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Sun 16 Mar 2008 04:00 AM

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One for all

Dubai eGovernment has signed a new contract which aims to make Adobe's popular PDF format the de-facto standard for electronic documents.

Dubai eGovernment has signed a new contract which aims to make Adobe's popular PDF format the de-facto standard for electronic documents.

In the race to become the region's foremost provider of electronic services for citizens and enterprises, Dubai eGovernment aims to extend its already formidable lead with an ambitious new initiative, the e-Permits system.

Instead of multiple departments handling payments and clearances, our single window solution for clearance will speed up the process.

The e-Permit system - in partnership with Dubai Municipality, Dubai Customs, Dubai Police and using the Ministry of Finance to handle revenue collection - is intended to prune and simplify the complex documentation which accompanies goods entering Dubai's many ports. Salem Al-Shair, director of e-services for Dubai eGovernment explains how it works.

"The initial e-Permit solution will facilitate a faster release of shipments coming into Dubai through different ports. Instead of multiple departments handling payments and clearances, our single window solution for clearance and online payment will speed up the process. It is a unique project that brings together for the first time both local and federal government entities involved in the permission process," he says.

The e-Permit utilises Adobe's PDF technology for the new forms. Yasser Saleh Al-Shamdi, managing director of Somac IT in Saudi Arabia and Adobe's Middle East distributor in charge of implementing the e-Permit system, says familiarity in the workplace is a key reason why Dubai eGovernment decided to standardise its systems around PDF.

"From experience, Adobe is a well accepted user interface. Users don't have issues opening PDF documents or seeing one on the web. For us, a very critical success factor will be to provide a very good user interface that is easy to use, familiar and does not require any training," he says.

In fact, says Al-Shamdi, the new forms will be virtually identical to existing documents: "They will see the form which they use every day on paper but now converted to an intelligent PDF form that has drop downs and so on, but maintains the same look and feel. It's very secure - you don't have to worry about documents being forged."

Though the initiative intends to cut down on the existing paper usage of the government, Al-Shamdi believes paper will still have its place.

"Honestly? Paper will be around for a good number of years. You go to Gartner or any analyst, paper is there. Even though we use Office on the desktops, people still print a lot, even more than before. The concept here is, if you need paper, use it. If you don't then you have exactly the same look and feel on an electronic format. People print it because they want to see what it physically looks like," states Al-Shamdi.

The e-Permit system joins 2300 available government services, 91% of which have been brought online through the Dubai eGovernment initiative. Though this figure seems high, Al-Shair says that the services exist at varying levels of maturity - and bringing them into parity with each other is but one of the many challenges he still faces.

"Dubai eGovernment is a large scale and complex change initiative. The challenges can be categorised into customer expectations, process-people- and technology-related issues. The challenges would have to be uniting and coordinating with so many departments, especially for shared e-services which requires seamless exchange of data between one department and another. The other challenge is marketing all the e-services," he says.

Al-Shair continues, saying adoption rates have varied among most departments: "We have seen a significant increase in the uptake of electronic bill payments, fines and so on due to the success of our electronic payment gateway, e-Pay. Some successfully implemented e-services have even achieved more than 90% adoption. However, we intend to increase the average adoption of all the e-services in the Government, rather than just the most commonly used or most successfully implemented ones."

Inevitably with a project of this magnitude, there will be some resistance from users. With e-Permits, the key tool to defuse this opposition is the use of the common PDF format; Al-Shair says that constant meetings and reassurance is the methodology he uses for other eServices.

"Thank God, we have received more cooperation than non-cooperation. Initially some departments were sceptical and thought we wanted to interfere. In the last two to three years, department heads and staff are constantly interacting with us, seeking guidance and advice, so you can say that we have overcome this problem over the years," he says.

At the end of 2007, Al-Shair reached his key e-enablement milestone of putting 91% of government services online, and has now set his sights higher.

"We have identified key strategic agenda items in order to further enhance and continuously improve our public eServices in the future. Quality improvement, eServices adoption by public and joined-up eServices will be among the key strategic items to achieve customer focus. We will continue to implement new synergistic services while increasing the usage of our existing ones to increase our efficiency," explains Al-Shair.

While Dubai's e-government model continues to receive worldwide recognition, Al-Shair has also been keeping an eye on other e-government initiatives in the region.

"We are pleased with the progress of e-governance among our Arab brothers, especially in Qatar and Bahrain, and believe in healthy and productive competition arising from the region, as well as from the globe. Globalisation and ICT-based transformation have brought a level playing field for governments that compete for scarce economic and investment resources.

Now that the e-government project is established, Al-Shair has been able to review its overall progress - and admits that if he could do it all over, he would have emphasised service and business aspects over technology.

"We have realised the importance of increasing awareness and marketing e-services fairly recently. Engaging customers and incorporating their feedback are very important. We have undertaken customer surveys and will continue conducting them annually in the coming years to really understand the customer concerns rather than second guessing them. We want to align our implementation activities in line with the customer expectations - hence quality, awareness and satisfaction are key issues for us," says Al-Shair.

Al-Shair concludes by revealing that plans are underway to export Dubai's successful e-government model: "We are inspired by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who has encouraged us to become a Bayt Al Khebrah (house of expertise) and share our knowledge with others. We are currently working with the Federal Government and also coordinating with some other local emirates. We hope to export our model further into the Arab world by adding value to their e-government initiatives and by also mutually exchanging knowledge and information for the prosperity of our countries."

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