“Server does not exist”… E-government in Syria is merely ink on paper
Nour Abdelnour | Ali Darwish |Khawla Hafezi
People set their eyes on the big screen to understand the details of the presentation … “Publication, interaction, dealings, transformation” were some of the plan stages meant to change the government of the Syrian regime’s conventional state to a new era of services, as disclosed by a government employee with the rank of “digital conversion manager “.
The shown details are those of a plan drafted 11 years ago, which is, in reality, a spot of mere ink on paper, at a time where internet technologies have become the most apparent global alternative to paper-based government transactions in many countries around the world.
The presentation, which was held on 27 last February, was shortly followed by the launching of the “Syrian e-government portal” and a mobile application attached to it without activating their services. While these services are needed now more than ever, especially amid the administrative paralysis, Syria is facing to curb the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) spread.
Syrian citizens do not benefit much from the e-government portal services only when determining the quantities of food supplies they obtain through the so-called “smart card”. Despite that, they still stand in long queues being the traditional way to set dates for administrative services access, which probably needs only a mobile device and internet access.
This file discusses the government’s digital transformation delay in Syria and how it crippled Syrians’ lives, especially amid the coronavirus outbreak, which revealed a decline in services’ performance inside the country. It also sheds light on the details of some backlogged plans, the state of legislative structures as well as technical ones. The file ends by highlighting the absence of any internet dependence by governments outside the Syrian regime-controlled areas.
No Technical Alternatives..
“Coronavirus” cripples Syrians’ transactions until further notice
Layla and her family live off her retired father’s salary, but he passed away recently. Consequently, she cannot fetch his paycheck because of work suspension in governmental departments inside Syria.
Layla, who preferred not to reveal her full name for security reasons, told Enab Baladi that she started working on the procedures of recording her father’s death in the civil registry. This led to a suspension of the late paycheck until obtaining a family civil registration extract, which apparently Layla could not fetch because of work suspension inside the Civil Affairs Department in Damascus.
Layla is one of those affected by the decision of the Ministry of Interior affiliated to the Syrian regime’s government, to extend suspension on civil status transactions, criminal records, immigration, passports, and traffic transactions, until 16 April, with no clues on how to complete such proceedings that require being conducted exclusively in paper.
The suspended civil registry transactions include the issuance of identity cards, family registers, individual and family civil registration extract, passports, and transactions involving marriage, birth, divorce, and death.
Immigration and passport stalled transactions include granting or renewing travel documents, declaration of citizens’ movement, granting or renewing residency permits for Arabs and foreigners, providing work permissions, as well as granting exit visas.
Muhammad al-Sibai, a resident of Homs city, talked to Enab Baladi, about the problems he faced due to work suspension at the Immigration and Passports Department. Al-Sibai said that he completed all the required procedures for renewing his nephews’ passports, to extend their touristic residence permit in Turkey. However, he did not receive them today, even though the set date was 23 last March.
In addition to immigration and civil registry transactions, several other basic and daily ones have been stalled, such as traffic transactions, quittance certificates, reconciliation over civil violations, provision of driving licenses. Meanwhile, all judicial record transactions have stopped, the most important of which is granting police clearance certificates (clean record).
The Syrian Ministry of Interior made no official statements on the possible alternatives, procedures, or the consequences of delaying such transactions. It merely stated that citizens will be exempt from fines for late registration of civil events and new identity cards as well as family registers’ acquisition thereafter.
The Syrian government does not provide any electronic ports to conduct government transactions. This led to a complete shutdown of ministries’ work and, consequently, created a crisis for citizens and resulted in an interruption in the ordinary course of various legal procedures.
As a response to al-Assad’s desire… “e-government plan on paper only”
Why did the electronic transformation falter in Syria?
At the end of 2009, the Syrian Ministry of Communications and Technology, which was only six years old back then, released the first documents of the e-government plan, envisaged to finish within 11 years, which means by the end of this year.
All primary services were supposed to be provided online either on the interactive or transactional level, with a 50 percent use rate of the available electronic services (the ratio of electronic channels users compared to those using traditional ones). While 70 percent of the total government services were expected to be available through channels other than the traditional ones, and 60 percent of government supplies were meant to be done electronically. However, the only technical progress that was achieved to date is the “smart card” system, which is very similar to ration cards, with the difference that the former is automated.
As per the intended vision, it was to “provide outstanding services to the beneficiaries, through increasing the effectiveness, productivity, and transparency of the government work. In addition to providing integrated electronic services through multiple channels, while working on protecting personal data.”
To achieve these aims, it was necessary to assess the organizational and administrative readiness on the ground, along with the availability of the needed human resources; hence a sheet was allocated and attached to the plan to address these issues. Meanwhile, another sheet was devoted to clarifying the “national context” of the achievement, which is still unsettled to date.
Enab Baladi examined the plan published on the Ministry of Communications’ website, as the second plan in the framework of digital transformation in Syria. This plan was preceded by another project the government worked on in cooperation with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in 2002.
This cooperation was followed by this same cabinet formation (previously affiliated to the Ministry of Communications assigned for the management of various tasks, including those related to media), to be headed by Bashir al-Munajjid, who was counted on to lead an era of technological progress in Syria.
Since the first project was limited to the expansion and development of communication networks as basic modern structures, the second project, in cooperation with “UNDP,” seemed more wishful, especially with a set of obstacles that the Ministry’s plan overlooked, and discussed reluctantly. Consequently, the focus was on cofactors, which were linked with Bashar al-Assad’s plan for governmental reforms, to be a basis in the second presidential term plan, which was then in its second year.
Both the plan and attached sheets started with a phrase Bashar al-Assad said in his oath-taking speech after 2007 referendum on “renewing the pledge of allegiance” to him, stating that administrative development is the only way to eradicate corruption through expanding the use of modern technologies, in reference to the actual reason behind digital transformation in the country, that is to uproot governmental corruption.
The plan then moved to explain the importance of the administrative development Assad talked about, pointing out that the establishment of e-government is not only automation of transaction but rather a change in the prevailing patterns of management.
In order for this to succeed, the plan points out to a fundamental factor, which is to increase oversight on the government’s performance by “unions, People’s Council of Syria and National Progressive Front,” as representatives of civil society. All these demonstrate inconsistency between the idea of administrative reforms and public oversight by specific groups, which do not necessarily represent citizens in this case.
While the plan praised the political climate and the “leadership’s adoption” of reforms as strength points to facilitate the implementation of this plan, it criticized “some departments’ reluctance within the government”, which is still used to date as an excuse for not implementing or delaying any plan in Syria.
Government or governance?
Precise definitions differentiate between e-governance and e-government based on the difference between these two words: government and governance. While the first refers to a system and automation means automating processes, structures and systems’ development, the second refers to the functionality, or automation of services, which presumably will facilitate a mutual communication between citizens and their government through electronic means remotely.
The Ministry of Communications refers to its plan as an “e-government project”, however, the intended goals include enabling bilateral communication as well as providing automated services for citizens, which makes it a little closer to the notion of governance in many of the provided details.
Indicators on the cease of the digital transformation process
The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) prepares periodic reports on government development in the Arab region. These reports include progress indicators of both e-government and e-governance in the countries under study while implementing projects and workshops to assess the government’s progress and support it.
These studies usually rely on the indicators of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which show Syria’s lagging behind in e-government development.
In 2014, UNESCO said that the war, along with military and political conflicts affected the development of the e-government in Syria, with a score of 0.3134 on the E-Government Readiness Index, (EGDI), followed by Sudan on the list of the Arab world’s least developed countries in e-government.
In 2016, the indicator of e-government development witnessed a decline of 0.02.
In 2018, the index improved slightly, climbing to 0.365, and was described as “average”. Nevertheless, Syria lagged behind the Arab countries, along with Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and Iraq, while the UAE and Bahrain topped global lists.
These indicators rely on long-term policies and strategies, political will, plans. They also depend heavily on the role and authority of the different institutions, along with the legal and regulatory basis, state of the internet, as well as oversight and privacy.
“At the state’s service”
Legislations and network are the basis of Digital Transformation
The process of establishing e-government and e-governance requires a set of financial and organizational basis as well as adequate and trained human resources. It also requires a broad legislative frame that separates between the different stages of the process either at the level of transformation within the government or between the later and its citizens and the existence of a qualified infrastructure.
Security legislation, not governance
The Communication Ministry’s plan published in 2009 points out that the legislative framework for its implementation has strengths and weaknesses: the first having standards for information security and supply procedures, as well as contracting for information projects, with the law of “electronic signature and network services,” which represent legislations related to the internet being a service to regulate its use.
As for its weaknesses, they involve the absence of legislation to protect the privacy of personal data in the government administration, lack of legislation to publish information about the government apparatus and methods of communication “to enhance transparency”, and finally limit the number of procedures related to supply, installation and operating the projects.
Despite mentioning transparency and identifying points of strength of the plan, it did not address the lack of legislations related to the freedom of using the network and the right to have access to it and use it in a reverse manner by citizens, within the framework of governance procedures that guarantee easy access to services either remotely or through electronic channels.
The only change and legislative action related to the plan for the benefit of the Ministry of Communications and Technology was passing a law in 2012, under the name of “Law for the Regulation of Network Communication against Cyber Crime.”
In the meantime, the context and nature of the stipulated legislation of the law and its subsequent implementations demonstrated that it was not enacted to serve in the digital transformation process, but rather for security purposes.
Large parts of this law clarify the relationship between the internet service provider and citizens, in terms of the powers and privacy contraindications, more than examining the relationship between the government and citizens through electronic channels, and network.
The law focuses on “Cyber Crimes” during citizens’ online engagement, and the imposed penalties accordingly. It also provides room for accountability on the freedom of expression, under the pretext of “promoting terrorism and disturbing public security.”
Barriers to access the Internet
According to a study carried out by the “Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression” (SCM), it points out that before 2005, Syrian citizens who would like to have internet access had to submit a formal application to one of the internet service providers operating inside Syria, attached with a copy of their identity, and had to wait until their requests were answered. This was due to the fact that “Communication institutions” were used to ration the internet subscription service for a long time in the past years. This did not end to date, as the “ADSL” subscription is still subject to rationing.
Year after year, internet service providers started to spread, and they are no longer limited to governmental ones, to reach more than 30.
In 2010, Syria was ranked 124 out of 138 countries on the Networked Readiness Index within the framework of “World Economic Forum“. In 2013, Syria was left out of this annual ranking primarily due to its political and military conditions.
In 2016, dependence on internet portals in Syria reached 33 percent, while a large number of users relied on two mobile phone networks namely (Syriatel, MTN Syria) to access the internet, according to data provided by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in a detailed study carried out by ESCWA.
According to the same study, the internet bandwidth was not more than 9,3000 Mbps, compared to 1,182,000 Mbps in the United Arab Emirates. The word package refers to data units sent over the internet, which determine the speed, response, and pressure on the network.
In the same year, the Ministry of Communications announced that it has a plan which will help Syria outrank the Arab Gulf’s internet gateways. However, network failures and interruptions of the “submarine internet cable” prevented that later.
At the beginning of 2018, the problem of slow internet connection prevailed throughout the country, which led to difficulties while loading websites, updating applications, or social media platforms. Consequently, the slow internet connection also raised the ire of the People’s Council of Syria to criticize the internet’s poor quality of service.
Back then, the Ministry of Communications in the Syrian government’s regime confirmed damage at the “internet submarine cable” was the main reason for the problem, and promised to fix it and launch the fourth-generation internet 4G services within months. These services were provided only by the private company “Syriatel” for portable phone lines at a small-scale and at high prices.
Last February, the Minister of Communications told the state-run SANA news agency, that the number of internet portals in Syria reached more than 1.5 million, providing coverage of more than 90 percent.
In the same context, the ministry announced the implementation of new mechanisms for internet packages, which provide a decrease in the internet speed after reaching a specific limit, in accordance with the packages used by subscribers of the “Telecommunications and Post Regulatory Authority”, an increase in the internet speed, require additional payments.
“Automated Ration Card”
The smartest electronic services available for Syrians
The Syrian Ministry of Communications and Technology said that the number of the main government services listed by several ministries on “EGOV.SY” website, to be provided within the framework of the electronic government, reached 1,121 vital services. However, the ministry did not classify or determine their nature, field, or their affiliated ministries.
Recently, the ministry launched the “Syrian e-government portal (E.SY), and a smartphone application called “My Gate “, under the framework of the e-government project.
The Minister of Communications and Technology, Iyad al-Khatib, told SANA, on 27 February, that the e-government portal is “one of the basic and important infrastructures of the e-government.”. Al-khatib confirmed that the interaction with this application and the portal will be even more significant with the launching of the electronic payment system by the Central Bank of Syria (CBS) in the coming few months.
The portal and the application provide all the needed information about government services in a unified form. They both include the necessary documents, the required financial fees, as well as the expected time for performing these services. In addition, they allow users to share their opinions regarding the validity of this information and the quality of the provided services on the ground reality.
Meanwhile, most ministries do not yet provide automated services on a large scale, based to what was monitored by Enab Baladi team on their official websites, and interviews held with citizens, who confirmed that most government transactions have been suspended in light of the ministries’ work suspension as a precautionary measure to curb coronavirus spread.
From digital transformation to “ration cards”
Since 2014, the “smart card” is a project implemented by Takamol Holding for the benefit of the Ministry of Oil and Mineral Resources affiliated to the government of the Syrian regime. The project aims to automate the distribution of oil derivatives to all kinds of machinery. The same goes for citizens’ distribution regarding diesel and gas. The project was implemented through all public and private gas stations so all citizens could obtain their shares.
The project was implemented through three different stages; the first stage was in July 2014 and is focused on government mechanisms. The second stage took place in 2016, focusing on the private vehicles, while the third one was launched in 2017 and targeted the distribution of heating oil to families as an attempt to solve the oil crisis.
The government of the regime started using the “smart card” system, in August 2018, to distribute gasoline allocations, to be the first material purchased through this card, followed by diesel and gas and fixing Syrian families’ monthly consumption of them, under the pretext of rationalizing consumption.
Since last February, other items were added to the card, mainly sugar, rice, and tea. According to the new regulations, a person is allowed to purchase one kilogram of sugar per month, at a price of 350 SYP (0.68 USD), provided that a family’s share does not exceed four kilograms a month, along with other food products, which transformed the “Smart Card” into an automated ration card.
The “smart card” project is one of the rare services available only for citizens using the internet service through an application, and its role is limited to allocating oil and rationing items and fixing citizens’ consumption.
Absence of technology in northern governments
Paper-based transactions in opposition-held areas while “the Autonomous Administration of East Syria (ES)” in the infrastructure phase
Most areas outside the control of the Syrian regime lack the needed tools to conduct government transactions in a more organized manner. On the one hand, this is due to the security, military, and economic tensions these areas go through in addition to other factors related to planification, efficiency, government structures, and the available legislations.
To date, the “autonomous-administration” (in the east of the Euphrates), the “salvation government” (in and around Idlib), as well as the “interim government” (in the north of Aleppo), have not been able to develop work mechanisms and introduce automation in the conduct of administrative matters; either through systems which enable sharing information and facilitate cooperation within a government department or within all departments, or through the use of systems providing services to citizens. In addition, there is a total absence of systems managing dealings between these governments and other institutions such as relief organizations, and organized initiatives for workers within government sectors and departments.
When Enab Baladi’s team contacted the administrations of these regions, asking for the methods used while conducting transactions within departments and between the government and the residents, our team concluded that paper-based dealing is still dominating the administrative work in all these three regions.
The price of instability
Moving from the current dealings to an automation system does not happen overnight. It requires adequate human resources to establish an infrastructure and equip it, as well as training human resources on how to deal with automation systems. It also requires carrying a full study of the project from an administrative perspective and developing the needed tools. All this is stalled by the continued military tensions and instability, according to the director of the office of public relations in the “salvation government,” Muhammad Salem Qasim.
Building an electronic governance system requires financial capabilities and equipping human resources as well as having specific communication equipment that is not easy to obtain. In the case of fetching them, their prices are usually high, in addition to the difficulties of bringing this equipment through border crossings, according to what Qasim said in an interview with Enab Baladi.
Until now, both north and northwestern regions of Syria still depend on generators to secure electricity supplies for departments, institutions, and homes, in the absence of specialized institutions to carry out this mission. This is one of the main obstacles these areas face.
Electronic infrastructure without “servers”
The “Autonomous-Administration” in north-eastern Syria is working on infrastructure to establish an automation system in its areas of control, through the use of “fiber optics” (used for the transmission of data over long distances at high speed, these cables are used in data and communication networks, and by many cable televisions and telephone systems around the world), according to a worker in the Communications and Energy Authority, who talked to Enab Baladi.
The source, preferred to remain anonymous for confidentiality reasons, added that the administration is currently working on the project, and has completed one of its stages, he said that “the infrastructure in al-Hasakeh governorate, north-eastern Syria, is almost ready.”
According to the source, work has now started in the governorate of Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria, Manbij city, east the governorate of Aleppo, and Tabqa, west of Raqqa city. The sources highlighted that the meeting center of the stages of work will be in Raqqa after completion, at the end of the current year according to the project’s timeline.
According to the same source, he said that “after completing the infrastructure preparation, work will start on the automation project between some all of the institutions, such as tax, transportation, and communications, while the security institutions will have their own structure.”
However, the project faces several challenges, including introducing “servers” (Internet servers) and certain electronic equipment, regarded as the required infrastructures for the process of digital transformation completion.
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