In all spheres and for all social groups (without exception), digitization is an effective mechanism for improving the well-being of citizens. Technology should be accepted as a part of everyday life, that is, it should lead to the so-called “digital transformation,” which implies the advancement of electronic operations and greater efficiency of institutions, organizations and other social entities. For this purpose, the Metamorfosis Foundation together with its partners, through the project Increasing Civic Engagement in the Digital Agenda – ICEDA co-financed by the European Union, awarded sub-grants through the scheme for small grants intended for the establishment of e-government support centers. These support centers advocate for support for citizens to use existing public e-services and small grants for advocacy initiatives that address specific issues faced by Western Balkan citizens related to areas covered by the Digital Agenda.
During June, the Metamorphosis Foundation team held meetings with all sub-grantees from North Macedonia where they discussed the implementation of the sub-grants, challenges, and lessons learned. On June 13, 2022, the team spoke with the Youth Education Forum (MOF) and implemented the project “Student Action for Digitized Educational Services”, which aims to improve e-services provided to students and address digitization in higher education. Taking into account the latest political developments and the change of ministers, MOF decided to focus more on advocacy before the University of Ss. Cyril and Methodius – Skopje and the Ministry of Education and Science. Starting with the new academic year, the next steps they plan are piloting the tool that represents an upgrade of the IKnow system at one of the faculties of the University, testing it and further advocating for the remaining faculties to take over and use it. The tool is the result of a three-day Hackathon for digital tools/solutions for higher education organized by MOF within the framework of the sub-grant.
On the same day, the team met with the Rural Coalition, which operates a Citizen Support Center for the use of e-services in Kičevo, but also operates in Gostivar, Vrapčishte, Kičevo, Krivogaštani and Dolneni, and provides support to farmers and local residents to use e-services. According to them, the biggest challenge they have faced is the fact that farmers do not believe in digitalization as a process and do not have a satisfactory level of digital literacy, while the online system for applying for subsidies is complicated, so civil servants have to fill out the documentation for farmers. This challenge is more common among the older generations of farmers, while the younger generations accept this e-concept more easily. For this purpose, the Rural Coalition uses the method of peer education and shares positive experiences of farmers from the country who work abroad and successfully use the e-services there. In this direction, they note that mentoring is a good tool for educating citizens as well as spreading knowledge and experience. However, for this initiative to be successful, institutional support is needed.
On 15 June 2022, the Metamorphosis team visited SmartUp-Laboratory for Social Innovations, which, through the small grant scheme of ICEDA in cooperation with the City of Skopje, provided support for citizens to use e-services from the City or apply for e-subsidies that offered by the City of Skopje. According to them, the pandemic was more of an opportunity than a challenge, because it accelerated the digitization of services and subsidies unlike before. Despite the challenges and lack of continued institutional support by the City of Skopje, they will continue to support citizens in applying for e-subsidies as people still recognize them as a focal point for these issues, and will continue to look for funds to continue the work of the Center.
The Metamorphosis team continued its visits in the following period as well, having a meeting with the Center for Social Innovations Blink 42-21 on 16.06.2022, and with the Association for Civil Tolerance and Cooperation – AGTIS on 24 June 2022.
Social Innovation Center Blink 42-21 implemented the project “mCommunity for e-Community” through which they aimed to provide high-quality e-services at the local level and increase the number of users of local e-services. Through the project, they managed to replicate the mCommunity tool in the Municipality of Aerodrom and the Municipality of Kriva Palanka, thereby giving the citizens of these two municipalities access to e-services and faster and more efficient communication with the local administration. According to them, the municipalities took over the tool as their own and show great interest in the mass digitalization of their services and subsidies, while the citizens of these municipalities use it daily. The next steps of Blink 42-21 are to replicate the tool in more municipalities, and enable it in more local languages, as well as to upgrade it with more functionality to the work of the Center.
Through the ICEDA grant scheme, Association for Civil Tolerance and Cooperation – AGTIS worked in the municipalities of Dolneni and Prilep, mostly with marginalized communities including Roma, citizens with low incomes and citizens with a low level of education. In addition to the stand for e-services that they organized in 20 locations to reach citizens and directly help them use certain e-services, they manage a Center in which they provide support to citizens for using e-services located in Prilep. During the implementation of the small sub-grant, AGTIS realized that not only marginalized communities but also the entire population has little interest and knowledge about public e-services offered by state institutions. According to them, the municipalities contribute to the low digital literacy with the fact that the municipal administration is afraid of losing its job with the very process of digitalization of local services.
After talking with all the grantees, the conclusion is generally the same. There is a great need to support citizens to enjoy the benefits of digitization, and therefore awareness and digital literacy campaigns are needed. It is necessary to work together with all stakeholders to ensure efficient and long-term digitization of public services, but only the will is not enough. It is necessary to take a strategic approach to solve the issues related to digitization, and to provide institutional support to civil society organizations that help this process. The schemes for small grants are a good opportunity for building the capacities of local civil society organizations and for realizing a good influence at the local and national level that citizens feel directly.
The project “Increasing Civic Engagement in the Digital Agenda – ICEDA” is implemented by the Metamorphosis Foundation (North Macedonia), e-Governance Academy (Estonia), Levizja Mjaft! (Albania), Partners for Democratic Change (Serbia), NGO 35mm (Montenegro) and ODK – Open Data Kosovo (Kosovo). The project is implemented with financial support from the European Union.