Is Saudi Arabia agile enough to sidestep the digital ambition trap?

Is Saudi Arabia agile enough to sidestep the digital ambition trap?

Is Saudi Arabia agile enough to sidestep the digital ambition trap?
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Saudi Arabia’s investment in digital transformation has reached an astonishing SR12 billion ($3.19 billion) per year. The Kingdom seems quite ambitious on this front, but does it have the groundwork to deliver on the stated objectives?

The Kingdom is not alone in its endeavors. Around the world, leading digital nations have activated comprehensive national digital strategies. Still, examples of unmitigated success are fewer, and the fallout from failures is apparent.

Digital bellwether Estonia, for example, distinguished itself as a forerunner of streamlined citizen services by digitizing taxation and election services, creating an expectation among its nationals for exceptional digital services. Thus, when the Estonian Health Board was launched during the pandemic as a paper-based service, there was massive public outcry at the breakdown of its “digital by default” principle.

As it turns out, top-down digital ambition is not always a catalyst for concrete progress. And unrealized digital aspirations do not just result in costly delays but also cloud the ecosystem.

When digital transformations overpromise and underdeliver, stakeholders become disillusioned, and executives question the investment’s worth. Too often, even the best-laid digital transformation plans are resigned to die as “strategic vaporware” — revolutionary ideas on paper, never to be implemented.

Can the Kingdom avoid a similar fiasco, sidestepping pitfalls associated with overpromising and underdelivering?

Need to bolster the digital core

The Kingdom has key aces up its sleeve, uniquely positioned to evade the “digital ambition trap.” The Kingdom’s firm commitment to digital transformation, outlined in Vision 2030, is clearly backed up with the likes of the recent invigoration of “whole-of-government” digital entities and the rapidly expanding Tawakkalna Services app that makes more than 140 critical services available to citizens, including passport renewal, driver’s license insurance and a digital wallet.

At the same time, the country has successfully established bodies such as the Saudi Authority for Data and Artificial Intelligence, the Digital Government Authority and the National CyberSecurity Authority to set standards and ensure sufficient resources to guide the transformation.

However, more can be done to bolster its digital transformation efforts, starting with strengthening the Kingdom’s digital core — the central government infrastructure and policy enablers that must be in place before various ministries can implement their interventions.

One such example includes accelerating the full adoption of the “once-only” tenet for citizen data. Here citizens need to provide specific administrative data only once before it is automatically reflected across all e-government services, making it more effective, connected and with better quality service delivery.

The regulatory framework was launched by the DGA last year, enabling information to be locally stored. At the same time, data can also interact securely, thanks to robust privacy standards and an encrypted integration layer.

For example, say, if a person is hospitalized, their physician can have an accurate, comprehensive, and timely view at the ready of all salient aspects of their medical history.

Modular approach to digital transformation

The current picture of the Kingdom’s digital transformation can best be described as patchwork, given the sheer scope of services it is attempting to implement at once. While some services are undeniably meeting expectations, others lag.

Global examples suggest that digital strategy implementation is most agile when distributed among individual agencies. The more robust these systems, the better equipped the Kingdom’s many government agencies will be to undertake digital transformation independently.

That is because the success of a modular approach hinges on a strong foundation; with this in place, it becomes possible to add in and stagger new services, platforms and services as necessary without unforeseen dependencies.

The Kingdom ought to prioritize implementing the highest value digital services, which touch the core aspects of citizens’ daily lives. It means urgently increasing investment in high-quality tools for e-government services such as employment, healthcare, and finance, while also addressing the complications that arise from the cooperation of multiple public and private sector bodies that these services depend on.

For example, digitalizing employment services require involvement from the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development, the Ministry of Education, the General Organization for Social Insurance, and others. Similarly, healthcare services also come under the auspices of several separate entities that must be coordinated. As a result, extra time and support may be required to establish proper technology and data integrations in these cases.

Toward seamless e-governance

There is no doubt that the Kingdom is intently focused on achieving a total digital transformation, with a comprehensive plan underway. That execution is now taking place at a sustained and sustainable pace.

But whether or not this plan will deliver on its stated objectives and fulfill its citizens’ hopes and dreams for easy, convenient and accessible services — or whether it will create disappointment through failed initiatives — will depend largely on the robustness of the country’s digital core. Can Saudi’s aspirations meet expectations?

To evade throttling its ambition and to achieve meaningful, sustainable impact, the Kingdom would do well to double down on investments in its strong digital core. It should follow up with combined efforts focused on the highest-value e-government services, building iteratively toward radical emerging technology use cases. With this in place, the Kingdom can strive for a digital future in which its citizens can fully adopt, appreciate and demand exceptional e-government services.

• Jad Haddad is head of consultancy Oliver Wyman’s Digital practice for India, Middle East & Africa.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view