E-Government on Trial in Syria

Online systems should save time, but there is some resistance to change.

E-Government on Trial in Syria

Online systems should save time, but there is some resistance to change.

Saturday, 14 February, 2009
The Syrian authorities are conducting a pilot project to test out “e-government” in the northern city of Aleppo. The plan is to streamline public service delivery and reduce the scope for corruption.

By allowing people to access a number of basic services online, the authorities hopes to cut down on unnecessary paperwork and processing times. For example, Aleppo residents can now file tax returns or apply for marriage certificates electronically, processes that would normally take days or weeks.

Iyad Nayrouz Wali heads a committee in Aleppo that was set up to reduce red tape, and says that the e-government scheme has halved the amount of paperwork since it was launched in March 2008.

“The health, education and law-enforcement sectors, among others in Aleppo have made many improvements already,” he said.

Wali said the pilot was going smoothly, after a shaky start.

“At first, it was difficult to break with our old administrative routines, but luckily, we overcame many of the difficulties,” he said. “Simple mechanisms have been put in place so that requests can be processed in one day rather than in a month, as was the case in the past. The paperwork required to claim unpaid vacation has been reduced from 16 steps to nine.”

Khalid Zankalo, who heads the Aleppo bureau of the pro-government newspaper Al-Watan, praised the initiative.

“This is an important step that paves the way for making services even more widely available to the public,” he said.

But with few details released to the public, and no known plans for a wider rollout, some Syrians remain sceptical about the initiative.

One user, Hamid Ali, said it actually took him twice as long as usual to hand in his completed tax return using the more streamlined system.

“The finance directorate thinks it has improved administrative work, but nothing has changed,” said Ali. “If anything, things have got worse. Lining up to pay bills has become a more prolonged ordeal than before. No matter how early people arrive, there is a line leading out the door.”

Ali does not think that providing more web-based services is the answer.

“The problem isn’t about submitting applications online. It’s about getting rid of the disorder and administrative corruption, which are probably the main barriers to progress,” he said.

Financial expert Abdul Qadir Houri believes the new scheme is in fact designed to cut down on corruption.

“While streamlining e-government services will improve communication between government agencies and ordinary citizens, the larger goal is to end much of the bribery and other unofficial activity that takes place,” he said.

Although no end date has been set for the pilot, Wali said that he expects Aleppo governor Tamer al-Hojja, to sign off on it later this year. At that point, the national ministry in charge of local government affairs will decide whether to authorise follow-up projects or launch similar pilots in other provinces.

But with no definite date in place, Aleppo resident Faez Saqr remained doubtful that it would happen.

“They’ve been talking about the importance of introducing e-government for years, but where’s the actual progress?” he asked. “I work at the education department, and most of the staff there are of an old-fashioned mindset and don’t want to have anything to do with these e-government improvements.

“I’m not sure how they’re going to get everyone to follow through with these changes.”

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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