BEIRUT: Starting Tuesday, Lebanese taxpayers will be able to file and pay their taxes online, the Finance Ministry announced, vowing to gradually roll out all of its dealings to the digital world.
But while welcoming the step, experts say Lebanon has been lagging behind many countries in this area for years, urging investments and updating required regulations to deliver a full transition into e-governance. The transition, they say, is vital to cut waste and corruption across public offices.
“It is an important day for the Finance Ministry and for Lebanon ... for long years people have talked about administrative reform and mulled ways to achieve it, agreeing that it all starts with e-government,” said caretaker Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi at a news conference.
“Today, I want to tell the Lebanese that we have achieved this at the ministry,” he added.
Taxpayers will be able to pay through a credit card or bank transfers, the minister said, explaining that companies and individuals would need to file a one-time application at the ministry before being granted access to the service.
All major credit cards are accepted and several banks have prepared for the process in coordination with the Association of Banks in Lebanon, with the rest expected to follow suit in the upcoming few months.
Safadi told The Daily Star that the step would boost his government revenues and cut time and expenditures incurred by citizens.
“Revenues will increase because this will make filing taxes much simpler and taxpayers will be able to pay for their taxes any time from any place ... even during public holidays and outside working hours,” he said. Safadi, however, did not give an estimate for the increase in revenues.
“It will open the door for all ministries, and public foundations to take serious steps toward e-government,” Safadi added.
Lebanon, which has waited until now to take a first step toward reforming its ailing public sector, ranks in 87th place among 190 countries measured in the last E-Government Development Index published by the United Nations in 2012. It also ranked ninth among 21 countries in the region.
The results were slightly better than a year earlier when Lebanon came 93rd internationally but fell one rank in the region.
Gabriel Deek, secretary-general of the Professional Computer Association, is even more pessimistic about the future of e-government in Lebanon.
He told The Daily Star that while any step in the direction of an e-government is welcome, Lebanon, in his view, is still many years behind and has failed in implementing several plans to develop e-governance.
“E-government doesn’t exist in Lebanon because transparency doesn’t exist,” he said. “Corruption is definitely the biggest challenge to an e-government because it breaks the different layers of people profiteering from the public sector.”
For Safadi, the service is critical to combat corruption at his ministry. “We are encouraging citizens to pay electronically so that they don’t have to resort to paying bribes.”
Deek said that an estimated $1 billion investment would be needed first to roll out a comprehensive e-government, including all of its technical and nontechnical components. “The benefits in terms of boosting government revenues and cutting time and money wasted for citizens are enormous. It would take less than two years for such an investment to pay off.”
George Saoud, IT director at the Finance Ministry, told The Daily Star that the ministry was preparing to expand services offered by its website to cover all transactions that would normally require a visit to the ministry.
“If a company wants to change its address today, you would need to go to the ministry and file an application and so on and so forth.
“But soon a taxpayer will be able to make any adjustment to their file and follow up on the transaction online,” Saoud said, expecting that the project will be completed next year.
Asked how the ministry tackled the security of payments and personal data, Saoud said the ministry boasts some of the best safeguards among Lebanon’s public sector institutions.
“It is very secure. We are talking about VeriSign [security technologies], digital encryption at 128 bit ... which means we are meeting international standards,” he said. “We have the only ministry website in Lebanon that has never been hacked,” Saoud highlighted.
Fares Kobeissi, CEO at Bluring, a Lebanese company specialized in credit automation, told The Daily Star that despite the fact that the step was delayed, “it is better late than never.”
But Kobeissi said that it was critical for Parliament to pass a long-awaited draft law that organizes electronic transactions.
The law, he said, would not only provide the appropriate framework to e-governance but for the digital economy as well.
“Though the infrastructure needs upgrading, today people are doing everything online in Lebanon. Even e-banking and mobile banking have gained ground recently. The sector that really needs to catch up is the public sector,” he said.