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Still in Its Initial Stages

An Overview of Local Online Services Offered by Palestinian City Portals

By Saleem Zoughbi

No central or unified effort has yet been made to render accessible the online portals of cities in Palestine. Instead, each individual municipal council is expected to plan and implement such gateways.

A study conducted to examine the online services that are currently available on the websites of selected Palestinian cities assesses the portals in general and online services in particular. It points out the difficulties and strengths as well as the challenges and opportunities encountered by municipal councils when they aim to enhance and develop the digital transformation of their local governments.* The report is based on data gathered while adhering to the criteria and indicators relevant for portal assessment, the Local Online Services Index (LOSI), as published by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA). The data for the report were gathered by a team of ten Palestinian volunteers that comprised experts from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) and the UN University Operating Unit on Policy-Driven Electronic Governance (UNU-EGOV). The assessment was carried out by the author of this summary.

This summary of the report presents, analyzes, and assesses the results. It represents the opinion of the author and not the official opinions of the relevant Palestinian ministries or municipality councils, UNU-EGOV, or UN DESA.

Implementing necessary changes in the legislative and regulatory frameworks for the development of cities is one of the highest-priority issues for the digital transformation of city services. The relevant legislation and regulatory frameworks for city governance must be reassessed when introducing technology in efforts to improve service provision and enhance the transparency of local governance. Such guidelines are mandatory not only to implement a successful digital transformation but also to empower and engage residents, encourage them to cooperate, and fulfil their expectations, thereby fostering a contented life in the city.

The development of a well-designed and effective city portal has been a priority of all councils serving Palestinian cities. Over the last few years, the implementation of city portals has made available a range of online services.

Within this context, city portals are the front end of local governance. They not only support and serve residents but also provide a platform for digital development, gradually leading to the successful digital transformation of local government – beyond services and in conformity with the national digital transformation endeavors of the central government.

An online service is an interaction between the local government and people or institutions that aspire to benefit from various types of services via a city portal. Such interactions could be one-sided or interactive and reflect the degree of maturity of the service providers. With online services ranging from simple to complex, a basic online service may help residents acquire information and data through a search engine. A complex service, on the other hand, might require data input by the people who seek services and offer various options from which they have to choose. The portal then responds according to set rules and regulations.

There is no doubt that advances in technology have introduced significant opportunities for service providers, enabling them to transform the way they deliver their services. Local governments have many opportunities to adopt new and innovative types of service delivery. It is widely accepted that using technology to this end enhances not only the efficiency, speed, and accuracy of services and local government performance but also promotes transparency and accountability. In addition, it enhances interaction and encourages the participation of residents, which could also help stem corruption.

The UN has recognized the significance of introducing a formalized tool to assess city portals. Emphasis was placed on the portals’ content, service provision, and technology as well as on the participation and engagement of their users. As a result, LOSI was designed and tested as a survey tool. It comprises 86 indicators, 80 of which were defined in the 2020 edition of the United Nations E-Government Survey. These indicators cover five criteria, namely content, services, participation, technical framework, and institutional framework.

Figure 1: Overall LOSI values for the assessed cities

With the help of a group of 10 independent volunteers, I selected a group of 20 cities and assigned them to the assessors; each one was asked to consider four cities: two cities were to be assessed, and the assessments of two others were to be reviewed. These assessments and reviews were carried out individually. In addition, the document “Local Government Questionnaire (LGQ) for the United Nations E-Government Survey” was given to all cities that participated in the study. The data were then collected and verified, and descriptive statistics and computations were carried out. A preliminary analysis of the data showed clearly that while there is a major gap in online services between cities, there is also strong motivation and effort to develop, set up, and structure such portals.

Descriptive statistics and computations were carried out according to LOSI procedures. After the values were computed and normalized, indicators showed that the online portals were of either low or medium levels (scoring less than 0.5), with the exception of three cities that attained scores that this report considers to be high (between 0.5 and 0.6, see Figure 1).

Participation and engagement: 0.436
Service provision:  0.306 Content provision: 0.362
Institutional framework: 0.864 Technology: 0.423

 

Among the five criteria that guide LOSI, the institutional frameworks of the online portals scored highest (36 percent), followed by technology (18 percent) and participation and engagement (18 percent), whereas content provision was low (15 percent), and the least developed aspect was service provision (13 percent).

Figure 2: Percentages of criteria achievement.

The assessment shows that the majority of the assessed city portals are emerging portals with practically no effective online services. There was significant variation in the levels of achievement regarding the institutional frameworks of the municipal government portals (MGPs), indicating that some cities score better than others in this criterion, but the variation was much less for service provision, indicating that the assessed cities are on more or less the same level. This confirms that the online services are not well implemented, as most of the cities have similar efficiency problems when implementing services.

Interpreting the findings, we can easily observe that there is no fixed standard or template suggested by the Ministry of Local Government that would guide city portal developers; the quality of the respective portals reflects the expertise and maturity of the technical staff who developed it. Furthermore, serious obstacles must be overcome in all cities in order to integrate and implement online services. Moreover, it seems that citizens’ empowerment, participation, and engagement are affected by municipal and local government regulations and arrangements and tend to be minimally addressed.

The values therefore suggest that three of the assessed cities indicate an understanding of how portals can be implemented, while the ten cities that scored low seem to have widely different interpretations and visions of how portals must be designed to conform to the international standards suggested by the UN for local government online services. The other seven cities need a review of their portals and perhaps technical assistance to bring their services up to standard.

It is common knowledge that the developers of local e-government for Palestinian cities face many challenges, including technological, legal, partnership, and financial challenges. In terms of technology, a lack of inherent technical capabilities must be overcome through capacity-building measures, the forging of stronger ties with national e-government, and the provision of a team of experts who can provide support for portal developers. The legal challenge can be met by subjecting portals and online service providers, including their data resources, to laws and regulations that govern their design, data collection, access, and maintenance. This requires a clear congruence of rules and guidelines that govern local and national e-governance. To meet the partnership challenge, stronger cooperation and ties between the technical and managerial staff of Palestinian cities should be fostered to encourage partnerships between cities and to explore the integration of online services with other government portals. The financial challenge is as vital as all other domains of implementation. Budgeting and funding are crucial and must secure the portal’s sustainability.

The conducted study shows that these challenges are common to almost all cities and generic in nature. It is important to note that the five assessment categories are interdependent and cannot be viewed independently. But the relative success in three cities has shown that it is possible to develop frameworks that meet these challenges head-on. All stakeholders must now engage in order to mitigate the risk of failure.

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