The key to digitizing public services


Digital public services can make government more efficient and transparent, while, as Ukraine has shown, they can also make countries more resilient. So why is there so much reluctance to implement them, especially among public sector workers?

Public sector innovation should be about rethinking and transforming public services to better serve citizens, and that includes making more (and better) use of available digital tools.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of such tools in emerging Europe (and indeed much of the world), from the digitization of education and healthcare to online tax filing, there are already signs that the momentum of the last two years is starting to slow as governments that were previously skeptical about digitization are becoming the type again.

As a result, countries in the region that have made digitization of public services a priority (like world-leading Estonia) remain the exception, not the rule.

It all looks like making Covid-19 a missed opportunity. In addition to reducing the need for face-to-face interactions with government employees, the pandemic has also highlighted the economic and social costs associated with delaying digitization and govtech – the application of technology to improve government.

The scale of the challenge is huge. According to the World Bank, the public sector across Europe and Central Asia employs a total of 86 million people, or 25 percent of total employment. That is significantly more than the global average of 16 percent

So why is it so difficult to introduce public sector innovation in the region? And what can be done to strengthen it?

According to Helfried Carl, Founder and Managing Partner of The Innovation in Politics Institute, the key is creating a culture of innovation.

“Whether in the private sector or in the public sector: you have to help the enablers. If you punish risk takers, you end up in a system that is not free and not innovative,” he says.

Speaking at the Emerging Europe’s Summit and Awards in Brussels at the end of June, during a discussion on the digitization of public services, Carl points to one of the main problems hindering progress: resistance among public servants.

“I know a lot about bureaucrats and the funny thing is that they always think the way they do things is the only way they do things,” he says.

The three Is

Anthony Kim is an Economic Freedom Research Fellow with the Heritage Foundation and editor of the Index of Economic Freedom. He also serves as manager for global engagements at the Thatcher Centre.

For Kim, the focus needs to be on what he calls “the three.” Is”.

“If you really want to make innovation work, we need to focus on individuals, ideas and institutions,” he says.

“Without these three ISTs, we cannot make a meaningful innovation launch and apply it to all the problems and challenges we face. The bottom line is that solutions can come from anyone. Government’s role should be to facilitate innovation and ensure it is transparent and resilient.”

His comments corroborate the findings of a major whitepaper published last year by Emerging Europe in collaboration with its tech community Tech Emerging Europe Advocates and robotic process automation (RPA) leader UiPath, which included a number of case studies and best practices from the entire region and makes five key recommendations.

These include the need to remember that automation always provides a return on investment; that automation is not an end in itself, but a way to create public value for citizens and businesses; that reusable solutions and use cases help save time and resources; that awareness and knowledge are essential to maximize impact; and that automation is a solution that requires the participation of all sectors.

The Ukrainian experience

Ironically, if we are looking for good examples of countries that have recently made real progress in terms of digitization, we can look to war-torn Ukraine.

Indeed, much of Ukraine’s resilience in the face of Russia’s brutal, all-out invasion of the country that began on February 24 has been enabled by the rapid digitization of public services over the past two years.

Ensuring that salaries, pensions and benefits are paid – and paid on time, even when recipients have been forced to flee their homes – has been made possible by the digital infrastructure put in place by Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation over the past two years .

Financial support for displaced people, for example, is available through the Ukrainian government’s much-vaunted Diia (meaning “action” in Ukrainian) platform, a smartphone app launched in 2020 that acts as a one-stop shop for public services as well as a wallet for digital versions of official documents.

Digital passports and driver’s licenses stored in the app have the same legal status as the originals, which is crucial when people need to leave their homes in a hurry and don’t have time to look for paper documents.

“Against the background of the Russian invasion and the large number of internally displaced persons, it is important that Ukrainians can also use the app to change their registered address,” said Deputy Minister for Digital Transformation of Ukraine George Dubinsky.

“A simplified wartime digital ID has also been created, available to all Diia users and recognized by local law enforcement. Ukraine has also struck agreements with neighboring countries to accept digital ID instead of paper documents – invaluable for refugees who might not have been able to collect paper documents during rushed evacuations.”

Healthcare is taking the lead

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the need for technological solutions in a variety of areas has become abundantly clear. Start-ups around the world emerged and quickly developed various apps for contract tracking, telemedicine and Covid-19 status confirmation.

Where the digitization of public services may have slowed down in some areas since the pandemic subsided, healthcare seems to be an exception.

“Covid-19 brought completely new ways of interacting with patients and experiencing the healthcare system. It broke resistance to change,” says Balázs Fürjes, director of EIT Health Innostars, a cluster within the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) that brings together innovators in need of education, funding, mentoring and networking tools.

But there is still a risk that momentum will be lost unless the right partnerships and leadership are built.

“Now we have to capitalize on that. We need top-down support from governments to incentivize hospitals to change, we need to educate the change leaders and makers we need in the private sector, and support start-ups to keep innovating.”

Fürjes also believes that innovation is easier to nurture than encourage, echoing Anthony Kim’s point.

“When leadership gives people space and empowers them to find out and do something, it’s much more efficient than top-down mapping and management.”

Helfried Carl, Balázs Fürjes, Anthony Kim and George Dubinsky spoke with Real Vision’s Sam Burke at the recent Future of Emerging Europe Summit and Awards. You can watch the full discussion below.

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