Within the ICEDA network initiative, relevant institutions, media and CSOs from the targeted Western Balkan countries met in Tirana to discuss the opportunities and challenges of fully transforming the public services into end-to-end e-services and delivering them effectively to the citizens. This regional meeting was held on September 22nd in Tirana with the purpose to exchange knowledge, ideas and good practices among the Western Balkans countries related to digitalizing the public e-services based on the example from Albania, as this is the only country in the Western Balkan that has digitalized all of the public services. This meeting was also held with the purpose to inspire creative and innovative thinking and establish professional connections that should lead to more efficient e-services across the region.
The meeting was held in a closed circle for a selected group of relevant stakeholders working to implement certain aspects related to the digital identity and e-services among which, Romina Kostani, Director of Innovation and IPA Gov programs, National Agency of Information Society (Albania), Anxhela Bega, Specialist at the General Directorate of Civil Status (Albania), Kushtrim Canolli, Senior Policy Planning Officer, Prime Minister’s Office (Kosovo), Debora Peci, Democracy Plus (Kosovo), Fjolla Cavolli, Network for Next Generation (Kosovo), amara Korsic, Office for IT and E-government of the Government of Serbia (Serbia), Ninoslav Kekic, Secretariat for public policy, Government of Serbia (Serbia), Predrag Topic, Bridges&Creations / DX Lab (Serbia), Kristina Petrovska, Office for Management of Registers (North Macedonia), Liljana Jonoski, Rural Coalition (North Macedonia), Fisnik Xhelili, Portalb (North Macedonia), Milica Vucinic, Advisor at the Ministry of Public Administration of Montenegro (Montenegro), Vanja Lazarevic, Advisor at the Ministry of Public Administration of Montenegro (Montenegro), as well as the ICEDA partners.
During her presentation, Ms. Kostani shared that the digitalization of services in Albania has been a long process and not something that has happened over night. The government saw the importance and value in digital transformation of the public administration and decided to invest their resources and efforts in order to make citizens lives easier. Albania’s digital revolution began in 2013 with digitalizing 12 public services, to end up with 1225 public e-services for both citizens and businesses in 2022. She further shared that at the beginning it was difficult to convince the institutions to switch their work online and to change the mindset of their employees, the whole procedure of how they were managing the whole service system and simply adapting to the new realities of digitalization. According to Ms. Kostani it is very important to have a leader in this whole process that would be the driving force for this kind of societal change, and in this case, that was the Prime Minister himself.
From 2017 based on their lessons learned, they managed to centralize the whole infrastructure. Although the systems are hosted in the National Agency of Information Society, the databases are in the possession of the institutions who provide the services. Related to their government interoperability platform, data shows that there are around 19 million monthly transactions through it, 780.000 monthly e-service applications, 26.000 daily applications (20% businesses and 80% citizens). The support that they have in this process comes from different sides, of their supporter being Microsoft which provides the licenses and digital transformation support for the past 10 years.
Regarding the optimization in time and costs between the period of 2020 – 2022 their estimation is that they have saved 9 million euros and 990 years of service users waiting in lines. During the pandemic, they managed to provide e-service for over 1.2 million citizens and businesses, saved 1.36 million euros, as well as 293 years of waiting in lines. They calculate the number of years based on a provisional 15 min wait in lines, not including the time for the user to reach the service place, and the costs, not counting the costs for fuel, parking or other costs the service users may have. As Ms. Kostani has noted, many international assessments praise this digital progress of Albania, OECD, US State Department, UN, EC, ReSPA.
She continued with sharing that this transformation occurred in three phases. At first, in January 2020, 400 e-services were provided, and as the pandemic started specifically at that time, this was the right time to switch to online service delivery. In some cases you still had to go get hard copies from the institution itself, but as of May 2022, it was decided that the responses from the institution would be electronic for around 95% of the services through eAlbania. Another very important thing she shared was that citizens no longer needed to submit documents that were already in possession of the country institutions, such as the birth certificate, citizenship certificate, etc.
Ms. Kostani also shared about the Albanian Digital Agenda 2022 – 2026. This strategy is based on 4 main pillars, them being digital governance, digital businesses, digital education and digital citizens. The ‘digital governance’ pillar is based on enabling digital policies, intelligent processes and advanced solutions on secure platforms (AI, machine learning, IoT cloud, blockchain), while the ‘digital business’ pillar is more focused on accessible, proactive services and business-ready operations. (eResidence, FinTech, increasing use and application of tech-in-development for businesses). The pillar focused on transforming learning and education is the ‘digital education’ (e-learning, digital skills, curriculum modification and inclusion of ICT in schools, more start-up programmes, safer Internet for kids) and ‘digital citizens’ relates to citizens and privacy, data transparency and citizen services (increasing the involvement of citizens in decision-making and legal acts related to privacy, green solutions, smart cities/villages).
Ana Toskic Cvetinovic from Partner Serbia, trying to compare where Serbia stands on this point, asked a couple of questions from a citizen point of view. She was curious to find out what mechanisms they used for engaging the citizens in this process, especially the digitally illiterate. She was wondering about the data protection given the most recent cyber-attacks in Albania, as well as the ratio of public employees engaged in in-person service delivery in the past versus the public employees who provide the services online.
Ms. Kostani shared that between 2013-2020 a lot of campaigns were done alongside tutorials for eAlbania, mostly through traditional and social media, what they discovered is that if you leave things optional people are not going to change their habits. People who go to the service counters feel more secure when they do the service on the counter as there is someone who will tell them if the documentation is complete and correct. During COVID when people had no choice but use eAlbania, what they saw was that everyone was able to use the e-services after all. Related to the employees’ question, she shared that instead of people losing their jobs, they have just changed their scope of work and are now invested in e-service delivery.
In terms of data security as a hot topic in the region, she reckoned that they have recovered from the cyber-attacks with the help of their partners from NATO and Microsoft in order to improve their cyber resilience. It was not an unknown situation, according to her: “This was the harshest cyber-attack that we have experienced, but we experience smaller ones on daily basis that are unsuccessful.”
Mila Josifovska Danilovska from Metamorphosis Foundation posed a couple of questions on digital access, decreasing corruption and the grey economy though the digitalization of public services, as well as the plans of the institutions on capacity building of all the employees in order to ensure a secure and efficient e-service delivery to the citizens.
On the security issue, Ms. Kostani shared that they changed the whole way of access to their infrastructure based on the zero-trust model. There are a lot of restrictions in their system now, for eg. no one can download or delete data by themselves. In this process they are supported by Microsoft through the government agreement. Other partners are foreseen to help them with capacity building to their government employees. They have their own security policies which have been updated, but they still need to take care of them being implemented.
She further mentioned that she is aware of a couple of cases where some offered to do an e-service for someone for a specific fee. eAlbania is a trademark and no one can use it in that sense, so her institution stopped them from promoting themselves as ‘eAlbania service providers’ and has fined them. She reckoned that this is very difficult to control. Related to the digital access, she shared that another Agency has the data on it.
The discussion shifted towards the challenges of getting the whole public administration on board, the costs of this investment in the digital transformation, online payment for e-services, as well as digitalization of passport and ID issuing.
Тhe project Increasing Civic Engagement in the Digital Agenda – ICEDA is co-funded by the European Union and implemented by the Metamorphosis Foundation (North Macedonia), Academy for e-Government (Estonia), Levizja Mjaft! (Albania), Partners for Democratic Change Serbia (Serbia), NGO 35mm (Montenegro) and ODK – Open Data Kosovo (Kosovo).