in these areas.

Q. I have defined open government as “Open government is a citizen-centric philosophy and strategy that believes the best results are usually driven by partnerships between citizens and government, at all levels. It is focused entirely on achieving goals through increased efficiency, better management, information transparency, and citizen engagement and most often leverages newer technologies to achieve the desired outcomes. This is bringing business approaches, business technologies, to government”. While I do not feel a democracy is required for open government success I wonder if, in your opinion, the Middle East can move from government 2.0 to open government without it. Also, is open government a goal worth achieving, in your opinion, in the Middle East?
A. The components of open government, such as citizen centricity and information transparency, are stated strategic objectives by many governments in the region. There is also a growing realization that participatory measures are becoming essential for decision and policy making in the government; and between government and society. In that sense open government is not only a goal worth achieving but also a goal many governments are already taking steps towards in the Arab region.

The fact that around 70 percent of the population in the Arab world are under the age of 30, coupled with growing internet penetration rates is creating a scenario where many governments are viewing this trend as a potential opportunity for better governance.

I don’t think democracy is a pre-requisite for achieving open government. There are several examples in the world where an open government model exists relatively successfully within the reform and modernization agenda, despite the lack of democratic representation. However, it is argued that open government application may lead to more participatory governance; and ultimately more democratic representation.

Q. Government 2.0 should either improve the quality of government services, reduce the cost of government, or lead to new job opportunities in the private sector. In the Middle East, are you seeing examples of this and, if so, do you have any studies and/or numbers you can share to quantify the results of Government 2.0?
A. There are very few successful examples in the Arab world, but there are increasingly merging attempts. Some examples of Arab governments’ use of social networking tools include Bahrain, Saudi and the UAE government services.

Some Arab countries have also started to develop social media strategies and guidelines for government usage, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

It is very early to start assessing the impact or quantifying the results of government 2.0 globally. After more than a decade of mixed results in e-government development, even the OECD countries is finding it very hard to assess the economic impact of e-government. The Arab world is still at an early stage in government 2.0. This said, there are few studies conducted by the Governance and Innovation Program at the Dubai School of Government that examine the potential of government 2.0 in the Arab region. For example:

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