The road to good governance is a two-way street

'Citizen participation' is about asking people what they want and involving them in the process of designing the public services they need.

Relationships with governments are often a top-down affair, a one-way street with citizens on the receiving end of public services often designed with neither their input nor their needs in mind. So it is a pleasant surprise when citizens take centre stage and governments go out of their way to make their e-government programmes more "citizen-tailored". The heads of e-government entities in the six GCC countries gathered at a conference in Muscat last month to discuss trends, obstacles, experiences and best practices in e-government with experts and scholars from international organisations including the UN and the World Economic Forum. Delegates explored how to create and use more effective e-government services, and how to establish links between the various GCC e-government portals. They also discussed a unified e-payment gateway across the GCC portals, a set of standards for e-government projects, and the minimum e-government services the GCC should provide.

It was obvious that there are many points of synergy between the six countries. This was reflected in one of the conference's many recommendations: the creation of a special e-government division at the GCC Secretariat level to facilitate collaboration on various issues, including international indicators and the possible development of a Gulf index. Another recommendation was a framework for the exchange of regional expertise and international best practice via similar conferences, workshops and e-government awards. Integrating information and communication technologies (ICT) into the operations of the public and private sectors, as well as civil society, was another key proposal.

Technology itself was not the only focal point, however: the people using it had their share of attention too. Participants called for incentives to encourage people to use e-government services, and highlighted the need for skills development that would allow the public to better utilise these services and integrate into the "digital society". Using ICT to improve quality of life and create an inclusive government, especially for those with special needs, was strongly advocated, as was the establishment of mutually beneficial partnerships - whether with Gulf universities, to enhance research and development in e-government projects, or with the private sector via incubation and small and medium enterprises, to promote the ICT industry.

Lastly, participants emphasised the transition from e-government to "i-government", or integrated government, which would provide the foundation for improved customer service. Suggestions included creating committees to facilitate inter-agency coordination within GCC countries, and selecting specific GCC e-government projects to be used as models for the implementation of an overall i-government approach.

While the recommendations largely addressed issues facing e-government entities and citizens separately, the conference itself focused on the relationship between the two. "Citizen satisfaction" was pinpointed as one of the main goals of GCC e-governments in their presentations, but the most prevalent buzz phrase at the conference was "citizen participation" - a concept that was noticeably missing from the recommendations.

Definitions of citizen participation varied widely, from merely convincing citizens to use e-government services, to engaging them and eliciting their input and feedback. While "citizen satisfaction" may be about giving people what they want (or, more probably, what governments presume they want), "citizen participation" is about asking people what they want and involving them in the process of designing the public services they need.

Using Web 2.0 tools such as blogs, wikis and social networking was touted as one way to do this; in fact, this emerging trend was discussed across several presentations and panels during the conference, and pronounced one of the key drivers in promoting good governance. While the conference recommendations do make commendable suggestions on how to advance e-government in the GCC, one would have hoped that they would provide more of a focus on its participatory nature. The concept of "citizen-centricity" is part of the GCC e-government lexicon; Web 2.0 tools are ubiquitous and already an integral part of GCC citizens' everyday lives.

For example, a cross-national UAE survey conducted by the Government Transformation and Innovation programme at the Dubai School of Government identified technology as the main enabler of trust and collaboration in government; social networking tools, specifically, ranked as one of the top three technologies promoting collaboration and participation. If the GCC and the wider Arab world want to embark on the next stage towards good governance, a shift in the approach to achieving citizen satisfaction is needed - from a one-way, government-led approach, to a two-way participatory approach involving the citizens themselves.

Racha Mourtada is a research associate at the Dubai School of Government