Firstly, I would like to thank you for extending this invitation to me. Being here with you, in the premises of Haigazian University is a source of both, happiness and pride to me. Haigazian University is an educational edifice that joins, in a practical context, crucial academic modernity that is aligned with the progress of our times, with the reinforcement of tradition, identity and the specificities of culture.
The university prioritizes the human dimension, which is sadly no longer the concern (or the priority) of many, in discovering their moral order and nurturing it, and this in my opinion, is essential in our difficult era.
Hagazian University considers it an obligation to prepare its students to be of service to Lebanon. It distinguishes itself, by granting its ownership to the community. And truth be told, this concept is a source of inspiration for public administration. In Lebanon, what we require, is in fact (functional) service- driven (oriented) public administration, a need that I have stressed and highlighted on numerous occasions. I repeat this stance with no hesitation: what is required is public administration transformed for public service. We must serve instead of dictate (direct or instruct) and target the public good and wellbeing by providing services to people as citizens and not as clients. Value must be placed on human beings rather than on results only. Members of the public administration should see themselves as activists, and bear in mind that the government is in fact, owned by its citizens. We must follow the example that Haigazian university has established by proclaiming its edifice the property of the community.
Introducing this concept to public administration in Lebanon is not a luxury. The challenges that the Lebanese public administration is facing are enormous. Some of those challenges are related to the political situation, while others are the consequences of the social environment and the public perception of the State. Other challenges are related to the weaknesses of our institutions that were not able to keep up with international developments or respond to the emerging changes at the national level. Although public sector reform has been one of the declared intentions of the successive governments since 1991, people do believe that the relevant efforts that have been exerted have gone in vain (if we assume that enough efforts have been exerted in the first place!).
Hence, developing an effective remedy will require multi-sided contributions on multiple levels. This common mission will require the crucial contribution of all active parties in the private and public sector, in civil and national societies, and in cultural and educational organizations, with universities and higher education institutions at the lead.
One of the key steps to amend this situation consists (lies) in the political determination/decision to rebuild trust between the public administration and the Lebanese citizen. This endeavor will require a historical stance to fight corruption, by building public administrations that exercise independence and allowing them to make decisions that are protected by the law, irrespective of political pressures. I do not exaggerate when I state that the failure to fulfill this mission will place Lebanon amongst the failing states and by definition, a failed state is one in which public administration lacks any sense of administrative responsibility. It is no secret that donor countries consider administrative reform a compulsory condition and an inevitable introduction prior to initiating committed steps towards supporting our small-sized country. With these issues in mind, it is our national duty to develop an emergency plan that addresses the challenges of public administration, that can be summarized as follows:
The first challenge is the incessant political instability. Efforts towards administrative reform cannot be consistent and serious in the absence of political stability and commitment. Lebanon has had to survive various political and military dangers while maintaining reform efforts and it continues to look for international support for reform projects on the assumption that if we wait for political tranquility to prevail as a precondition to launching reform initiatives, the whole reform endeavor will be halted forever!
The second challenge is the limited financial resources that are allocated from the Government’s own budget to development projects, including administrative reform, the dilemmas of corruption on the one hand and debt mismanagement on the other hand. Funding agencies that have doubted the credibility and transparency of their national counterparts are therefore hesitant to provide additional funds.
The third challenge is the shortage of statistics and reliable data that are important to feed the decision-making process. Policies and programs cannot be adopted and implemented in the absence of accurate data. Needs cannot be assessed and prioritized, projects cannot be identified, and progress cannot be tracked without the establishment of the required hard and soft components of knowledge management.
The fourth challenge is the absence of a clear and officially (nationally?) endorsed HR strategy that would focus on the recruitment, selection, induction, training, and promotion of public sector employees. Personnel management is still practiced in a routine manner, or on an ad-hoc basis. Consequently, the skill gap is widening as a result of the absence of succession and career development plans, and staff promotion is at the mercy of political interventions that outweigh objective considerations.
The fifth challenge is the obsolete rules and regulations that govern the public sector and their reflections on procedures, organizational structures and reporting mechanisms. This problem has widened the gap between government and citizens. Dismantling the hidden networks of interests within administrations is one of the biggest challenges. Perhaps this is one of the main reasons behind thwarted efforts for automation and digitization.
The sixth challenge is the weakness of control bodies and mechanisms. The public sector is not expected to function effectively and in compliance with set regulations unless the control agencies are efficient and effective. The inspection and control agencies in Lebanon have not been developed since the early 1960s and their internal dynamics do not give them the opportunity to deal with the changes that the administration had to cope with or to confront the political violations and administrative transgression.
The seventh challenge is the dispersed decision-making process in the country. Even when sincere efforts are exerted to deal with priority issues, decisions are not taken smoothly. These symptoms are the result of the political divisions and mutual vetoing between the different political and confessional factions, and partially due to the non-existence of effective professional mechanisms that are conducive to objective policy analysis and timely decision making. Even when decisions are taken, their execution is ill-respected in a country that is in desperate need for the enforcement of the rule of law; the cornerstone of governance.
This summarizes some of the significant challenges that the public sector of Lebanon is facing. These problems can no longer be cured by the traditional methods employed so far to address them. Radical transformative measures and not simplistic modifications, or transitional and uncoordinated steps, must be adopted to solve them.
In view of these challenges, what are we at OMSAR doing to remedy the current situation and what is our vision to radically deal with administrative reform and promote better practices for transparency, integrity and corruption prevention? More importantly, what can we do to earn our citizen’s confidence and trust?
To address these concerns, we are currently working along two lines. We are first and foremost, committed to developing a strategy for digital transformation. A year ago, OMSAR held the First Digital Transformation Conference. Since this first milestone, we have marked significant progress towards completing the national strategy required for this transformation. We are confident that in the near and foreseeable future we can complete and lay the necessary and foundational structure of this project. This strategy will appeal to donor countries that consider digital transformation, and the creation of soft infrastructure, key to reform and a prerequisite to holding conferences in support of Lebanon.
But first, let us define digital transformation in the public sector!
Digital Transformation in the public sector is about rethinking how to bring together people, data and processes to create innovative and responsive services that become the preferred channel for engagement between citizen and government.
Firstly, there is a general international agreement that digital government is good for the citizen, transparency, democracy and reduction of corruption. It is now a necessity and not a luxury.
Secondly, cyber security is perceived as a substantial risk that affects sovereignty. Digital information is now viewed as the most valuable asset of any modern organization. Digital government holds private information about every citizen. It also holds massive amount of sensitive state information, thus increasing potential cyber risks from a variety of sources Therefore, cyber security implications of digital transformation need to be critically addressed at all the levels: infrastructure, software, hardware, people and processes. Hence, having a dedicated government team responsible for cyber security is essential.
Thirdly, appropriate (adequate) investment. The technology world is very competitive and attracting digital talent to government position is an issue due to established perception, uncompetitive salaries and unclear career paths. The next issue focuses on infrastructures. It is needless to stress that having reliable, high level connectivity, adequate bandwidth and high availability are pre-requisites for a good digital eco-system. Another issue focuses on governance. It is vital to amend existing legislations to ensure suitable light-weight governance support for the development and use of digital services.
So, what does it take to undergo successful digital transformation?
Our strategy puts relentless emphasis on the user’s experience; the citizen is placed at the heart of our design process and is a partner at all the stages of product development. For instance, all citizen centred information and services will be available on one location www.gov.lb. The second emphasis is on people and building digital capacity. We need digital leaders that understand cutting-edge technologies to create innovations. Equally important is the role of a digitally skilled workforce. Another important factor is a clear mandate from the top government to empower the transformation.
How are we going make this digital transformation happen?
We are simultaneously developing the action plan for the draft national anti-corruption strategy. We are also holding workshops with the sectors that have been identified as the most vulnerable to corruption to develop a preventive action plan that will enhance and reinforce transparency and integrity in these sectors.
This project will leave its imprint on the development, democratic process, and the economy of Lebanon. Once again, I would like to thank you for your kind invitation and for allowing me to spend some time with you, as you think about these important areas.