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The United Arab Emirates: A Rising Star in E-Government

How the small Middle Eastern country jumped from 49th to 28th in online service delivery should have state and local CIOs in the United States paying close attention.

This story is part of Governing's annual International issue.

Some small countries have had outsized success with e-government. For years, Denmark, Estonia, the Netherlands, Singapore and South Korea have scored high on international rankings for online service delivery. But another small country from outside the digitally advanced regions of Europe and Asia has quietly yet quickly moved to the forefront of tech-savvy governments: In 2012, the United Nations ranked the United Arab Emirates (UAE) 28th in its global survey of e-government, up from 49th in 2010.

It’s no small feat to advance 21 positions in just two years, and how this small Middle Eastern country on the Persian Gulf did that should have state and local CIOs paying close attention.

Once considered a backwater in the Middle East, the UAE today is highly developed. Dubai, one of the UAE’s seven states, hosts some of the world’s tallest and most impressive buildings. Governed by a Supreme Council made up of seven emirs who appoint a prime minister and cabinet, the UAE started down the e-government path in 2001 when it launched an electronic card to collect service fees. Since then, the kingdom of 9 million has continued to build its e-government reputation, which was solidified earlier this year when the tech giant Accenture placed it third in its annual roundup of leading digital governments.

A lot of UAE’s success has to do with its management style. It’s taken an approach that states and their local partners might find interesting: Government departments in the UAE’s principalities can create any new online services they want, while the central authority focuses on building the common parts that all departments need, like payment and customer support. This hybrid approach results in standardization, best-practice sharing, cost savings and fast deployment.

Look at “Markabati,” a portal from the central authority that lets all UAE residents connect easily with every aspect of vehicle service in the public and private sector. Whether the need is car insurance, spare parts, customs and registration forms, or car rental, everything can be found and transacted through the portal.

Or look at the country’s experiment with mobile technology. The UAE sees itself as moving from e-government to “m-government.” Home to one of the largest smartphone and mobile penetration rates in the world, the government announced earlier this year that it was setting up the Arab region’s first lab to test secure ways to offer residents mobile government services.

This initiative is part of the UAE’s larger effort to make digital technology, networks and apps a central part of how it operates and interacts with citizens. By May 2015, the UAE hopes to have all government departments providing a one-stop store for apps and enabling all transactions through a single log-in. It will allow the public to deal with government departments using their smartphones “any time, any day of the year,” Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum told Arabian Business.

The UAE backs up all of its e-government initiatives with serious money. IT spending is expected to grow nearly 13 percent from $716 million in 2013 to $808 million in 2014, according to the International Data Corp. All this investment and work is paying off in two ways. First, UAE views its public spending on e-government as another way to seed the field for private investment in the country’s growing technology sector. Second, it has led to one of the highest rates of customer satisfaction in the world for service delivery.

There are certainly many differences between the UAE and the U.S., but we should admire the level of state and local cooperation there, and consider how we can replicate that here.

Tod is the editor of Governing . Previously, he was the senior editor at Government Technology and the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for IT executives in the public sector, and is the author of several books on information management.
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