Nataša Sekulić, President Of The E-Government Alliance Within NALED And IBM Country Leader For Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia & Albania:

The Cure For Bureaucracy

In a country in which a medium-sized bank prints 11 million papers a year, the retail chain spends 150,000 euros on the storage of documentation, shelves of state institutions reach length of several tens of kilometers, and citizens have to bring payment slips at the counters to prove that they paid the fee, the only way out from bureaucracy is the development of e-government

Following the success of its Fair Competition Alliance, NALED formed the e-Government Alliance, which brings together 34 companies and local self-governments in the ICT, financial and retail sector that have the capacity to support the state and other stakeholders in the process of digitisation and establishing e-government. Presiding over this alliance is Nataša Sekulić, IBM Country Leader for Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania.

Estonia is an example of one of the most successful digitisations of state administration, often considered the world’s most digitised country. To what extent are the experiences of such countries relevant to Serbia, and are some of the strategies they applied also applicable for us?

– Every experience of a state and this development path is relevant, but what is very important is to take into account the specificity, history and current state of the country in which we are located. There is no single recipe that’s applicable for everything, but learning from other good examples of practise is always very good.

Projects that are as extensive and important as digitisation often require teamwork among various stakeholders. In this respect, who are the bearers of digitisation in Serbia?

– That’s a very broad concept. When we look at IT as such, digitisation has entered into absolutely all industries. Digitisation of the state implies the economy and all branches of the economy, especially those parts that based their new business models on digital services, and of course all other bodies which need to recognise that this is the way forward. All are important, though some will contribute a little more because their business models are based on that. I am pleased that the state has also recognised that this is the way forward, because it is increasing transparency and efficiency, IT is recreating itself as a new export branch that can be better than some others… There are certainly a large number of stakeholders.

You have a major objective, but also small steps to take in order to succeed. It is important to make a successful small step each day. You shouldn’t wait for something to succeed in five years, but rather work every day in order to succeed in the end.

According to UN stats, Serbia had the largest index of egovernment development in Europe in 2016, while it is also highly rated in terms of the inclusion of citizens in public debates, who comment online on laws and the decisions of institutions. This is a great success, but what are some of the biggest challenges on route to digitisation?

– I also believe that the campaign we undertook under the auspices of NALED with the e-Government Alliance was one of the key factors for making such a report, because the Alliance was one of the key members of this development dialogue with the Ministry of State Administration and all other stakeholders.

We did recognise a few tactical moments that we are currently working on, which we need to overcome. Perhaps one of those issues is e-payments and how to overcome them. There are many challenges, but I am very pleased that is also a lot of desire and willingness from various stakeholders for us to overcome this through combined forces.

How do you handle these challenges?

– I enter every day with great optimism. I wake in the morning and say: Today I have a major objective, but also small steps to take in order to succeed. It is important to make a successful small step each day. You shouldn’t wait for something to succeed in five years, but rather work every day in order to succeed in the end.

What does digitisation mean for citizens as civilians, and what does it mean for entrepreneurs, SMEs or investors?

– As a citizen who wants to take any action or request any service from the state, I can do everything online, and that is the point of the whole story. I don’t have to take a day off, go to the counter of an institution, be told at the counter that I need this, that and the other, spend the next half a day collecting everything I need, then physically submitting all of that… The point of digitisation is that as a citizen, using modern technology, we arrive at a situation where everything can be done online. The time spent is reduced, everything is completed quickly, we can feel assured that everything has been done well and transparently, and we get the fastest possible service.

When all of this is viewed from the standpoint of the economy – speed, transparency, quality of service – that then translates into profitability and the possibility for that time spent, and time is money, to be invested in other things, such as improving our operations, improving the climate for doing business, and thus the overall efficiency of operations.

Efficiency and improvement of the business climate lead further to a higher quality base for new employers, who will employ more workers, develop new jobs and industry, invest etc.

We must not for one moment allow for responsibility to be lost from man to machine, which is the first and most basic postulate. I’m not saying that just for e-Government, but also generally for the future of technology as such.

The e-Government Alliance’s priorities are to establish basic data registers (first of all, the citizens register), enable electronic payment of all state and local services, abolish the obligation to store paper documents after digitisation (earchiving), develop cloud services, and facilitate more convenient access to online services.

With all new technologies – even when they make life much easier for us – there is that famous learning curve, but also the diffusion of innovations, which relates to the speed and the way in which new technologies and ideas spread. How can this customisation process be sped up? Is it necessary to educate users; and how do we deal with these challenges?

– There are always those who are ‘early adopters’, such as people from IT. As someone from IT, as an early adopter, I want to do everything I can online. Likewise, there are also ‘followers’. So last week I sat with my parents, explained to them how to pay bills using online banking, how to do this or that, and that is the moment of education. Thus, it is not only systemic education that the state and the economy should organise under the auspices of its competences, but also community feedback, and each individual who will utilise these benefits should educate their environment.

When it comes to eGovernment, so-called blockchain technology is mentioned as a potential carrier of new innovations, and individual countries, such as Luxembourg and Dubai, are experimenting with this technology… Is this something like that also interesting for Serbia, and what are the infrastructural or technical challenges and solutions that are applied in Serbia?

– I personally think that blockchain tech is interesting, and it is also based on the same distribution model that Bitcoin uses. It is based on you having a transparent system, where some problems cannot arise, and since it is not centralised, in the event of the fall of some of the nodes, you still have a system that functions. So blockchain has a whole range of advantages.

On the other hand, in order for any of these technologies to be applied somewhere, an analysis of the situation must be carried out, in order to see the readiness and capacities, so it moves from the pilot onwards. I think there is potential for that, but which steps are required still needs to be discussed and seen. I think it’s too early or too ambitious to me to talk about that at this stage.

There is a joke that the main problem of eGovernment (uprava) is that if a person isn’t correct (upravu) we can argue, but when the machine isn’t correct there is no room for discussion – even if it is written that we have parked badly, we did not pay taxes or we do not exist, if some bug appears. This, of course, is a very superficial and quite humorous look at things, but what are the actual challenges from that aspect, or perhaps the potential for shortcomings related to e-government?

– Someone made that machine, and that responsibility, the liability, is absolutely and always with the person. The way the process is made, the way in which that “if, then else” is made, or any other algorithm, we always have an owner of that process. We must not allow that responsibility to be moved from man to machine for one moment, which is the first and most basic postulate. Here I’m not just talking about eGovernment, but also generally for the future of technology as such. We must never allow any dialogue and discussions to transfer liability, or responsibility, from a human to a machine.

What are the challenges in a technological sense? That depends on the technology we use. And if something needs to be solved, that has to be done at the level of the human, or the team that designed it, in order to reduce the number of errors to the lowest possible level.

In cooperation with the Ministry of State Administration, the Alliance coordinated the preparation of the Action Plan for the development of e-Government. A major contribution was given to the adoption of the amendment to the Electronic Office Operations by-law act, which abolishes the obligation of state and local authorities to print and archive any document received by electronic means. We have improved the Draft Law on e-commerce, Law on Signature Certification and the Law on Planning and Construction. As a member of the working group, NALED is involved in the drafting of the Law on e-Government and Law on the protection of users of financial services at a distance.

Estonia issued a statement explaining that it runs eGovernment as a start-up, which is a continuous process of testing, learning from mistakes and pivoting. In the process of digitising and introducing eGovernment to Serbia, there have been prominent successful examples, such as e-building permits, but also less successful examples, such as e-health booklets. What can we learn from these two experiences?

– I always learn more from those experiences that were not good, because in that way we best see the shortcomings. What we learned in the first case is how much of a positive effect the introduction of an electronic system can have, in this case on the economy. Here, thus, we have measurable elements for this positive impact – how much the issuance of building permits has accelerated etc. The entire procedure from submitting a request for obtaining the location conditions until obtaining a usage permit has been shortened almost three times. From January 1, 2016 to June 1 this year, 80,222 requests were submitted electronically, of which 91,5% were resolved. The average time to obtain a building permit is shortened to 9 calendar days which indicates that the system is efficient and functional.

In the case of health booklets, we learned how important it is to have an overview of the entire process, review everything from the beginning to the end, including that moment around education, change management; that everything is done in its entirety. There are parts that need to be done step by step, which are done in teams, but the completeness and encircled picture of everything in order to make the whole project successful is always important.

Let’s imagine that we’ve travelled briefly into the future. EGovernment and digitisation have been fully implemented in Serbia. What does that mean in practise for citizens and businesses; what services can they expect?

– If we are talking about the current situation, there is a complete list of services on the eGovernment of the Republic of Serbia website, and some of the most popular are the renewal of vehicle registration for authorised technical inspections, registration in the register of real estate in public ownership and the scheduling of sessions to file a request for an ID card and passport…

I think the services themselves depend on how the dialogue goes between the state and the citizenry. I don’t know if there will still be interest in a registry in a hundred or two hundred years, but there may be interest in where you parked your space shuttle, but that is unimportant – what is important is that this dialogue between the state and the citizenry unfolds in the most efficient possible way.