As the effects of the novel coronavirus continue to be felt around the globe and countries remain under lockdown, life after the pandemic will not be the same as before it. The private sector is likely to invest in work-from-home methods, because this can save money. The public sector should adopt similar methods by making administrative procedures more accessible remotely.
Digitizing administrative transactions of all sorts has never been more pressing than it is today. Lebanon is a good example to consider in contemplating such a path. The government is deeply entrenched in bureaucracy and paperwork. Ministries, municipalities, and other public institutions are packed with citizens applying for documents. At a time of profound economic crisis in the country, making government more efficient can save valuable money and time.
Putting administrative services online would bring numerous benefits. It would decongest cities and main towns where administrative procedures take place. It would help decrease petty administrative corruption. And it would reduce the costs to the economy of time-consuming procedures and facilitate the life of Lebanese, who often waste a significant part of their working day in conducting administrative operations. Moreover, if pandemics become a recurring part of life, ways will have to be found to ensure the public sector can continue to function in future confinements.
Additionally, electronic government, or e-government, can help Lebanon move toward a more decentralized state, which would greatly ease doing business and help spur economic growth. However, the government still has a long way to go before it can enter the digital world as it still keeps its public records on paper. Not only is paper more vulnerable to damage from fire or flooding, such records have to be recopied every few years onto new registries, which is time-consuming, cumbersome, and opens the door to transcription errors.
A few years ago, I needed a birth certificate from the Interior Ministry. My request was denied because the registry that held my information was in the process of being recopied, and the clerk was unable to extract my information. This conundrum could have been avoided had the records been computerized. In the process I wasted a good part of day on an entirely useless task.
Over the years, the Lebanese state has made some efforts to move toward e-government. The Ministry of State for Administrative Reform has launched an independent website called “Dawlati,” or “my state” along these lines. The website shares links to the websites of government bodies and offers some online services. However, its design is rudimentary and has limited functionality.
In 2018, the same ministry launched a digital transformation strategy that included everything from providing digital services to cybersecurity and privacy. Nevertheless, the strategy remained unimplemented. In October 2018, a hackathon, in which a large number of people joined to engage in collaborative computer programming, was held in the Beirut Digital District to gather senior developers and design an online platform for a future e-government. Yet, in the same way as the digital transformation strategy was never implemented, neither was the platform.
A common issue that comes up when discussing digitizing government is the fear that it will make public employees dispensable. Yet these same employees can be retrained and repurposed for different roles and positions. E-government cannot run without a full staff supervising, maintaining, and updating websites.
Furthermore, a line must be drawn between a type of e-government that provides services online and one that monitors citizens and risks disrespecting their privacy. It is crucial that online portals not extend to surveillance and allow the state to track the movement of citizens. It is equally important to make sure that sensitive records are safely secured within the system. The purpose of e-government it to ease citizens’ lives, not transition to a police state.
The human capital needed to put in place such a transition is ready and willing. A younger generation of Lebanese is prepared to join the public workforce—a generation that is digitally oriented and ready to serve Lebanon in adopting e-government. The state should take advantage of having skilled and available human capital and make the change now. Shifting to e-government is not an especially complicated task, nor does it require a great deal of time.
Although we may wake up tomorrow to find that the coronavirus has disappeared, the pandemic has forced us to adopt fresh ways of thinking. By creating a new precedent in the way people interact at work, it has made us reconsider how the state can function. Lebanon must use its resources to prepare for the future.