Is a wide ban on using smart devices in Saudi’s public sector the best choice?

The Saudi Gazette recently reported that “Government may ban all its employees from using smartphones and tablets, such as iPhones, iPads, and BlackBerry devices, during working hours after receiving complaints from the public“.

The paper offered no details about the  complaints received but inserted its comment: “It is quite common to find government employees at numerous service-based government agencies answering their mobiles and, in many cases, leaving the office to answer personal calls“.

Obviously this is not the main reason because public servants don’t need smartphones to receive phone calls. I’m assume the real reason is that some public servants “with direct contact with service-seekers every day” use their smartphones in such an excessive way  that it has compromised the quality of public service and triggered frustration amongst the citizens.

To me, a possible government-wide ban wouldn’t be surprising but it would be disappointing as it would be against contributing to the advancement of the public service of a country that has a very ambitious eGovernment program.

Early this year, the Saudi’s Ministry of Interior banned iPhone and Galaxy Tab devices from its establishments due to security concerns.

Last year, Ministry of Culture and Information issued a policy to organize any activities related to “electronic publishing” in the country. The policy which can be downloaded here (Arabic only) covers fifteen types of electronic publishing including websites, blogs, forums,  newsletters etc and requires those who wants to start such activity or those who are currently practicing  to apply for a government license to do so.

 

So, the possible ban of smart devices in public service agencies is consistent with the government approach in dealing with the spread of new media and smart technologies. However, I don’t find it (if happened) a step in the right direction for two reasons:

  • Such government-wide ban would send a negative message to the increasing number of government agencies that have launched (or considering launching) their apps for smart devices. Take for example the very popular Tadawul app from The Saudi Stock Exchange.  A shift towards on-the-move government services can’t go very far if the government agencies forced their own employees to stay off the shift. After all, we shouldn’t forget that such a shift is more about the people than the organizations.
  • Knowing the popularity of smart devices in Saudi Arabia, I think it would be difficult to apply such government-wide ban.

Instead of a government-wide ban, I recommend a combination of policies to regulate the use of smart devices and educational and awareness efforts both targeting employees of government agencies. A limited ban such as the Ministry of Interior’s one will be understood as long as it has a clear justification.

At the end of the day, the focus should always be on the long term vision of promoting good eGovernment practices and fostering innovation in public sector.

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