The Saudi government has allocated a sum of 1 billion dollars to a new project to improve the country’s technology services. The project aims at linking different institutions in the country and such a huge investment is expected to change government performance within five years.
This is the expected E-government and naturally, such a service presented would be of no benefit unless there is knowledge of technology in educational institutions, various administrations and within homes. Such a service would be to no avail unless the government first implements its plan to assign one million computers to less privileged and low-income citizens. One successful experience in this regard, has been that of the trading of shares in technology of more than quarter of a million computers, the majority of which were personal computers, resulting in the trading of billions of dollars.
Ever since there was talk about the coupling of bureaucracy and E-governments, many exaggerated ideas have spread. There have been many claims that new technology would save time and money, speed up the decision-making process and enhance almost all services affiliated to the government that affect people’s daily lives. Such claims reminded me of what happened in the 80’s when fax machines first appeared. It was the technological miracle of its day especially for us journalists, who would waste so much time dictating news over the phone.
In order to convince my boss to introduce fax machines to the office, I wrote about the benefits of such an application. I then told him that despite the high cost of the fax machine, it was the best way to reduce phone conversations and that it would halve our phone bills. However, only three months after we had bought the fax machine, our telephone bills doubled! We did use the fax machine to send our news and reports and this resulted in a significant increase in the level of our reporting.
Our misconceptions appeared one again when the computer was introduced. We claimed then that computers would reduce the time spent writing, printing, preparing news, rectifying errors etc. Nevertheless, what actually happened was that we spent more hours in front of the computer screen, reading and writing, and eventually, printing mistakes increased as we now rely on ourselves to type our own articles. Furthermore, companies have bought equipment that is more expensive therefore, in contrast to the disadvantages; there have been a number of developments that we would never have anticipated.
The services presented by an E-government would not reduce government’s expenses nor will speed up transactions because as they increase, the number of complaints will also increase. However, we could not deny that this new service will assist the people significantly. Citizens will be able to contact government bureaus from their homes and interaction, follow-ups, and development will increase. Such factors not only require the existence of an E-government but also a technologically qualified nation. Since the government has paid a huge sum of money, why then would it not double this sum to introduce computers to all homes, thus eliminating computer illiteracy by 2010 for instance? If it aims to offer a useful service, the government must be transparent in its activities and agendas. Bureaucrats must give up their secrecy that should only be used to some extent in security and military issues.
The debate concerning the government and technological services is an exciting one as I had read a report on discussions between different specialists in ‘Riyadh’ newspaper, 9 May 2006. There are new visions and preliminary experiences that could help us diagnose possible challenges of the future.