The technology sector is today one of the fastest growing sectors globally, and digitization has begun imposing itself on all private and public spheres. Countries have adopted the term “digital transformation” (DT) to signify that information and communications technology (ICT) has a radical effect on the approach to administration rather than merely improving its performance. E-government – a modern system based on using the internet to link state institutions together and to the public and digitizing all the functions, operations, and services of public institutions – is considered an inevitable evolution of the public sector. This transformation has significant benefits, including improving the effectiveness and efficiency of administration, allowing public access to services and information anywhere and anytime via computer or mobile phone, reducing corruption, facilitating citizen consultation and involvement in decision-making, and establishing a better environment for business and economic development.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and the general mobilization measures that have forced the total or partial closure of private and public institutions, adopting electronic means right now transcends improving the administration’s performance or citizen service. The goal, rather, is to ensure the continuity of public service and economic activity, and managing the basic affairs of citizens and the state without sacrificing public health.
This situation today raises an important question: Where are we along the path to e-government? This article will attempt to answer this question. First, it will present the most recent DT strategies that various governmental bodies have prepared during the last two years. Then it will summarize some of the challenges facing their implementation. The article is based on three interviews with four experts who have been involved in and following this matter for decades: Nasser Israoui, head of the Technical Cooperation Unit in the Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform (OMSAR), which is a major contributor to the introduction of ICT into most state administrations; Tanya Zaroubi, interoperability team leader and senior ICT project manager in OMSAR; Dr. Peter Salloum, coordinator of the Technical Assistance Facility for the Government of Lebanon, which includes cooperation with 93 public institutions and is being conducted by the British company Crown Agents with European Union funding; and engineer Salam Yamout, national ICT strategy coordinator in the Prime Minister’s Office from 2010 to 2016.
Digital Transformation Strategies
The years 2018 and 2019 were filled with governmental activities related to DT. Saad Hariri’s government placed the matter among the priorities of its ministerial statement in 2019. Hariri formed a ministerial committee of the ministries and public institutions concerned to coordinate work among them and agree on a governance model for the DT process. Over these two years, three parallel strategies were developed. Firstly, OMSAR developed the comprehensive DT strategy. Secondly, the Ministry of State for Technology and Investment was created and charged with developing the DT strategy for the private sector and economy. Thirdly, a national team consisting of various ministries, economic sectors, and security and military authorities was formed to develop a plan for confronting cybercrime risks and preparing a national strategy for institutionalizing cybersecurity work.
OMSAR issued the first version of the DT strategy in 2018. It then built upon it, adding important elements such as a situational analysis, a sectoral analysis, an implementation plan, and stakeholder participation consisting of over 300 interactions with various Lebanese and foreign individuals and expert organizations in civil society and the private and public sectors. The strategy established a DT roadmap for the public sector for the 2020-2030 period, and some of its milestones were published on OMSAR’s website. The strategy’s foundations include its proposal for a DT governance model consisting of three levels: the “strategy” level, which involves strategic responsibility shared by the members of a ministerial committee; the “build” level, which consists of developing the technical building blocks and is a responsibility that will be distributed across various public institutions in accordance with their ability to do so; and the “operate” level, which consists of operating the technological solutions and is a responsibility that will be distributed across various institutions responsible for providing specific services.
Diagram of the DT governance model upon which the Prime Minister’s Office, OMSAR, and the Office of the Minister of State for Investment and Technology agreed.
The strategy commits, firstly, to the principle of open governance, which allows transparent access to all information. Secondly, it commits to the principle of security-by-default for all technological solutions. Finally, it commits to the principle of readiness and risk management to ensure business continuity.
This strategy was translated into 80 projects for which financial resources have been provisionally allocated through World Bank grants totaling between USD 60 million and USD 100 million. These projects include redeveloping the Dawlati website to be the shared portal of the future e-government, incorporating all state institutions’ e-services. This website puts several fundamental technological services at the institutions’ disposal: authentication, e-billing, e-payment, an interoperability platform, e-transactions, and an application for tracking operations. OMSAR’s team has progressed with the development of the Dawlati platform, taking the implementation of the online platform for Commercial Register registration (which links the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Labor, and social security) as an opportunity to develop the interoperability platform in parallel. According to Tanya Zaroubi, director of this project, its benefits include implementing electronic data interchange and interoperability among state administrations to reduce duplicate data collection and processing, reducing the steps and cost involved in interaction between the state and business community, ensuring data integrity, reducing fraud, reducing data redundancy, and promoting transparency along the lines of the Commercial Register, which makes its data openly available online.
On its part, the Office of the Minister of State for Technology and Investment developed, with a team of expert volunteers, a comprehensive roadmap for DT and reform in the private sector and economy in order to boost the knowledge economy’s contribution to the GDP and boost employment in this sector. The plan is based on seven pillars: reforming the business environment, attracting capital and investments, improving digital skills on the national level, transforming Lebanon into a pioneering regional hub in the knowledge economy, supporting the export of technology products, local development, and innovation. The “innovation” pillar includes working on two new laws on cybercrime and protecting the privacy of personal data in order to comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (the European standards adopted in 2016) and plug gaps in E-Transactions and Personal Data Law no. 81/2018.
The minister of state for technology and investment has also begun working on the applicatory decrees for the latter law. The most important include a decree to regulate the special processes and guarantees pertaining to official electronic documents and their scope (Article 8), a decree defining the mechanism whereby technical service providers save and delete traffic data and the nature of such data, a decree determining the appropriate technical measures for storing technical data (Article 72), and a decree forming the Lebanese Domain Name Registry (Article 79).
Finally, the National Cybersecurity Strategy aims to protect government assets, markets, commercial sectors, and citizens from cyber threats and attacks, such as piracy and electronic fraud, which are on the rise because of the increase in electronic transactions and data. The strategy consists of eight pillars: taking defense and deterrence measures and promoting efforts to combat domestic and foreign cyberthreats via the establishment of a national system to coordinate responses via a unified law and integrated technical framework; developing international cooperation; continually growing state capacities; strengthening domestic educational capacities; strengthening domestic industrial and technological capacities; supporting the export and internationalization of domestic cybersecurity companies and industries; strengthening cooperation between the public sector and private sectors, especially the banking and financial sector; and strengthening the role of the security and intelligence agencies and strengthening cooperation and coordination with support and supervision from the Supreme Defense Council.
The strategy mentions that Lebanon is ranked very low in the International Telecommunication Union’s Global Cybersecurity Index and is vulnerable to multiple risks to its security, its infrastructure, and the safety and privacy of its citizens. The strategy emphasizes the urgent need to unify all parties’ efforts and to establish a “National Agency for Cybersecurity and Information Systems” to perform various functions, including developing cybersecurity policy and procedures for all information systems in Lebanon and establishing and managing a national computer security incident response team (CSIRT) supervised by the Supreme Defense Council.
Challenges to Digital Transformation
Upon first glance at the DT projects and strategies produced, the vision may seem clear and the path paved for a transition, after a few years, to a virtual world whereby Lebanon becomes a transparent, effective state that places citizens at the heart of decision-makers’ priorities (according to the stated goals of the e-government). However, this impression quickly dissipates when we consult some of the experts involved in the matter since Lebanon’s e-government efforts began in the 1990s. While evaluating this course in detail and drawing all the lessons of the previous experiences appears difficult, revisiting it does help to highlight three key challenges facing digital transformation of the administration in Lebanon.
Salloum said mockingly that the financial resources previously spent on e-government projects in Lebanon – which he estimates to be hundreds of millions of USD – were enough to prepare multiple e-governments. When we asked Yamout about the matter, she replied indignantly that when she assumed her position in the Prime Minister’s Office in 2010, she asked a foreign expert to help her determine how much Lebanon had invested in the technology sector but was unable to reach definitive answers. For example, computer purchases for every administration were made via the “Other Necessities” section of the budgets, alongside cleaning products and fuel. Worse, the enormous figures spent on automation in the Ministry of Telecommunications cannot be determined because of the secrecy surrounding the files of MIC1 and MIC2 – the mobile operators in Lebanon – even though the third and fourth generation of mobile and fiber optic networks were rolled out entirely with public funds.
The main challenges can be summarized as follows:
The Lack of Serious Political Will
Remarkably, during more than two decades of work and strategizing and despite the enormous amount of public funds spent, the Council of Ministers has not adopted any one of the strategies as an overarching vision for all the institutions involved in implementing automation projects. This suggests a lack of serious political will to progress in this area.
The same conclusion can be drawn from the pace of e-government legislation. Law no. 81/2018 was adopted 13 years after it was drafted, by which point it had been overtaken by developments in the electronic realm and international standards related to it. As soon as it was passed, work on new laws to fill its gaps already seemed necessary, even when not all its clauses had entered into effect because of the lack of applicatory decrees. From another angle, the Council of Ministers took five years to issue the applicatory decree for the 2012 law (Law no. 241/2012) on adopting a single citizen ID number that is supposed to be used by all public administrations in citizen transactions and thereby allows these administrations to be linked together.
Yamout, who suffered from a lack of guidelines or a general, agreed-upon policy during her experience in the Prime Minister’s Office and ultimately became convinced that there is no political will to complete the DT process, affirmed this conclusion: “They don’t want automation because it means transparency”.
The lack of serious political will is also evident in the wastage of public funds on e-government without reaching clear results, as previously explained.
The Administrations’ Failure to Adopt Simplified, Standardized Measures
Working on e-government and systematically digitizing all administrative operations requires a procedure manual. Such a text defines the administrative operations and information related to them, such as the documentation required, timeframes for completion, fees, the path of transactions within the administration, and the identity and functions of the administrative units and employees at every stage. Salloum revealed that in Lebanon, most administrations have not developed such texts. Instead, employees rely on a collection of complicated, unwritten practices that open the door for corruption. Hence, the core challenge lies in bureaucratic complications within the Lebanese administration: “We cannot talk about e-government when one administrative process requires a hundred signatures”. These complications, he said, are organically linked to the rampant corruption and private interests that dominate the administration.
In terms of process simplification, Zaroubi – who has worked in OMSAR’s technical team for 23 years – explained that the team’s methodology for all automation projects completed began with simplifying administrative processes before automating them. The burden of implementing these recommendations, which require effort, resources, training, and skills, falls not on the technical team but on the administration itself. On his part, Israoui confirmed that administrations’ failure to comply with process simplification, whether for technical reasons, insufficient know-how, or other reasons, was one of the main causes of the failure of some previous automation projects. However, of the 40 automation projects that OMSAR has implemented so far, he deemed the success rate to be 60%, which he said compares well with global rates. As for a lack of adequate resources or lack of capacity of the institutions concerned to complete the automation project, he replied, “What can we, as a public administration, do except send repeated letters to the administration concerned asking it to send a letter to the Ministry of Finance for a provision?”
Poor Coordination and Infective Governance
One of the most significant challenges facing e-government, according to both Israoui and Yamout, is that no actor has been authorized to administer DT in a manner allowing it to compel other administrations to comply with decisions or coordinate with it in automation projects. OMSAR is assigned specific projects and functions via Council of Ministers decisions or circulars and has no permanent, comprehensive mandate in this matter. Similarly, when Yamout described her experience as national ICT strategy coordinator in the Prime Minister’s Office, she said that she lacked sufficient powers and therefore relied on a conciliatory approach to make the other teams coordinate with her and build trust between institutions. In her view, it is this approach that allowed, for example, the adoption of the Commercial Register project. However, she mentioned that, “Over six years, I was unable to pass most of the ideas and projects that I proposed”. Most importantly, although she asked the administrations to comply with a decree issued in the 1990s deeming the Prime Minister’s Office the Lebanese state’s information hub, she was unable to compel anyone to do so “because every minister wants his ministry to be his own kingdom”. Hence, DT in the Lebanese administration strikes constitutional and political issues concerning the body competent to manage the e-government portfolio and conduct centralized decision-making as the post-Taif Constitution vested procedural authority in the combined Council of Ministers.
The Dangers of Piecemeal Digital Transformation
The poor coordination among administrations described above poses several significant dangers, including weak oversight, wastage of time and financial resources, and security risks.
Salloum mentioned that automation does not automatically prevent corruption or increase the ability to track administrative operations. Rather, it can make this oversight more difficult in some instances. For example, the Court of Accounts today lacks the ability to exercise oversight over accounts via computer-assisted audit tools (CAATs). From another angle, several administrations’ adoption of third-party payment methods (such as LibanPost and OMT), rather than credit cards (which are easily traced in the banking system), for e-services makes it harder for the Court of Accounts to audit their accounts. In such cases, the Court of Accounts must conduct prior and subsequent oversight over the automation and e-services projects by granting permission to use the programs and then auditing them afterward.
Yamout also emphasized the importance of working on interoperability among institutions before implementing automation to avoid wasting time and financial resources, contrary to what is now occurring because of poor coordination. She said that today, there is no unified list of the most rudimentary governmental information, such as the names of districts or the addresses of public institutions. If each institution adopts its own labels and categories for information that is supposed to be shared with the others, work will need to be done later to standardize databases, which will waste time and financial resources.
Finally – and perhaps most gravely – this lack of coordination poses great risks to cybersecurity. Many private and public sector institutions suffer cyberattacks mainly targeting their websites and putting them out of service.
DT also strikes deep-seated issues in the administration as proceeding in this direction confronts the authorities with core choices that, rather than being purely technical, concern transparency, accountability, and other matters. The best example is adopting a citizen ID number and compelling institutions to use it, which would automatically lead to a census of Lebanon’s citizens. This process poses a deep-seated political issue in Lebanon because the existing regime was founded upon a particular sectarian demographic balance and because of the major changes that it is undergoing, as shown by the fact that the last census that the state conducted dates back to 1932. Similarly, Salloum deemed that the key problem lies not in technical issues related to automation but in the vision for the public sector and its role and size: “The public sector is very bloated today, consisting of approximately 350,000 employees and military personnel. In the era of Fouad Chehab, it consisted of 40,000, and the population hasn’t increased at the same rate. So what happened?”.
This article is an edited translation from Arabic.
 The Legal Agenda previously commented on this law, contending in particular that it was issued too late as technology and the risks related to it have developed. Consequently, issuing new legislations has become necessary.