Is design the winning ingredient in tackling Lebanon’s public sector restructuring?

To tango with reforms

Illustration by: Ivan Debs

At any meeting these days, from academic circles to business and banking conferences, one is likely to hear more than one allusion to Lebanon’s reform challenges. Much more. Whether it is the pesky theme of electricity or the issue of fiscal and structural reforms in the public sector, the big questions that matter today are all about how.

Although Lebanon progressed painfully to finding its new government—something that seems to have almost been forgotten in some circles in the relatively short time since the ascension of this new administration—a myriad of problems are now maturing from the worry if reforms will ever happen, to the more pertinent question of how these reforms can be done.

One pressing “how-question” seems to have an underappreciated design answer. This is the question of how to tackle reforming the public sector into a citizen-centric sphere. Is it enough to compel all administrative units in Lebanon to digitize? Will transitioning from paper-based public processes—that sometimes requires days of roaming some of the country’s most fascinating corridors and offices with all the appeal of worn-out interiors from the days of the early republic—to electronic databases and files on computers suffice to upgrade public services at ministries to something that deserves the label “e-government”? 

If any doubts were to linger in citizens’ minds about the feasibility of such a solution, design may be a big part of all more viable answers and provide better approaches, say Lebanese design specialists with expertise on multi-tiered levels of conceptual and specific approaches.

Digitizing the public sector in the sense of implementing electronic networks will not achieve any deep transformation, says Loubna Ibrahim, product and innovation lab lead at Ideatolife, a regional consultancy of developers and designers that is focused on technology-and-people-centered software solutions. From a human-centric design perspective, technology is not the main issue. “We have to focus on end-users and understand problems from a human perspective. This is the core aspect of design thinking and everything follows from this user centric approach. It is all about understanding humans, and then designing for humans,” she tells Executive.

The human approach

As Ibrahim explains, this prime mandate of understanding the humans involved in any digital transformation of public sector units in Lebanon means that such transformations need to start small and proceed incrementally. “Transformation does not come overnight and one needs to take it one step at a time,” she says. 

On the reasoning that people are fundamentally afraid of change and often consciously or subconsciously afraid of technology and so hesitant to adopt unfamiliar technology, Ibrahim further advises that not only would the digital transformation of the public sector in Lebanon have to start small, but also that the solution for digitization would have to be different in every public sector organization and heavily involve the persons in every specific organization. “People in the public sector entities will have to co-create the solutions, because they are the ones who know the issues,” she says. 

While some digitization progress has been made in Lebanon’s public sector units over recent months—especially since the new government’s arrival—and challenges related to issues such as basic infrastructure and partially wanting digital literacy in the country are on the mend, the obstacles to a complete digital transformation do not end there, says growth strategist Georges Abi Aad.

“We are not convinced that digitization is at the core of digital transformation of the government, because the first thing is to design the process. Processes tend to be outdated and serve agendas more than citizens. Before digitizing them, we need to look at processes and redesign them from scratch, because if you digitize a flawed process, it [still] will be flawed. However, if a successful process is digitized, it has the chance to succeed on larger scale,” he tells Executive.

Abi Aad works with Birdhaus, a Lebanon-based agency in the commercial communications sphere that seeks to twin client’s marketing and sales efforts through “novel marketing practices.” With the statement, Birdhaus hints at its integrated online (coding) and enterprise-engulfing marketing approach that is also described in the business by nine-year old buzzword of ‘growth hacking.’ In the context of digital transformation, a known focus of growth hacking is on rapid digital-world growth of organizations that are tight on economic resources. In its work, Birdhaus furthermore uses human-centric design concepts for online interaction that have in recent years been promoted in the digital communications media sector as UX and UI (user experience and user interface) design.

When applied to public sector administrations in Lebanon, such design will require a process that takes into account the needs of civil servants as well as be citizen-centric, chimes in Abi Aad’s colleague Marilynn Bou Habib, who is a UX/UI designer at Birdhaus. “To provide high-quality services through digitized systems, the public sector needs to have incentives for providing high-quality services and on the other end, the citizen needs to know the problems,” she says.

According to these two professionals, barriers to achieving true digital transformation in the Lebanese public sector must be expected in form of resistance and pushbacks because of the same basic human fears that Ibrahim had referenced. They also concur that political buy-ins by stakeholders and participants on different levels of a public sector entity and incentivization of all their involvement will be necessary.

Furthermore, according to Abi Aad it is a paradigm of UX design to boost the transparency of the process that is designed or redesigned. Initiation of such transparency—which Abi Aad describes as “presently completely absent” from public sector processes in the country—will reveal many layers of opacity that today exist in the public realm, adds Birdhaus Director Karen Abi Saab.

“Processes need to become more transparent as citizens are informed what they need to do throughout the entire process [of interacting with a public entity] whereas today citizens are told from one step to the next [what they have to do] and have no visibility of the whole process. It thus is an important step in digitization of public processes to have the public know the entire process,” she says.

The right people on board

It is revealed in course of a wide-ranging discussion with the team of Birdhaus and its parent company, Flag M Group, that they had encountered a further barrier of  unfavorable mindsets toward its efforts to launch a mobile app with UX design inputs that would have been conducive to public sector digital transformation on the municipal level of in Lebanon. Embarking on the app’s development about two years ago (shortly after municipal elections in Lebanon and in parallel with work which the group did for two public sector entities in the United Arab Emirates), Flag M invested into the project on its own initiative under the notion that the mobile app might appeal to municipalities in the area of Keserwan and Metn.

The group approached several municipalities with the app that included features designed to improve communication between municipal authorities and their residents as well as elements such as an emergency connection button to police, but found that the municipalities were more interested in promoting their achievements than in communicating with residents. “The project got stuck because of a big lack of awareness [in the approached municipalities as to] why [they should want to] enhance the user experiences of the people,” explains Firas Mghames, the CEO of Flag M Group.

As one lesson of the experience, the team of Flag M and Birdhaus concluded that top-down buy-in will be required in Lebanon to achieve acceptance of digital transformation initiatives and that, moreover, the context for such efforts must be very conducive from political and budgetary angles. Municipalities that struggled to deliver basic services to their residents might not have been the best targets for digital transformation, Abi Aad observes.

However, while there are undeniable barriers that will have to be overcome on all levels when digital transformation of public sector entities is tackled, there are even more compelling upsides. The success of the effort of redesigning, from scratch, the interactions between citizens and their administrations in Lebanon would be likely to unleash significant cost savings in different ministries and administrative units. Examples from private sector experience in the region hint that the size of potential savings, which would range from paper needs to time wastage of citizens and also to more productive use of employee time in the units, will be huge, even as they today cannot even be properly estimated. Moreover, as Ideatolife’s Ibrahim points out, employing human-centric design methodologies —also called “design thinking”—will be a sort of dual speed process that can be initiated fast and rapidly show first results, even if years may be needed to produce the full results of the transformation process by design.

“When we work on digital transformation strategies with enterprises, we plan a five-to-seven year strategy but a country like Lebanon might need more like ten years,” says Ibrahim, but then emphasizes that, “changes will start to happen after the first six months.” As she explains, some six weeks after its start, the process would see the creation of first solutions on basis of user research that would thereafter be user tested and incrementally as well as continuously improved, with tangible outcomes. “If it takes more than three months to implement a solution, something is wrong,” she says.

For Maroun Sarrouh, board advisor at Flag M Group, Lebanon today is indeed primed to accomplish fast progress of its reform process and digital transformation. Based on fortuitous ending of regional conflict and economic bust cycles in conjunction with the external pressures and internal determinations of the current time, he sees the course set for reforms. He says, “Historically, when a decision in Lebanon is taken and covered, it is implemented. What is beautiful about this country is its ability to adapt and adapt very rapidly, because of the presence of its huge human capital. With the amelioration of the political/economic environment, I really think that all the ambitious projects that have been left in drawers for so many reasons, will now just pop into existence. Change can happen and it may be slow at first but then grow exponentially.”

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years.

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