The long long way towards the digital transformation of the public sector and the fight against corruption

KLEMITDAOUD
May 12, 2022
Clement Gibon and MJ Daoud

Anyone who has had to deal with the public administration in Lebanon knows how outdated and archaic data processes are, and how easy it is to bribe public servants to accelerate a process that should have been faster to start with. In recent years, several initiatives to digitize public data have been put in place in order to not only make access to public service more efficient, but also to combat the country’s systemic corruption. Activists, civil servants and non-governmental organization members push for a digital transformation of Lebanon, at a time when the country is going through one of the most important crisis in its history.

 If you had to deal with the public administration recently, you know that things have taken a turn for the worse since the start of the crisis. “There is no electricity, no internet, servers are not working, there is no paper nor pen, and employees are often on strike”, sums up Ahmed S. whose job is to deal with public administrations on behalf of clients.

Even before the crisis, the amount of paperwork required to deal with any procedure was staggering. And communications between administrations is slow at best, as it often goes through fax or courier (!).

This state of things is not for lack of plans to smooth down the processes, through the digitisation of the public sector. “The idea behind the digitization of the public sector is to facilitate all kinds of different processes between individuals and public sector entities, explains Mohammad Najem, director of SMEX, an NGO that defends the digital rights of people in the Middle East “It’s to make people’s lives easier. Instead of going to the daman (social security) and waiting in line for many hours,you can do things online.”

As early as the 1990s, Lebanon put in place a series of strategies aimed at creating an e-government and implementing a real digital transformation of its administration. In May 1997, the Ministerial Information and Communication Technology Committee (MICTC) was created to discuss the strategies to be adopted in order to implement an e-government.

The MICTC in cooperation with the Office of Minister of State for Administrative Reform (OMSAR) drafted a series of roadmaps and strategy papers. It was not until 2018, however, that OMSAR developed a digital transformation strategy to rethink not only the government, but all procedures, institutions, and employee skills.

The fact remains that none of these initiatives that could have fundamentally changed the functioning of the Lebanese administration have ever been implemented by the council of ministers. When Jessica Chemali, deputy executive director of Legal Agenda, and Tech and Society Mozilla fellow asked why, she was told that the political climate was never appropriate:

“The different strategies of an e-government or a digital transformation have not even been put on the agenda of the council of ministers. That’s why there are many projects instead of a real strategy coming from the council of ministers, ” says Jessica Chemali.

She described a lack of political will from officials to implement a digital transformation. The simplification of procedures that such a process would entail, coupled with the transparency of having the data online rather than handwritten, would not be in the interest of the different ministries and the political-economic elite.

CORRUPTION AT THE HIGHEST LEVEL

“Having a complex system that is not coordinated makes it easier for corruption and political interference. It also makes it easier to bypass the oversight of what happens in the ministries. This is why OMSAR gets funding to do the technical expertise, but the ministries responsible for implementation do not follow its recommendations. Funding for digital transformation was not even included in the national budget,” says Chemili.

Salam Yamout who worked as the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Strategy Coordinator at the Prime Minister office between 2010 and 2016 goes even further:

“The biggest corruption in the country happens at the council of ministers meetings. The council is an omnipotent, powerful body, where they make a lot of decisions including sending money, awarding contracts, or even overriding the laws, which is unconstitutional. The Council of Ministers could be described as a closed black box, where men gather around the table, all politically affiliated, and do business openly through decrees of the Council of Ministers without monitoring or overseeing.”

This corruption comes at a very high cost : 10 billion US dollars a year according to the UN—$5 billion, due to misallocation of public funds and limited returns on investments, and another $5 billion, as a loss in economic opportunities related to capital flight and the reluctance of potential investors. For reference, 10 billion represents roughly 20% of the country’s GDP in 2018 (before the crisis) and 50 % of the country’s GDP in 2021, 2 years into the crisis.

The country ranks 154 over 180 in terms of corruption in 2021, according to Transparency International.

SOME DIGITIZATION EFFORTS

Nevertheless, some ministries and administrations have achieved a certain level of digitization and transparency: the General Security, where most processes are automated, is one of them. The Ministry of Finance is another: up until the crisis, you could declare and pay your taxes online. And the Ministry of Public Health has developed, in recent years, a series of measures to make its public services available online. They created the national E-Health program, an application that facilitates the process of requesting services from the MOPH, as well as the Ma3an application which was launched at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent the spread of the virus.

“It took the MOPH a decade to reach this level of digitalization, but no one is really using the tools”, says Chemili. “And when you ask them why nobody is using it, they think that maybe people do not know about it. Maybe we need to raise awareness or make national campaigns”.

What’s missing though is a certain level of coordination between administrations in order to ensure a real effective digital transformation in the country. “If you want to digitize the public sector, it should be done under a big strategy”, says Abed Kataya, digital content manager at SMEX. “ It should not be nuggets here and there, which is happening right now.”

Coordination is made hard by the egos of the public servants, according to Yamout, who says that “every ministry thinks that they are god appointed”. This is where the IMPACT platform made a real difference: it has managed to connect different ministries, international organizations, as well as citizens,  allowing for inclusive monitoring by the Central Inspection and accountability of the public sector.

THE IMPACT EXPERIENCE

People residing in Lebanon got familiar with IMPACT at the start of the COVID 19 pandemic in 2020. But few know that IMPACT was originally designed as an auditing tool, not an e-government one : The Central Inspection was short on staff – still is, as the recruiting process is highly politicized- and needed a tool that would help its inspectors do their job.

IMPACT was launched at the end of 2019, as a tool to increase cooperation between administrations. 

When the pandemics started, it went from an internal to an external tool, and was used to monitor the number of active cases, hospitalizations, then to grant nobility authorizations during lockdowns.

“It was the first time that citizens accessed a public service through their mobile phone”, says Judge Georges Attieh, the director of the Central inspection (CI) since 2017.

And when the vaccination program started one year later, the Ministry of Public Health (MOPH) turned to IMPACT as they had hundreds of thousands of vaccines to distribute under strict monitoring by the World Bank, and no means to do so.

“The idea was to digitize the whole process from beginning to end”, explains Carole Sharabati, director of Sirens Associate and Analytics, in charge of developing the IMPACT platform. “For the vaccines, it means processing the people who registered, the criterias put in place by the MOPH to decide who to vaccinate and when, the SMS to tell people to book their vaccination appointments, the appointments, the scheduling with the hospitals, the actual vaccinations, and finally the certificates. When the whole process is digitized, there is a possibility of real-time audit. It leads to transparency and accountability within the public administration.”

INTEGRITY BY DESIGN

What IMPACT did, because it was an auditing tool, was that it integrated some principles of good governance in its design. These five principles, decided by judge Attieh, are equity, transparency, accountability, privacy and security.

From a technical and design point of view, there is this idea of integrity by design that underlines all the work of Sirens. “The example I always give is this one”, explains Sharabati. “I want this road to be a one way road. If I put a STOP sign, people will still come in. If I put a policeman to enforce the stop sign, people will run over the policeman or bribe him and still come in. If I put a concrete block, people won’t be able to come in. And that’s what integrity by design means. You control the behavior of the public servants with the system and the access you give them.”

It’s also a way to protect the public servants: “It’s not easy for the people inside of the administrations”, says Sharabati. “They are under a lot of pressure, as citizens are used to corruption to get their way. But when you provide them with a system that does not allow them to circumvent it, then they can blame it on the system, they can say the system does not allow me to do it.”

NOT A PERFECT SYSTEM IN LACKING REGULATORY FRAMEWORK

Impact has a lot of detractors.

Obviously, it’s not a full proof system. No system is. “Of course there has been fraud, but how much?”, asks Sharabati. “10-20 %? Isn’t it better than 90% ?”

There is also a concern about the security of the data. Though the people at Sirens assure that all measures have been put in place to secure it: double encryption keys, firewalls, “We follow the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)”, says Sharabati.

But the main debate is about who owns the data. Officially, all the data collected by IMPACT is under the CI care.

“ The role of the CI is to supervise other public institutions”, says Mohammad Najem. “It’s not healthy to have the same unit that collects data and is responsible to supervise other entities. You cannot do that by data protection standards.”

To this critique, Attieh answers that it’s part of his mission.”If you look at the mandate of the CI, we are not only a disciplinary body, we have the right and obligation to facilitate the administrative process in the Lebanese administration, to coordinate between several entities. We also have the right and obligation to give advice to the administrative authorities” . 

And in order to do that, they need data. “The names we collect are not important, what’s most important are figures and numbers, data that will drive decisionmakers to make good strategic decisions. That is where we are working and looking forward to. This is where the mandate of CI is”, explains Attieh

To make things even more complicated, Lebanon has no privacy law for public data.

There is an e-transactions law from 2018, that protects data from the private sector.

But right now, the government has a “blank check” to do whatever they want with public data.

And that’s a problem. “Today, if IMPACT leaks data, you can’t sue them, because the Lebanese law does not allow you to do so,” explains Mohammed Najem. “And even if they follow GDPR regulations, we’re not a European country, so we can’t do anything legally speaking.”

SOME PROGRESS IN THE MAKING

Actors in the sector are pushing for a conversation about public and private data.

Especially that we have an Access to Information law (ATI) , Law No. 28, since 2017, that citizens can use to hold the government accountable. It  allows citizens to request information from the State, and makes it compulsory for the latter to publish its decisions, and its  financial and administrative data. Though few of them abide by it. 

With the publication of data online, the whole society can be part of the oversight process, believes Assad Thebian, executive director of Gherbal initiative.

“Making the data available is the first step in trying to find a solution to corruption and to hold public officials accountable. But again, this is a big puzzle, and we need all the pieces to make it work. We need the judiciary, activists, journalists and whistleblowers. Everyone has to work together,” says Thebian, 

Nevertheless, the implementation of the law is not yet effective, and State administrations often do not respond to information requests, or reject requests without any real argument. In its latest report the Gherbal initiative found out that only half of the public entities surveyed on their financial expenditures for the years 2018 and 2019 shared different degrees of information. Thus out of the 200 submitted requests, the Gherbal initiative received 95 responses, with only 41 of them within the legal time limit.

Despite the lack of compliance with the law, Assad Thebian describes a positive evolution, with the number of responses that doubled compared to the other years.

“Not only are we receiving more answers, but the quality of them is getting better and better. For example, a few years ago, it was a dream for us to have the administration providing a list of contractors they work with. Now we have over 60,000 contracts in our hands over a value of  4 Billions dollars.”

More recently, on 21 April, a draft of the national strategy for digital transformation was supposedly presented to the  Council of Ministers for study. Until today, no announcement has been made on the approval or rejection of the draft strategy. For Salam, this inaction of the government is not really a surprise

“Every minister does the same thin. They plan strategy after strategy without anything being done. What matters is who is going to do it, and how it is going to be done. There is no law that organizes e-government”

PETTY CORRUPTION VS GRAND CORRUPTION

Thing is, all this happens at a level of what is called petty corruption. But most of the corruption happens at another level, a higher one: customs and procurements. An estimated one to two billion dollars is lost in evasion of customs duties each year in Lebanon, mostly at the ports.

As for the procurements, The OECD estimates that 57% of corruption cases worldwide are linked directly to procurement transactions. And it’s no secret that in Lebanon public procurements have been a key gateway for corruption because of a lack of competition and transparency.

Lebanon has passed a new long awaited procurement law in 2021, which was on the list of structural reforms needed to ensure financial governance.

Procurements now occur in a decentralized manner, and a central authority (PPA) regulates them and exercises oversight over them. Problem is, how do you regulate procurements among 1,100+ municipalities and hundreds of public administrations, if you don’t have a digitized system?

Which is why Attieh says: “We cannot accept a system for a new public procurement law without having the e-government platform under the oversight of the CI. For me the right way is to have a central platform that could be owned and used by the PPA to fulfill its mandate, and could also be used by the CI to do the real time oversight and audits” .

Sharabati believes that the IMPACT experience can help fight the grand corruption : “We learned how to design a process in order to minimize the fraud: integrity by design, separation of power, how to control a user’s behavior by giving them some accesses and not others, transparency, making the data available to the public, etc. “

A LONG WAY AHEAD

All the actors interviewed for this article say that the digital transformation of the public sector is going to take place, because this is where the world is heading. Though at what pace? No one can tell.

And for people dealing with the public administration on a daily basis, things definitely don’t look brighter : “Corruption got worse. Before the crisis, you could get away with your rights without resorting to bribery every time. Today, you have to bribe public servants handsomely and at every step just to get your rights”, says Ahmed S.

Though this does not deter people working in the background. On the contrary, Sharabati believes that: “The vulnerability of the state today is an opportunity, because our politicians don’t have the means of their decisions anymore”. That’s why DAEM, the ration card program of the Ministry of Social Affairs, is on the IMPACT platform : because the World Bank, which is financing the program, is pressuring the government.

“ We managed to use technology for the public good, and that never happened before in Lebanon”, she adds. “People in power believe that everything happens politically, but politics go nowhere. You need to build institutions, and that’s gruesome work, it’s millions of processes, code lines, systems, training, competences, to build a system that operates correctly.”

Which is why Mohammed Najem is cautious: “It’s not gonna be easy, he says . “I don’t think this generation of public sector employees are going to be able to apply this, they can barely use computers. It’s a big project.It’s gonna take some time.”

But Attieh is confident. He describes a real change in digital culture where people are not only starting to use public digitized tools, but also understand its stakes to fight corruption.

“It is our future that’s at stake”, he says, “we didn’t just lose our money with what our traditional system did during 30 years, we lost our future. We are trying to start anew so that in 5 to 10 years, administration is well and truly separated from political stakes”.

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