Reforms, digital transformation and government’s chronic opaqueness

Ruba Saqr
Ruba Saqr has reported on the environment, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, and served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and as head of a PR agency. (Photo: Jordan News)
On December 27, 2021, a short but most enlightening ad appeared in the local newspapers. It offered more information about the government’s “digital transformation” plans than the press releases by the Ministry of Digital Economy and Entrepreneurship and the Greater Amman Municipality combined.اضافة اعلان

The ad opened with background information about the digital ministry having received financing from the World Bank under the “Youth, Technology, and Jobs Project”. From this program’s budget, the ministry planned to cover the cost of hiring a consulting firm to conduct a “digital transformation needs assessment” of GAM.

The winning bidders were also expected to use their findings to formulate a “digital transformation roadmap” for the city of Amman, all while showcasing “GAM’s readiness toward digital transformation” with a list of its “strengths and weaknesses”, and an understanding of its “current digital status”.

In a nod to the public sector’s abhorrently low standards, the very last line of the ad listed the wrong URL to the ministry’s tender page. It led, instead, to a badly-designed “404” error page which lacked a top navigation menu (or bar) to take users back to the site’s homepage, just another example of how attention to detail is far from being the government’s strongest suit.

This also affirms the notion that the Jordanian government is good at theoretical things like vision and strategy, but remains hopelessly weak when it comes to implementation and action.

Up until a few weeks ago, the tender was still on the website with four PDFs to download (fortunately, I have downloaded them all). But checking the ministry’s website this week, the tender page was nowhere to be found. The link now leads to a page that says: “Sorry, this content is expired.”

It remains a mystery whether the reason for removing the proposal from the ministry’s website is due to tender cancelation (although a round of Q&As was already published on the now-deleted page, signaling some level of interest from potential bidders), or whether the terms of reference and supplementary documents offered too much transparency and information that neither the ministry nor the World Bank wanted us, laymen and women, to be privy to.

A third and highly optimistic scenario (therefore, an unlikely one) could be that the government has decided to give its World Bank-designed digital transformation plans a serious rethink – on occasion of the Royal Court’s National Economic Workshop to reform the economy, which includes digital plans, water, and the creative industries among topics discussed.

If this is not the case, though, then it is probably high time for the government (with its recently formed public sector modernization committee) to perform a full-fledged investigation into the digital transformation dossier, in hopes of unearthing the reasons for the removal of a publicly floated tender from a government-owned website.

The investigation might also need to gauge the Ministry of Digital Economy’s level of competence in handling Jordan’s digital transformation plans, and whether it is capable of meeting the highest possible standards of professionalism and governance.

Sadly, there is plenty of evidence that points to the ministry’s inability to manage the complexity of such a dossier in a way that protects Jordanians’ privacy.

Although Jordan’s long-awaited privacy bill (the “Personal Data Protection Law of 2021”) is currently pending ratification in Parliament, the government’s track record illustrates a worryingly weak grasp of the concept.

One example comes from the ministry’s poor handling of Jordanians’ vaccination data. In April last year, the government turned a deaf ear to calls from the Jordan Open Source Association (JOSA) to stop sharing vaccinated people’s personal data with telecommunications companies.

To quote a blog post on its website, “JOSA denounces this misuse of data by telecommunication companies, particularly the use of such data for commercial purposes.”

The association went on to say that text messages to “registrants following their vaccination appointment to promote or advertise services and offerings such as free data packages” were “sent without the consent of those who registered, and without their knowledge that their data was [being] shared with these companies.”

Without a doubt, a ministry that allows anyone to obtain, store, and then monetize the “un-anonymized” vaccination data of citizens cannot be trusted with the skilled implementation of digital plans affecting the lives and privacy of Jordanians. This is the kind of medical data that should stay confidential and be protected by special privacy laws, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, aka HIPAA, in the US. In the absence of such laws, insight, leadership and common sense should step in to fill the gap.

Let us also not forget last year’s social media uproar denouncing the badly designed Sanad application, which the ministry treats as its treasured first step into Jordan’s digital transformation. Seeing how this app was littered with structural and conceptual problems, one can conclude the road ahead is equally littered with problems, short-sightedness and poor governance.

Speaking of governance, around a month after the above-mentioned ad, chairman of GAM’s temporary committee announced the municipality’s completion of its five-year strategic plan, saying that transforming Amman into a “smart city” was one of the prominent features of the strategy – which Ammanis had no hand in creating. He offered no further details with regards to the nature of the smart city or its scope.

The ad and the ensuing tender were the only two places offering information, but that is not where Jordanians normally look for answers. Such opaqueness further widens the trust gap between local government and citizens, especially when the people of Amman are excluded from plans affecting the city they call “home”.

In early February, I wrote an opinion piece critical of GAM’s classic “top-down” governance approach, the looming surveillance technologies threatening to ruin Ammanis’ quality of life, and the possible mass deployment of biometric sensors as an egregious breach of citizens’ data privacy.

Last Tuesday, this dystopian foreshadowing turned out to be more tangible than initially anticipated.

The Queen Alia International Airport, in collaboration with Royal Jordanian, announced plans to install “facial recognition” biometric scanners across select self-check-in kiosks and at boarding gates to trial test tech solutions designed by a Spanish company.

Conversely, three states in the US have already banned facial recognition from the public and private sectors, on the grounds that it stood in sharp contrast with their inhabitants’ values.

A decision about installing facial recognition cameras and biometrics scanners at the airport, or any other private or public space in Amman or across the Kingdom, should be subjected to careful planning and regulation by the government, with active participation from all shades of civil society and the private sector, not just the tech crowd.

A government with so much incompetence weighing it down should probably wait until it builds enough capacity to handle a sensitive dossier like digital transformation, chiefly because it calls for high-end skill and agility, which are certainly not part of its current skillset.

The writer has reported on the environment, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, and served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and as head of a PR agency.

Read more Opinion and Analysis