• Opinion
  • January 4, 2019
  • 8 minutes
  • 1

Dubai’s “tech campus” for government is smashing inter-agency siloes

Opinion: City Makers has saved millions and improved services for citizens and businesses

city makers

This piece was written by Yasar Jarrar, Vice Chair, Global Future Council on the Future of Government, World Economic Forum (2016), Senior Fellow, MasterCard Centre for Inclusive Growth (USA), and Senior Partner, Exantium (UAE). For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed


Today’s challenges — like traffic and mobility, unemployment and climate change — are complex and require more joined up work than ever before. On the service level, citizen expectations are rising daily. A more seamless set of government services is expected, from registering a birth, to paying taxes and fines, to setting up and closing a business.

This all requires unprecedented levels of integration and cooperation between government agencies. Yet, while everyone agrees that collaboration is a good idea with many potential benefits to citizens, the search for workable blueprints for truly joined-up government has been going on for decades.

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Government agencies face a range of challenges and barriers when they attempt to work together, from laws and legacy systems that hardwire siloed working models, to the politics and competition issues that exist in any government.

Governments have approached this via various methods and tools, including articulating common outcomes, establishing mutually reinforcing strategies, clarifying roles and responsibilities to avoid overlap, and reinforcing agency accountability for collaborative efforts thought plans and performance measures.

In Dubai, the government decided to take this one step further, by bringing the agencies physically together, in a location and environment that resembles a tech-startup hackathon. It named this new site the City Makers.

City Makers is an initiative dedicated to improving government services by breaking the barriers between government departments and allowing public servant teams to truly think out of the box. Any public official would know this is much easier said than done.

It was set up by the centre of government — Dubai’s government cabinet known as “The Executive Council” — who built a dedicated location far from any traditional government building.

The venue is in Dubai’s vibrant art district, Al Quoz, and is inspired by private sector tech campuses like Googleplex

The venue is in Dubai’s vibrant art district, Al Quoz, and is a refurbished industrial warehouse, inspired by private sector tech campuses like Googleplex. Beyond the physical infrastructure, the mood of the place is full of energy, colours and great coffee!

Launched in 2014, the pilot phase from 2014-2015 saved the government more than $US 32 million dollars annually by making two public services more customer-centric and efficient. The initiative was then scaled up to improve all other 62 joint public services by 2020.

Based on a customer-centric approach, the City Makers concept lies in studying the full life cycle of any government service and applying design thinking techniques to ensure that the journey is smooth and efficient.

A key ingredient is technology, but the real secret is intra-government collaboration and the ability to design and deliver a seamless service across various departmental boundaries, legacy IT systems, and — in some cases — multiple policy definitions and/or standards.

For each service the program aims to improve, a City Makers “innovation” team is put together representing all entities involved with up to three to five members from each entity.

The team attends a six-day event to learn more about the challenges through primary and secondary research conducted by a City Makers research team, including interviews with customers. Participants go through the customer’s journey map for that specific service, look at benchmarks and success stories and finally brainstorm ideas to solve the challenge.

Following these six days, the teams work on developing a prototype for the service and try it out for two to three weeks. The teams present the results to the Director Generals of the involved agencies and decide on next steps such as budget allocation.

Some of the successes so far include the “no objection certificate” for anyone trying to launch a major project or building. Legacy systems previously forced the citizens — aka customers — to secure multiple versions of this from various entities and departments, such as road and transport, municipality, water and electricity. A time consuming, and not enjoyable, process.

After working in the City Makers, all these agencies launched a new joined-up application called ENOC for citizens wanting to launch a major project or building. This application does not only streamline the various certificates needed, it also eliminates the need for any physical visits (and hence the need for dedicated service officers in over four departments). As a result, around $US 33 million dollars are being saved every year.

The monetary savings have paid for the costs — two to three times over

Another example is the airport Smart Gates which allow residents to go through passport control in a matter of seconds based on facial recognition technology and without the need for a passport stamp or scan or a finger print — effectively clearing the traditional passport control check point in less than 15 seconds. Four main entities were involved in this initiative: Emirates ID, Dubai Police, the General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs and Dubai International Airport.

After ideas like these are designed, the teams get a six-month period to implement their idea and submit results for the City Makers Cup, an annual competition that aims to reward the best results, while motivating all the participants and recognising their efforts.

So far, in its fourth year, the monetary savings have paid for the costs — two to three times over — and the initiative has started diffusing a collaborative and entrepreneurial spirit among various ranks within the government. Not to mention the dramatic service improvements that have made the lives of citizens and business in Dubai better. — Yasar Jarrar

(Picture credit: City Makers)

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