Ministry of Foreign Affairs – Saudi Arabia

A. Problem Analysis

 1. What was the problem before the implementation of the initiative?
Every country is unique and faces unique challenges in terms of the services that it provides to its citizens as well as to visitors and others who may wish to live and work in it. One unique feature of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is that it, as a nation, takes responsibility for the maintenance and upkeep of two of the holiest shrines within the religion and culture of Islam, namely Makkah and Madinah. Not only is Saudi Arabia the custodian of these key holy shrines but also welcomes the millions of Muslims that visit them on pilgrimages. This can be during a specific time for what may be called the main pilgrimage (Hajj) or the lesser one (Umra), which can be undertaken at any time. Whether for pilgrims tourists or business visitors, the fact is that in excess of 10 million visas must be processed each year. Against this necessary background, the system for issuing visas before the initiative can be considered. In this scenario, there were multi-agency stakeholders in the process so even within Saudi Arabia the agencies involved included health authorities, criminal records authorities and a number of others. With regard to applications that would de facto originate in many nations of the world, the challenges included how near the nearest Saudi Arabian embassy was to an applicant’s home nation, different legal and regulatory systems which may easily or with great difficulty be met, the variant social and economic status of nations and the financial status of individuals applying for visas from them. All of these factors created a chaos of bureaucracy, where applications took relatively long periods of time to process, were often rejected due to the omission of details because they had not been properly checked at the outset and a host of factors which added up to an antiquated system which could not adequately service the needs of the citizens of Saudi Arabia (as the business or religious hosts), nor those of the many visitors, significant numbers of which were pilgrims. In addition to this, it is very common for people who are aged over 65 to come on a pilgrimage, as it is for the sick and disabled, and the fact of not being able to fulfill what they may have considered as a religious responsibility through no fault of their own, is a travesty of conscience which applied whether the difficulties came in not being able to access a Saudi embassy, through a general lack of mobility, or because their visa was not forthcoming due to errors or excessive workloads on staff responsible for processing and issuing them. Thus, the fundamental issue which had to be addressed is how visas could be efficiently, equitably and effectively applied for and efficiently and seamlessly processed and issued.

B. Strategic Approach

 2. What was the solution?
The initiative, the eVisa Service, was proposed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and can be seen against a background of policies and initiatives which are aimed at ensuring that Saudi Arabia has modern e-governance across its who range of services and which are maintained at the levels of best international practices. The initiative concerns the issuing of visas for people wishing to travel to and visit Saudi Arabia and was targeted at saving considerable time and effort for applicants while at the same time ensuring that the Ministry responsible established higher levels of efficiency and motivation among its staff. In order to achieve these aims, the main objectives were to streamline the processing of visa applications by considerably reducing the waiting time that prospective visitors had to endure. Furthermore, to allow visa applications from a wider range of countries which did not have Saudi visa application centres, and particularly to facilitate a service in these and other circumstances where people could not afford to or were too disabled or elderly to travel to a centre. Perhaps the most important objective (because it would be the facilitator of other (objectives)) was to allow for visa applications to be made online without any restrictions and with no favourable treatment based on factors such as relative wealth or status. A key facet of this objective was to be a facility whereby only fully and accurately completed applications would be accepted by the online service and an at least equally important objective was to ensure that all stakeholders and government departments involved in the issuing of visas were connected to and within the system, effectively a one-stop service. As previously noted, the wider target audience is the Saudi population because people will not only be able to focus attention of their responsibilities as hosts but also feel that this, like other transformed public services, is aligned with their aspirations and beliefs and that they can take pride in and have ownership of a valuable part of the wider e-governance system. At more specific levels, the target audience is the employees of the visa issuing Ministry because they will become more productive and motivated by being associated with the success of the initiative and the pilgrims/visitors themselves, who will be able to look forward to fulfilling the responsibilities associated with their personal visits. Apart from these key target audiences, further targets/stakeholders include: • More than 116 Saudi Arabia Visa Application Centres within the Kingdom and around the world • The Ministry of Foreign Affair's service centres, which number 7844 • 3299 Hajj and Umra Agency Centres outside Saudi Arabia • 306 Medical Centres which are supervised and affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs • Banks involved in processing the visa payments • Other governmental bodies such as the Ministry of Hajj, the Ministry of the Interior, the Chambers of Commerce and Tourism Authorities

 3. How did the initiative solve the problem and improve people’s lives?
One unique aspect of the initiative is that it was one of the first online governmental initiatives in the Gulf region. This point aside, the eVisa system involves various innovative approaches that have allowed for its success, including: • That it can be used online or through smart phone iOS, android as well as other basic platforms • It is a unified system that integrates all service centres that work under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as all visa application and Hajj and Umra agency centres outside Saudi Arabia. It also integrates all other stakeholders who have some role in the issuing of visas • The system involves a complex virtual network that integrates communication between the various departments inside and outside the Kingdom • It also allows connectivity with communities in remote areas where consulates or service centres do not exist by providing them with the opportunity to apply for a visa without going through the time and effort associated with travelling to locations with service centres • The service walks the visa applicant through the various steps involved in the visa application process through a page customised for the various segments of the service’s target audience

C. Execution and Implementation

 4. In which ways is the initiative creative and innovative?
The first step in the plan was the integration of all departments within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order that coordination, communication and cooperation would be at suitably high levels once the initiative had been implemented. The second phase extended this integration process to include other ministries and departments that are involved in the visa issuing process as well as other stakeholder groups such as banks, health clinics and the various and extensive service centres across the world (which have been comprehensively described in previous sections and which are again brought to attention below). These activities meant that a number of stakeholders became increasingly involved in the pre-implementation planning and actions. Apart from civil servants at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, these included over 116 Saudi Arabia Visa Application Centres within the Saudi Arabia and around the world, the Ministry of Foreign Affair's 7,844 Service Centres, 3299 Hajj and Umra Agency Centres outside Saudi Arabia as well as 306 Medical Centres, banks which process visa payments and governmental bodies such as the Ministry of Hajj, the Ministry of Interior, Chambers of Commerce and Tourism Authorities. The third phase involved the development of a project team from within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and, with assistance from partners, educating and training employees across the whole range of stakeholders in an understanding of the rationale behind the system, how it would operate, and how beneficial it would be to future visa applicants. This phase also included the building of a strong technical support team which would be available 24 hours a day during the implementation and post implementation phases. The fourth phase involved the developing of the technology, its piloting, and its implementation. The system was built using a multi-tier architecture design which partitions the system components logically and physically into three independent layers; front-end (Web), middle tier (Middleware), and a database layer. This architecture provides very high levels of performance and availability through scaling these layers horizontally, by adding more servers, or vertically by adding more hardware resources to the servers. These operations were easily facilitated as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs already had virtualized infrastructure installed. The implementation phase, however, did present some challenges. One was concerned with security and to enable communication between users and the system without potentially compromising it. This was overcome through employing a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), which provides security over the internet and enables the use of different authentication mechanisms based on functionality classifications such as basic authentication, multi-factor authentication, and client certificate authentication to ensure the identity of the user. Additionally, the system was set up from the outset to be accessible via smart phone applications and mobile phone programmes as well as a website online system using Asp.Net 4.0, HTML 5, CSS 3, MVC4, Jquery. In the immediate post-implementation phase, the system was thoroughly scrutinised and feedback from users was encouraged. This had two consequences – the feedback could be used to identify those who required further support and training (because they were effectively reporting the fact that they were using the system wrongly) and to identify some important ‘teething’ problems which were overcome by updating the system. In the second and ongoing post implementation phase, the system is regularly monitored, management reports can be extracted from it and these can be used as part of a dynamic process to ensure that future upgrades and modifications keep it at the forefront of best practices in its field.

 5. Who implemented the initiative and what is the size of the population affected by this initiative?
Pilgrims and other users who created a level of demand for visas to visit Saudi Arabia very much contributed to the new system because the level was such that the need for change became ever more compelling. In similar vein, employees at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs contributed to demand because they not only communicated the fact that users were becoming frustrated with the time taken to process their requests, as well as the numbers that were returned because errors had been made, but also identified the specific areas where bottlenecks existed. These points aside, the management and strategic decision and policy makers at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as those at other partner ministries and departments were able to translate the communicated demands and needs of users into concrete plans which could then be aligned and checked against user preferences with the aid of surveys and other instruments of research. Such checking and surveying was also possible among the many agencies and service centres which handled visa applications.
 6. How was the strategy implemented and what resources were mobilized?
In terms of finances, the initiative was funded from the existing budget of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and it cost a total of approximately 30 million Saudi Riyals, which equates to about $US 8 million. The ongoing costs of the project are more than covered by the fees paid for eVisas, a funding base that has expanded since the initiative was implemented in 2008. Figures to support this are that whereas 7,831,676 visas were granted in 2009, 10,757,657 were processed in 2012. The technical costs for the infrastructure necessary to support the initiative had already been put in place by the Ministry prior to its conception and the remaining technical costs were in terms of the hardware and software to implement the initiative. There were considerable human resource costs but, for the Ministry this was borne within the existing staffing levels. It (the Ministry) has diverse roles and was able to find sufficiently skilled people within the ranks of its own staff, so outside project teams were not necessary. Perhaps surprisingly, the biggest drain on human resources came from training but this, it can be held, was because of an early recognition that this would be a key success factor. With regard to other ministries and government departments involved in the process for issuing visas, the human resource costs were also met internally and, for the many overseas agencies, the costs were borne by each of them, but these were relatively small in comparison to the core human resource costs incurred in Saudi Arabia. In summary, while the system is handled by more than 1,000 employees including the staff in Saudi’s embassies and consulates around the world, this is no more than the human resource costs that existed prior to the initiative. In terms of productivity, the initiative has created a saving in human resource costs as significantly more visas are now processed without a need to increase staffing levels.

 7. Who were the stakeholders involved in the design of the initiative and in its implementation?
Five of the most important concrete outputs resulting from this initiative are: 1. Over the four year period following the implementation of the eVisa system, and despite the fact in excess of 11,000 external agencies and 116 internal ones as well as the Ministry itself and partner ministries had to become familiar with the process over this period, the number of processed eVisas increased by 37.4%. This was also a period when the world economy in terms of GDP growth contracted (in 2009) and when the world tourism and travel industry was below 2008 levels for two of the years in question (2009 and 2010). 2. Statistics that measure efficiency and customer satisfaction are regularly collected and these show that the average waiting time for a via prior to the initiative was 5 working days, while after it this average time has been reduced to less than 24 hours. 3. Significant cost efficiencies have been gained at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, partner government ministries and the wider agencies and partners involved in the initiative. This can be seen by the fact that the number of visas processed has increased significantly (see above) while staffing levels have remained the same. 4. As one of the first government services that embraced the e-government philosophy proposed by senior leaders, the success of the initiative has provided strong encouragement for other government agencies and departments to develop and implement their own systems and these have already transformed and are in the process of further transforming their systems. 5. A further and very important concrete benefit in social and cultural as well as business terms is the fact that because Saudi Arabia now has many more visitors, its position as the custodian of the holy sites of Makkah and Madinah is enhanced, and so there are more opportunities for the people of the nation to show that they are worthy custodians and good hosts to pilgrims and tourists. In terms of business, the vibrant, expanding and diversifying country that the Kingdom is can only be further enhanced by having more people visiting for business purposes.

 8. What were the most successful outputs and why was the initiative effective?
One key system that has been put in place to monitor progress and evaluate activities is a measure not only of the number of applications that are processed monthly, quarterly and annually but also the average time taken for them to be processed. This second function is of particular importance because it can identify at an early stage whether there are any points in the process that are causing a problem with regard to delays, so they can be speedily resolved. Within these overall statistics, however, it was considered to be important to measure the ease of access through the various means available to applicants. The above parameters (numbers and time taken to process) is also evaluated by the means used, for example online applications using a terminal and applications via smart phone. A further key performance indicator that has been adopted and used is the number of effective and satisfactory responses that are made to help requests from users. Similarly, the number of errors made is used as a measure of the relative accuracy of the processing system. Where there is interdepartmental, inter-ministry and other partner involvement, the average time taken in processing is also measured.

 9. What were the main obstacles encountered and how were they overcome?
1. Although the inclusion of stakeholders was identified at an early stage as being a key factor in terms of success, significant problems were still encountered in this area. This was particularly true of partners outside of the Ministry and the country. This problem was addressed in two distinct ways. For partners within Saudi Arabia, meetings were held at different levels, with the opportunity provided for views to be aired and specific problems to be identified so that reassurances could be given. Alongside this, key change agents were identified and were utilised to informally relate positive stories concerning the changes as they interacted with their colleagues. For the many external agencies, lines of communication were deepened and both technical and narrative support was provided, again with reassurances given by nominated personnel. 2. A similar problem concerned the standardising of processes across ministries, other internal partners and across the many agencies external to the Kingdom. The technology had to be adaptable to multiple scenarios and this was relatively easily overcome but it also had to be user friendly so that its adaptability could be understood across this wide range of users. This was overcome by providing feedback from partners during the piloting and implementation processes so that this could be used to appropriately modify the system. 3. The provision of effective training and 24 hour technical support Sufficient skills existed within the Ministry and so it was a case of enabling the use of these. This was managed by releasing key staff from their normal duties so that they could devote their time to the provision of training and/or technical support, while the remainder covered their normal duties. A number of motivational techniques were employed for this, such as rewards and explaining the future common benefits that the initiative would bring.

D. Impact and Sustainability

 10. What were the key benefits resulting from this initiative?
The impact of the initiative The initiative has made an impact in several important areas. One is in the perception of Saudi Arabia internationally. Travellers traditionally dread the process whereby they have to go through processes and jump through hoops just to be able to visit a country. As a rule of thumb, the poorer and less well advantaged a nation and its citizens are, the longer the processes and the more onerous the jumps are. Therefore, judgments are made about a nation based on the extent to which it is able to facilitate visitors and in how efficiently it expedites visa applications. This process of judgment will stretch, in some cases, to a judgment about whether to visit a nation at all in favour of another which may be able to offer similar levels of service and hospitality but which also provides a superior service in terms of visas. This can be supported by the extraordinary increase in visitors (+37.4%) in the four full years following the introduction of eVisas despite the adverse prevailing world economic conditions. Judgments will also be made by potential and actual international visitors about the wider extent of technological development of Saudi Arabia by its reputation concerning visa applications. The initiative has also had an important impact on the productivity of staff at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other ministries and government departments that are involved in the process of issuing eVisas as well as on the staff at agencies across the world which take applications for Saudi visas. The initiative has also had a positive impact on the morale of staff at the Ministry and other government departments. Taking the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a specific example, it has been able to improve efficiency by reducing the visa process from an average of 5 days to an average of less than 24 hours and the further result, apart from financial gains for the Ministry and therefore the government on behalf of the Saudi people, is that staff take pride in their work, feel that they are doing a good job, that they have ownership of the new processes, and have become motivated individuals who no longer fear change but, rather, embrace it. In a wider sense, and with further regard to costs, the fact that an early opportunity was taken to centralise IT resources (particularly servers) at the Headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Riyadh means that the costs of IT operations across the work of the Ministry have been reduced by approximately 70% and this initiative has been central to enabling this reduction. Thus, it can be seen as a key enabling mechanism within a wider system, a point that can be given emphasis by noting that before this initiative was adopted, each embassy had to have its own IT resources, including the HW (e.g. servers) and SW (e.g. applications licenses). It is also relevant to emphasise that the kernel of the new wider system was the identified need (discussed in a previous section) for coordination between departments within the Ministry so that the eVisa initiative could be successful. How the initiative had a positive impact on the public and how this was measured Inasmuch as the people of Saudi Arabia do not need to apply for visas to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom, it would be easy to say that the positive impact on the public should be seen in terms of the people of the world, and this has clearly been discussed and has been shown to be measurable by the large increases in visitor numbers since the initiative was implemented (despite the fact that the Saudi government had to impose limits on the numbers of pilgrims during the Hajj in 2013 as it wanted to expand facilities to enable better conditions and more pilgrims for the future). However, the positive impact on the Saudi public should also be acknowledged in the wider sense of being a part of a system of e-governance service provision that brings the people closer to the government and makes them feel that they are a part of it, that they have ownership. This is, however, immeasurable.

 11. Did the initiative improve integrity and/or accountability in public service? (If applicable)
Financially, the initiative is more than sustainable as it makes a positive contribution to the Ministry of Foreign affairs compared to previous revenues. With no increased staffing costs, the number of visas processed and issued in the four years following the year when it was implemented increased by 34.7%. Implementation costs, furthermore, including improvements to the infrastructure, were absorbed by the Ministry and by the fact that the initiative was the kernel which provided the impetus for the reconciliation and streamlining of IT systems across the operations of the Ministry, which led to cost reductions of approximately 70%. In social and economic terms, sustainability can be seen by the fact that the Ministry and partner departments and agencies have staff members who are not only more productive but who are also more motivated. Furthermore, business visitors are surely encouraged by receiving their processed eVisas within 24 hours of applying for them and this means that there will be more such visitors to the country to do more business, which can only contribute positively to a growing and diversifying economy. In terms of cultural benefits and sustainability, the importance and intrinsic meaning that being custodians of the holy sites at Makkah and Madinah has for the people of Saudi Arabia and for the wider Islamic cultures must be a key factor. The government has spent billions of dollars on behalf of the Saudi people in ensuring that pilgrims are well accommodated and are provided with good facilities during their visit and such visits begin with a visa application. What may in the past have been sometimes a negative and unwelcoming first step on the duty that a pilgrimage is has been changed to one that is a welcoming and positive one. With regard to sustainability, it is, perhaps, enough to say that pilgrimages to Makkah and Madinah have been taking place for well over a millennium, indeed even since pre-Islamic times. With regard to institutional and regulatory sustainability, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has created and sustained the initiative to the extent that it now positively contributes to the financing of the Ministry. It has also shown that it had the skills to plan and implement the initiative, and continues to retain this level of quality. There is also a commitment to and a system for ensuring that the initiative keeps pace with best international practices and, indeed, itself can become a pacesetter. With regard to the regulatory environment, for so long as international travellers need visas to visit other countries, the initiative will be sustainable. With regard to being replicable and its dissemination, the initiative has already been recognised locally and regionally, having won the Injaz award for governmental cooperation for service provision 2013 in Saudi Arabia and the coveted e-governmental excellence award from the Middle Eastern Institute for Excellence, also in 2013. It is anticipated that the initiative is being adopted within the region and that further international awards will be forthcoming, followed by further dissemination.

 12. Were special measures put in place to ensure that the initiative benefits women and girls and improves the situation of the poorest and most vulnerable? (If applicable)
The lessons learnt include but are not limited to: • While much attention may be paid to planning and preparation, as was the case, and while they were very much taken into account, it is difficult to underestimate the value to an initiative such as this that can come from involving all stakeholders and from listening and including their priorities and needs where at all possible, particularly those of staff • In similar vein, attention should be very much paid to the needs of users as they perceive them by gaining feedback and conducting research among them • The thirst for knowledge and for experiential learning that exists among staff and stakeholders should be fully embraced from the start of the process and should begin by breaking down fears and resistance to change by the provision of as much information, inclusion and communication as is possible • The dynamics of learning and responding to needs as they arise through the piloting and implementation of technology driven projects should be a guiding force • That an initiative such as this one should not be seen as standing alone but, rather, as a part of wider systems and technology-driven improvements These points lead to recommendations for the future that include but are not limited to: • Initiatives such as this should be seen as part of a whole and therefore benefits for the future can be gained by taking note of the fact that this process was the beginning of much wider and complementary changes in this and other ministries • That all stakeholders to the optimal potential of their stake should be involved from the earliest possible time in initiatives such as this one • That there should be strong leadership and strategic planning at a senior level in government so that each e-government initiative can be positioned and aligned as a positive contribution towards a holistic and nationwide system • That future lessons learned are always a starting point for projects that come after them, so that there is an ongoing process of learning and improvement. Furthermore, that there should be feedback loops to previous projects so that innovation and positive change becomes the norm rather than the exception

Contact Information

Institution Name:   Ministry of Foreign Affairs – Saudi Arabia
Institution Type:   Government Agency  
Contact Person:   Reem Alzamil
Title:   Senior Project Manager  
Telephone/ Fax:   00966505446536
Institution's / Project's Website:  
E-mail:   ralzamil@mofa.gov.sa  
Address:   Alnassryah St.
Postal Code:   11544
City:   RIYADH
State/Province:   RIYADH

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