I spent two days in Bahrain, attending their International eGovernment Forum, and had a chance to learn about the amazing progress this country made on it’s eGovernment program. Recently they’ve been rated at the top of the regional rankings as well as amongst the top five in the East. They have relentlessly pursued leadership in the field, implementing an increasing number of e-services, constantly benchmarking themselves against countries that were ahead of them in various rankings and so forth.
Those who know me also know how much I hate rankings, since they often have driven negative behaviors, including the rush toward single portals as well the obsession with having all services online.
Now, I could probably take Bahrain for one of those countries, as in their introductory session to the conference they were firing statistics about improvement in ranking, number of services, number of transactions.
So when I had the pleasure to meet the CEO of the eGovernment Authority I was a bit biased by what I had heard and was curious about how real their transformation had been versus having created the perception of progress, like many other ranking-obsessed followers have done.
I have to confess that I was positively surprised. A charming guy, very articulated, clearly proud of his accomplishment and yet conscious that the journey is still quite long, ready to admit that there were some unique conditions that made their rapid raise possible. He shared with me how their program evolved since its inception, in 2007, to today. There were clearly a few peculiar conditions, such as a very strong authority on most aspect of e-government (including budget control), the ability to outsource and change sourcing options quite rapidly, strong political support and executive leadership’s commitment.
This is not to say that they have solved all problems. There is still room for improvement when it comes to apply common transformation frameworks across ministries as well as deal with truly joined up services.
However what I found particularly refreshing was his attitude to constantly challenging the status quo and take the concept of “customer service” to the next level. He shared anecdotes of customer problems with e-services which led the executive leadership to reach out to the concerned citizens, as well as rapid reorientation of projects and outsourcing (or re-insourcing) to accelerate pace.
As Bahrain has been playing catch-up with leading countries and now is in a leadership position itself, it needs to change its approach to e-government. In fact, when you are ahead of the pack, you cannot look at anybody ahead of you, nor does it make sense for you to look into the rearview mirror. Does Bahrain have what it takes to take a leap into the unknown, to connect with citizens in totally new ways, to accept the loss of control that social networking implies in return for greater cohesion and participation? Will the e-government authority be able to steer the behavior of different ministries toward common service transformation?
Being ready to accept one’s own limitations and to challenge assumptions are important ingredients to address the challenges ahead, and my sense is that the Bahrain’s leadership has it. But the toughest thing to do is to be prepared to reverse one’s perspective and potentially throw away some of the building blocks that led to be leaders. To do this, e-government rankings won’t help.