(This content is a translation of the original article in Macedonian, published on the 6th of December 2022)
The first panel discussion of the 18th international conference e-Society.mk, which started on the 6th of December, was devoted to the topic “Digital Agenda Observatory – Where is the Western Balkans now?” The EU Digital Agenda for the Western Balkans was adopted by all six countries of the Western Balkans in Sofia in 2018, and thе topic of the panel discussion was the progress in the implementation of the DA. Speaking about that, Metamorphosis Foundation implements the project “Increasing Civic Engagement in the Digital Agenda – ICEDA”, with co-funding by the European Union.
Snezana Nikčević from the non-governmental organization “35 mm” from Montenegro, in the panel discussion focused on the situation in her country and noted that the first Digital Transformation Strategy of her country was adopted last year. She noted that civil servants are the key factor in the perception of the digital transformation, as the link between the institutions and the citizens i.e., their readiness to deal with the digital transformation.
She stressed that a small number of people in Montenegro make use of the available digital services. Though, an increase of the number of services can be noticed, but that only referred to 3-4 obligatory online services such as: applying for studies on faculties or applying for scholarships.
Concerning the digital transformation, Nikčević mentioned that the situation in Montenegro is good in the bigger municipalities but very bad in the smaller and in the rural municipalities. Therefore, one of the things that require concentrated efforts is the digital literacy. She also emphasized the low level of functional digital literacy, but also, of the media literacy, thus the work with the citizens is a must!
In Montenegro, which is involved in the ICEDA network, there are eight other partners from civil society apart from the NGO “35 mm” – five from the media sector and three institutions – all acting in cooperation to implement the Digital Agenda. Three support centres were established and over 3,000 citizens were provided an e-service, stated Nikčević.
“There must be various approaches to make it more tangible for people who do not use specific digital services skillfully. It is extremely important to work with outreach organizations that work with the citizens”, Snezana Nikčević explained.
Ariana Gjuli from Open Data Kosovo said that Kosovo was the last country to introduce the national e-service platform “e-Kosovo”. This centralized platform became operational in 2021, above all, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the vaccination requirement.
The citizens at the time were supposed to register through the platform to get vaccinated against Covid. E-Kosovo however, began offering other digital services, such as the recently digitalized service of vehicle registration in Kosovo, meaning citizens no longer have to go to the municipalities or to other centers to secure documents for vehicle registration.
“There has been significant progress in Kosovo in the last three years. We did a great job, but there is still room for improvement in the future in Kosovo”, said Ariana Gjuli.
Aldo Merkoci from the “MJAFT” from Albania said that Albania digitalized literally all the services and became quite vulnerable to cyber attacks. In 2019, Albania embarked upon the digitalization process and in the course of this year started the implementation of systems and services through a centralized e-service platform called “E-Albania”.
In 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic, Albania was directed towards securing 220 e-services, with the exception of a small number of services that now are not available online (passport renewal, driver’s licence etc.), he said.
Merkoci added that at the start, Albania was a very successful digital story, with most services offered online by the central and local government for the citizens in the period 2020 – 2022. Albania took over the Estonian model for cyber security. The Albanian government devoted attention to increasing citizens’ digital literacy, including how to migrate online, but also how to establish an agency to be competent for all 55 databases that would integrate online.
Yet, as Aldo Merkoci mentioned, the most dangerous cyber attack in Albania happened this year.
“Everything was transferred online and that was the reason why we were subject to an online attack”, he said and added that many of the data were taken over from the 55 databases.
Following the attack, every week through the Viber group Albanian Fight for Democracy, various data was revealed about the citizens – a great deal of private data have been published, including mobile phone numbers, voting registry numbers, dates of birth of citizens and registration plates of vehicles. In addition, another type of information released publicly after the cyber attacks were the lists of public administration empolyees, which brings great danger, Merkoci stressed.
“We were happy to have 220 digitalized e-services, but we are now also concerned how to survive the e-threats Albania is facing”,Merkoci stated.
Finally, Predrag Topić from Bridges&Creations/DX Lab from Serbia said that the report on the regional research on the digital transformation of the Western Balkan countries, developed within the framework of ICEDA, has shown that many things changed in the region thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It had enormous influence on the Digital Agenda, and it worked as both enabler and “intercalator” of the Digital Agenda. We saw elderly citizens using e-services, nevertheless, many strategies and documents were discontinued, because the governments had other priorities”, Topić explained.
He mentioned that political will was always present in the Western Balkan countries. Strategies and action plans for digital transformation were developed, but what was missing was the implementation, which is belated.
From the viewpoint of coordination on a national level, there are central agencies in the countries coordinating the efforts or a ministry competent for digital transformation.
“One of the key points is the fact that the most important precondition is the digital literacy, which is necessary for the Digital Agenda to work. Only North Macedonia and Serbia have some kind of measures for monitoring digital literacy”, said Topić and added that no standard or one model for measuring digital skills exists in the region in any of the five Western Balkan countries.
“This is a recommendation and a point of focus for the future period”, stressed Predrag Topić.
The most important indicator – according to him – were the numbers of users of e-services that varied from one country to another. Albania went fully online, all public services were available online only and over 90 percent of the population was registered on the national portal for e-services. Kosovo is at 37 percent, Montenegro 13 percent, North Macedonia 4 percent, and Serbia around 15-20 percent of the population registered on the national e-service portal.
Predrag Topić added that the whole region needed to be careful if it wanted to improve the Digital Agenda.
“Regarding communications, the ordinary citizen is quite confused about everything, even today… they all want a simpler interface, to get things done quicker, easier and more successful,” he said and added that a small, but stable progress could be noted in the Digital Agenda in the last three years.
Kristina Mand from the e-Governance Academy from Estonia in the panel discussion mentioned eight points of the Digital Agenda that she had identified in the last two and a half years among the Western Balkan countries.
Inter alia, she stressed her understanding of cyber hygiene or security.
“There is a clear understanding in the countries that digital society and services cannot exist without a strong cyber security framework. A good example is what happened in Albania; this is a cyber security issue”, Mand said.
Civic engagement in digital transformation in the last few years is very important, because demand by the citizens in the Western Balkan countries has increased. Yet, what is lacking is stability and political determination, accompanied by delivery.
“Technology itself will not make the country better. Persistence and systematic approach are also required”, Kristina Mand emphasized.
From the viewpoint of acquiring digital skills and digital literacy, Mand mentioned that it was very important to have good initiatives and projects that will be constantly supported. She added that if the private sector or the civil society organizations can do something better, then a private-public partnership would be a good idea to implement the project and trust must be expressed.
“The role of the CSOs is significant. They have better access to the vulnerable citizens. When a specific digital service is being developed, we must think about this inclusion moment that will enable citizens to be engaged in digital transformation”, Kristina Mand remarked.