Karim Merhej and Ameera Dabbous | Thursday, February 11, 2021
The term “electronic government”, also known as e-government, first made an appearance in a ministerial statement in July 2005. The newly formed government at the time pledged that the performance of the public sector would be improved through the adoption of the latest e-government measures so that citizens’ rights and dignity can be respected and their trust in the state can be improved. Back then, Lebanon ranked 71 out of 191 countries on the UN E-Government Survey, a respectable score above the world average.
Yet, fifteen years later, as much of the world made significant strides in the adoption of e-government and in the transformation of their public sectors, Lebanon stagnated, ranking 127 out of 193 countries in the latest UN E-Government Survey 2020.
Why is this the case? Will e-government, or its more contemporary iteration ‘digital government’, ever see the light of day in Lebanon?
At a time when Lebanon is suffering from grave political, economic and financial crises, and as COVID-19 continues to spread in the country, examining these questions is of the utmost importance.
E-Government and Digital Government
In the 1990s, the term “e-government” emerged paralleling the increased accessibility and affordability of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs), most notably the Internet. It refers to the usage of ICTs within the public sector to improve intra-governmental management, increase transparency through the publication of governmental data online, and reduce operational costs by providing public services to citizens through the Internet. The touted benefits of e-government are plenty: it could reduce venal and petty corruption; increase citizens’ trust in the state as the delivery of government services becomes faster (from mundane procedures such as paying taxes or renewing one’s identity papers, to receiving welfare benefits directly through the Internet); and achieve cost savings, which could then theoretically be directed towards social services and public welfare. Whereas e-government denotes a one-way relationship that pushes services and information out to citizens via governmental websites, the term “digital government,” which became prevalent in the early 2010s, encompassed far more. The term refers to the usage of Social, Mobile, Analytics and Cloud (SMAC) technologies in the public sector to drastically transform citizen-state relations into a two-way street whereby both are in constant interaction. Similarly to e-government, digital governments would theoretically have tremendous benefits on society as a whole and would create more public value.
"As much of the world made significant strides in the adoption of e-government and in the transformation of their public sectors, Lebanon stagnated, ranking 127 out of 193 countries in the latest UN E-Government Survey 2020."
The Case of Lebanon
An ambitious National eStrategy for Lebanon was prepared in 2003 by the Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform (OMSAR) and UNDP, but its implementation was disjointed despite significant funds provided by donors – funds which were provided in an uncoordinated and haphazard manner with little tracking and monitoring. The strategy was adopted less out of a desire to actually bring forth e-government in Lebanon, and more as a way to attract donor funding and improve Lebanon’s image in the international community. The 2018 Digital Transformation Strategy prepared by OMSAR was released amidst much fanfare – but was never formally adopted by the Council of Ministers.
The road to e-government in Lebanon has not been entirely nil. Many public sector employees were trained to use the latest digital tools, back-end operations started getting carried out through the latest ICT tools, and several governmental entities have developed well-functioning websites. However, there is no denying that since the concepts of “e-government” and “digital government” have emerged, Lebanon’s performance has been very poor.
An ambitious National eStrategy for Lebanon was prepared in 2003 by the Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform (OMSAR) and UNDP, but its implementation was disjointed despite significant funds provided by donors.
Barriers to a Digital Government in Lebanon
Several barriers have prevented the emergence of a digital government in Lebanon. Firstly, a culture of secrecy within the public administration exists, from the highest echelons to the lowest. The Access to Information (ATI) Law passed in 2017, which should theoretically increase transparency and accountability, remains poorly implemented. Two reports published by Gherbal Initiative in 2018 and 2019 illustrate this starkly: in 2018, of the 133 public bodies to whom ATI requests were submitted, only 34 responded; in 2019, while the number of responses increased to 68, only 34 of these responses included the requested budgetary data. Many of the public bodies deliberately avoided responding to ATI requests, pretended they were unaware of the law, or came up with legally dubious excuses to avoid compliance. The lack of transparency prevalent in the Lebanese public sector and the non-compliance with the ATI Law, makes any government-led Open Data initiatives unrealistic, and hence digital government in Lebanon a distant mirage.
The lack of transparency is not the only obstacle towards achieving digital government. The very nature of the supposedly “power-sharing” political system in Lebanon intrinsically makes any efforts at administrative reform quasi-impossible. Lebanon’s political establishment has turned the Lebanese state into a vehicle for self-enrichment, corruption, clientelism and patronage distribution, rather than a state that caters to citizens’ needs and upholds their dignity. Under such a system, it is unsurprising that no political will towards administrative reform and achieving digital government exists, and that the efforts carried out in this regard are rather fragmented.
Achieving digital government in Lebanon is not a matter of lack of skilled personnel or inadequate resources, but rather a political issue. Nowadays, with the decreasing costs of trainings on how to use the latest digital tools, excuses justifying the lack of digital government, such as the lack of funding or skilled personnel, do not hold. Gherbal Initiative recently launched an open data portal, ellira.org, showcasing all publicly available financial data from the Lebanese state in an easy-to-read manner. Tech-savvy citizens volunteered their time and efforts to launch Open Data Lebanon, a platform similar to Gherbal’s which publishes significant amounts of data on numerous socioeconomic indicators curated from a wide array of sources from both the public and private sectors.
Achieving digital government in Lebanon is not a matter of lack of skilled personnel or inadequate resources, but rather a political issue.
A glimmer of Hope?
Some digital government initiatives have been initiated recently and have garnered a positive reception, such as the Inter-Municipal Platform for Assessment Coordination and Tracking (IMPACT) and the Donor Coordination Platform. This momentum needs to be harnessed. These two platforms show that concrete steps towards digital government and multi-level cross-governmental collaboration is possible. Ensuring that all public bodies abide by the ATI Law and have a well-functioning website and presence on social media platforms is the first step to be taken in this regard. Once this is carried out – no easy feat by all means – the government should collaborate with civil society on creating a unified open data portal and ensure that it is properly managed and constantly updated. Dusting off the e-government and digital transformation strategies of previous years is necessary, as many of the policy recommendations they prescribed have yet to be administered. A firm, whole-of-government approach towards digitally transforming the public sector must be adopted, while the fragmented and haphazard approach of the past, characterized by little coordination among key stakeholders, needs to be abandoned.
This article was published in Annahar Arabic.
Karim Merhej, Google Policy Fellow, Governance and Policy Lab, IFI
Ameera Dabbous, Intern, Governance and Policy Lab, IFI
The authors wish to thank guests Dr. Rania Fakhoury (ICT Project Manager at UNDP and OMSAR), Assaad Thebian (Founder and Director of Gherbal Initiative), and Omar Christidis (Founder and CEO of ArabNet) for their participation in a webinar dealing with the prospects of reaching digital government in Lebanon. Their expertise gave us invaluable insights and the conversation served as inspiration for the piece.
Opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.