E-Governance Solutions. Key principles

[ANALYSIS Bulletin No 5] VICTOR GUZUN | Similar to other public or private services, e-Governance solutions need to answer to several simple questions, but they also require a complex approach: are they functional and used at large? How can they be improved in order to become functional and used massively? Is there a point to having some of them if they are not used? The answer to these questions can be analysed through the perspective of 3 basic indicators: economy, efficiency and effectiveness.

Economy: an e-Gov solution should save time, money and resources. An analysis of the experience of countries that use e-Gov solutions on a large scale, revealed that the savings are considerable, and that this is not expressed only in the quantity of unused paper. For example, the mere use of digital signatures leads to savings of more than 2% of the Gross Domestic Product in Estonia, an amount comparable to the one this country spends for its defence. Voting online saved at least 14,000 working days at the last elections of 2019 (47.2% of Estonians voted online). At the same time, according to the calculations, the expenses for casting one vote online are nine times smaller than those incurred for casting one vote the traditional way. The amount of saved time both for citizens and for civil servants is huge.

– Efficiency: the relationship between the final result of the service and its management costs should justify the transition form the classical service to the digital one. It is unchallengeable that E-Governance services are extremely efficient, fast and are not at the whim of potential human errors; they work 24/7. By adopting such solutions, public services become accessible to anyone and anywhere (for example, electronic voting).

– Effectiveness: any digitalisation process should support the increase in the quality of governance, as a whole. Note that e-Gov solutions mean much more than transforming certain decision-making processes from paper format into digital format. They improve the quality of governance by minimising the influence of corruption factors, provide equal chances and opportunities to all the members of the society, and higher transparency of many public services and expenses. E-Governance services make the life of everyone easier, more efficient and harmonious. In some cases, besides improving certain processes, they change them fundamentally. For example, adopting e-health solutions can save human lives, because responses would be much more punctual, efficient and faster. E-police systems can prevent efficiently certain accidents, including those involving casualties. The pandemic that we are going through proved that e-education solutions are irreplaceable in such situations, etc.

Ten years ago I wasn’t using any e-Governance services. At present I use this type of services exclusively. Having an interest in this topic, I have been trying to understand the need to make them a daily reality not just in countries like Estonia. Here are the main findings in this regard:

1. Trust – e-Gov solutions will never be used at large scale if there is not enough trust in their functionality. Often, these solutions are a strong reflection of institutions that develop or manage them. If an electoral institution of a state enjoys little trust, it is likely that the electronic voting systems it develops would be used rarely and would be a permanent topic of debates. An e-solution in healthcare that was developed in a non-transparent way and which operates inefficiently would be used marginally both by specialist in the field and by patients.

2. Personal data security – every user of e-services must be sure that his/her personal data are not used abusively by someone and that the citizens themselves are the owners of their data. How does this work? Electronic systems are designed so that any authentication or accessing of the personal data of any person by a private or public entity would certainly leave traces and they would be visible to the final owner of these data – the citizen. The citizen alone is the one who decides ultimately if their data were accessed legally and within legal terms (for example, family doctor of the civil servant they interacted with, etc.). Otherwise, the citizen has the right to go to the competent state institutions in charge of protecting these data.

3. The possibility of electronic authentication ensured to everyone – as long as the certificates of electronic authentication are issued through a separate bureaucratic procedure, sometimes expensive, time consuming and that has to be repeated frequently, the use of e-Gov services will be marginal. The simplest and the most accessible solution is inserting in the identification document the secured authentication modules and the digital signature, thus providing the majority of citizens with the access to functional digital services. This is a minor investment that can bring huge benefits in the future.

4. The bottom-up principle is that an e-Gov solution will be massively used if it is focused on the needs and realities of the final beneficiary: citizen, doctor, teacher or civil servant that the service is intended for. Without a thorough analysis of these needs, without detailed consultations and without the co-participation of all the beneficiaries and developers, the solutions created will be non-functional and will be abandoned soon. Another aspect is the multisectoral cooperation in their development, including by developing public-private partnerships. For example, local civil servants are those who know better what type of e-Gov solutions are necessary at local level, just like not a single non-specialised public institution will have better technological expertise than private software companies. With few exceptions, the development of all e-solutions according to the centralised and pyramidal model is counterproductive and has no future.

5. Digital literacy program – a state can develop thousands of e-Gov services, but if citizens don’t know how to use them and don’t have the opportunity to learn how to do it, the solutions will mainly be frozen as early stage projects or, let me cite a good friend, turn into ‘A new Sleeping beauty’. In the 20th century, a responsible state will develop digital literacy programs for all the categories of age, social groups and professional categories. Moreover, they should be constantly improved in order to keep the pace with the development of the digital society we live in.

6. Internet is a social right – if we want e-Gov services to be used massively, we must ensure stable and accessible internet connection all over the country. Authorities should take the initiative to develop the connexions or the points of access to the internet in disadvantaged regions or communities. Any classroom, any doctor’s office or office of civil servants, library, cultural centre or public institution should be connected to the internet. Such technologies are well-performing and relatively cheap.

7. The principle ‘Once only’ – if a citizen is forced by circumstances, regulations, proceedings or by the authorities to provide the same information to various institutions, there is the chance that this information will be distorted or interpreted inconsistently. As a result, it is necessary to have unique specialised databases, interconnected and responsible per specific areas, which provide accurate information to beneficiaries and users. At the same time, the existence of a high number of different authentication platforms and the use of e-services makes the massive use more complicated. For example, Estonia developed one single platform eesti.ee, which after one single authentication of the user, it connects all the databases, the available services (over 1,000) and the contacts necessary to use them through simple and easy-to-understand methods.

8. KISS (Keep it simple and short) – various countries develop complex e-Governance systems, but that have a low utilisation rate, including due to the fact that they are hard to use, they are slow, their interface is not user-friendly, they are considered too complicated and in the end, they are abandoned or used marginally. In contrast, the most popular solutions are intuitive, have a simple interface, they don’t require the user to duplicate certain functions or perform particular complicated tasks, they are fast and easy to learn.

9. Choice – users should have the opportunity to choose the e-Governance solutions they are going to use. Thus, only the most efficient and functional platforms will survive and the quality of services provided by new platforms will increase continuously. Forcing people to use exclusive platforms in certain fields will result into their neglect.

10. Technologies and equipment are not a major problem in implementing e-Governance solutions – but the lack of political will and leadership is an imminent obstacle. Technologies and equipment develop in geometrical progression, they become increasingly accessible, many states have enough expertise and specialists that can develop virtually any e-Governance solution from technological point of view. At the same time, political or administrative barriers or simply boycotting or failing to use the existing solutions can reduce or even stop this effort. Take, for instance, the Parliament of the Republic of Moldova, which had and has the equipment and the technologies necessary for electronic voting, but MPs continue to vote by rising their hands.

11. Accuracy and accountability – the central government authorities and public institutions should provide support and assistance to disadvantaged individuals and bodies to provide them with equal access to services. Also, it is necessary to develop mechanisms that will allow the citizens to ensure the accountability of public service providers, including digital ones. This is a bidirectional mechanism of mutual interest.

Whether we want it to or not, all the spheres of our lives are digitalising and all the states will be forced by circumstances, by understanding the benefits or by the public pressure to adopt as many e-Governance solutions as possible. States that do not understand this reality will lag behind in implementing them, while those states that already have a high degree of digitalisation will advance a lot, to the benefit of their citizens.

Victor Guzun is a professor of international relations at TalTech University, Estonia, manages a consulting company and participates in international projects as an independent expert. He worked as an Ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to Estonia, as a Director of the Foreign Relations and European Integration Department of the Ministry of Transport and Roads Infrastructure, teacher of geopolitics, Deputy Director and teacher at Gheorghe Asachi French-Romanian High School.

This material was developed by LID Moldova experts under the project The Best Way: Periodic Bulletin funded by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF). Opinions and conclusions expressed in this material are those of the authors and the experts and do not necessarily reflect the position of the funder.

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