In Civic Responsibility We Trust: Can Deera Save the Welfare State?

haytham

It has become a Kuwaiti custom to cross broken pavements, enter dilapidated buildings, and suffer bureaucratic calamities. Governmental infrastructure is both old and decrepit. Lines at hospitals are long and tedious. Our traffic accidents grow more severe by the hour. Still, we, as a people, continue our long tradition of passive discontent. We have all inhaled poisonous odors from faulty sewage canals and complained to our friends, family, and neighbors about them. We think we live in a developed country, a modern nation that is rich with oil wealth, and we are vocal in our demands for better services. Very vocal. Everyday, all day. But when it comes down to actually doing something in order to repair decrepit buildings, or to innovate bureaucratic procedures, or to volunteer as assistants where manpower is lacking, Kuwaitis often tread a passive road of detachment. We think that these tasks are menial in nature, so we wait for someone else to begin the reparation. We wait for someone like Haytham Al-Hawaj.

Haytham returned to Kuwait after receiving a Bachelor’s degree in Bio Engineering from Arizona State University and an MBA from Kuwait University. After working in the Ministry of Health, he became a Managing Director at Designed: Value Innovation, and a Co-Owner of Think Café. While an adroit businessman, Haytham also learned the importance of social responsibility. Thus, apart from developing high quality designs, his small IT Company also perseveres to “give back to the community.”  Haytham assigns certain work hours to initiate non-profit projects that would contribute to the betterment of Kuwaiti society. Some of his projects included creating awareness for environmental issues, Kuwait’s liberation, national unity, the perils of smoking, and obesity.

Haytham is also an avid cycler. One day, while cycling from Al-Shuhada’ to Kuwait City, he had several near-death experiences. Roads were broken and uneven; some of them didn’t even have pavements, jeopardizing the life of pedestrians and cyclers alike. Cars sped through streets with a wanton disregard for the life of the man on a bicycle. And who could blame them when Kuwait has never developed a culture of diversity on the road? Avenues that allow pedestrians to walk from place to place are few and far between. But when Haytham’s bicycle tripped over a pothole and almost toppled into a manhole whose cover was missing, he figured it was time to get active. He searched for a phone number and a name of someone in charge of Kuwait’s road safety and called. When he answered, the employee asked Haytham to call another number. And then another. And then another. And then no one picked up.

Determined to engineer a solution, Haytham and his staff established deera.com.kw. The website “is a non-profit project that aims to increase the efficiency of government agencies through the involvement and continuous feedback of the people.” Deera has two key objectives. First, it aims to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles of the old system that offers outdated phone numbers and incorrect staff names by joining all governmental departments into one website. Haytham finds this modification necessary as it connects everyone, regardless of their gender, sex, or sectarian affiliation, to all governmental services. It helps to minimize (if not eliminate) prejudice in the public sector, since transactions are transparently conducted online. Haytham explains, “The Ministry cannot monitor every inch of the country. Financially, it is not feasible to assign a member of staff to evaluate every street, building, product, or service. This means we need a system that allows the people to help the government locate these problems or issues.” Once someone locates an issue, say for example a fraudulent transaction in a commercial store, this person will only have to connect online and post a complaint (rather than the previous option of calling several numbers to no avail). This makes Kuwait’s citizens participants rather than passive observers. Once a complaint is filed, it will appear on the website for all users to see. Government officials will not be able to dilly-dally, pretend that they did not get the complaint, ignore, or disfavor a user based on bigoted preconceptions. Otherwise, users may utilize the second feature of Deera to retaliate.

The second aspect of Haytham’s project enables users to evaluate services, facilities, and people of the public sector, where “Service is a measure of how well the agency performed the service it is supposed to deliver. Facility is a measure of how well the facility is set up to deliver the service to the public. And people is a measure of how well the employees at a given government agency treat the public.” To file a complaint you simply log into your account and choose the tab “Send a Complaint.” You select the type of complaint from a drop down menu, write your report in a text box, attach a picture of the problem (i.e. a manhole that is missing a cover), and choose the address from a map of Kuwait. Deera then types up your complaint into an official document and sends it to the ministry in question, (i.e. Ministry of Interior). Rating is even simpler. You select the tab “Rating” and choose a Ministry, a Department, and a Division from the left column. On the right, you move the rating bar horizontally to indicate the number you assign to the division’s services, facilities, and people.  Instantly, your rating will appear on the website’s homepage for everyone to see, maintaining the project’s claim to transparency. The website will also be linked to your Facebook account; and a new phone application is currently in development that will allow you to become a bigger player in your own country’s development.

Upon asking Haytham about the general lack of civic participation in Kuwait, he identifies two main causes: “First, many people don’t know who to contact when they face a certain problem. They wouldn’t know if the issue is related to the Ministry of Interior or Finance, and which subsequent department after that. The very few that know the department cannot be bothered to go and file a complaint because they know they will only be faced with red tape.” The old system is currently disintegrating. Only some departments in certain ministries have websites; and many of these websites aren’t fully functional. Deera integrates all public sector facilities together, allowing more people to evaluate greater portions of the country. Even without knowing which ministry is concerned, drivers will now be able to immediately indicate which traffic light is not working properly.

Moreover, Deera removes the government from its deadlock with the private sector. At the moment, the debate addresses whether Kuwait should continue as a welfare state—a state that offers free education, full employment, free healthcare, retirement funds, etc.—or whether it should privatize its public sector and afford private businesses more freedom to run their enterprises. Haytham believes that the public sector should not regard itself in competition with the private sector because their missions differ. Private businesses aim to make a profit. They evaluate their achievements (how good or how bad the company performs) by measuring how much money they make over the years.

The public sector is different. Its objective is not to generate money, since most services are offered cheaply or even free of charge. Evaluating these services, then, needs to be a more dynamic and sophisticated process. Haytham notes, “If someone had to evaluate the facilities of the Ministry of Health, he would judge whether or not hospitals had enough beds or proper machines. To judge the services of the Ministry of Health, one would appraise the amount of time a patient has to stand in line to get a doctor’s checkup.” Obviously, the Ministry of Finance, or of Foreign Affairs, will need different standards for evaluation. These relative and dynamic protocols can only be developed after enough people join Deera and begin their assessment of the public sector.

Once Kuwait’s citizens begin to evaluate public services, the competition will be shifted from its current mode—Public versus Private—and public services will be made to compete with one another. For instance, if the people (staff) of the Ministry of Interior were given the worst rating of all the ministries, officials and managers would be forced to act, otherwise, their “bad grade” would be readily visible to all on Deera’s homepage, suggesting weak leadership skills. Full employment forms a pillar of Kuwait’s welfare state. National workers have the security of knowing that they will always find a job, and that once they work in the public sector, it is almost impossible to be fired (when problems arise, Kuwaitis are often relocated to different departments or ministries rather than dismissed altogether). Deera gives governmental employees an incentive to improve on the job (or simply to smile at clients).

This may be a dream, but it is certainly a dream in the making. www.deera.com.kw could potentially evolve into an essential component of Kuwait’s public services. Along with your friends, family, and neighbors (the same people that lend you their ears when you are denouncing the decrepitude of the nation), you can send a message to the government that you will no longer stand by idly as the country falls to ruin. You will help monitor every inch of your beloved land, and partake in the evaluation of its services. You can ensure that privatization of land and services will not be utilized as a haphazard mechanism to benefit the few. Thanks to Deera, you could essentially hone your complaints into a constructive system of criticism and feedback.

Haytham and his partners are now in the process of raising awareness for their website, which is only a few months old. They aspire to maximize their media exposure by approaching various newspapers, TV stations and other media channels to reach as many people as possible and inform them about the existence of the platform; Deera can only achieve its full potential if a significant portion of the citizenry becomes involved. You can play your part by supporting them in their quest; making a personal contribution to the creation of a more efficient, transparent, accountable and responsive public sector.

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