Video source: e-Governance Academy Facebook page

Between May 18-20, 2021 the ICEDA network members and selected Western Balkan institution representatives participated at the e-Governance Conference: A Digital Decade in One Year, organized by the e-Governance Academy from Estonia, ICEDA network member.

The year 2020 put government online services and communication capabilities to the ultimate test, having to meet the heightened expectations and increased demand. But the pandemic has also been the biggest “advocate” and accelerator for digital transformation. governments and local authorities now have stronger political will to develop online services and raise citizens’ awareness. Related to that important questions have risen: ethical dilemmas, legal issues related to data collection and storage, privacy and trust – in other words, the emergence of digital responsibility.

”The only true societal digital transformation happens when the government digitalizes its services, creates the necessary legal space, and necessary infrastructure for digital identification. Otherwise, you may have the best digitalized public service, like many developed nations do, but if the government doesn’t take the leadership in offering inclusively, to all citizens, access to its services – it does not transform the societies.” This is the message from the Estonian president Kersti Kaljulaid at one of the panel discussions at the Conference.

Photo source: e-Governance Academy Facebook page

“Coming from the country pawing its way towards digital transformation, the take-outs from the Conference are enormously valuable. I would like to highlight the importance of the Western Balkan governments in taking the lead and providing the infrastructure for these processes, the impact of education, and the importance of them being citizen-centered. This means that we need to get the right needs’ assessment on what kind of e-services citizens really need, and how we can all build our further activities upon that.” – said Snežana Nikčević, NGO 35 MM (Montenegro), ICEDA member.

The e-Governance Academy and the Minister of Entrepreneurship and Information Technology in Estonia, Andres Sutt, with the support from the ICEDA members, provided space for free participation of several selected Western Balkan institutions who are working directly on the implementation of the Digital Agenda for the Western Balkans. One of them was Zupanoski Ilija, Digital communication adviser to the Prime Minister Government of the Republic of North Macedonia who expressed his gratitude towards Metamorphosis Foundation for the nomination and opportunity to participate in what he considers to be one of the best events in the world on the topic of “Digitalization of society”, given that Estonia is one of the most advanced countries in this field.

“The Conference has been a great place to discuss digital anti-corruption tools developed and used by governments in the fight against corruption, tools to increase the digital transparency of institutions in order to increase citizens’ trust in their work, digitalization of public services, cyber security, technological trends that influence governments’ strategies for digital transformation, and so on. As year the e-Governance Conference was held online due to the COVID19 pandemic, I was particularly impressed with the “Virtual Fair” – a tool through which we had the opportunity to meet international and Estonian IT companies and organizations, learn from their experiences and explore opportunities for cooperation.” – he added, saying that this knowledge and experience is going to be very valuable for his further engagement in the Government.

Photo source: e-Governance Academy Facebook page

The digital responsibility has mainly been addressed by the business sector. However, the expectations to the governments to set the agenda for digital responsibility are becoming increasingly clear, as is the potential role of CSOs in challenging the governments in the process. This topic was tackled through the Panel Discussion: Digital Responsibility: Government and the Civil Society View, facilitated by Kristina Mänd, e-Governance Academy (Estonia), ICEDA member. Aldo Merkoci from Levizja MJAFT! (Albania), ICEDA member, was a key-note speaker in this discussion, and used this opportunity to share the civic sector perspective and what ICEDA has done in the region.

“During this pandemic we have seen how quintessential digital transformation is becoming for our society, but also the need to be very responsible in its use and being able to give access to all the members of our society, especially in the developing countries around the world. Digital transformation is changing and will be changing our society in a great speed, in all the main sectors such as economy, health care, education and the use of main utilities, thus ensuring quality and equality in access to it for all should be our main concern today. That is why we shall start looking at it not only as a new tool but rather as a new component of human rights and our SDGs.”– he said.

Mila Josifovska Danilovska, Metamorphosis Foundation (North Macedonia), ICEDA member, shared that through the EU-funded project Increasing Civic Engagement in the Digital Agenda – ICEDA, in line with the capacity building activities for CSOs, they managed to ensure the participation of the sub-grantees and ICEDA members. Talking to the sub-grantees, we learned that they found this experience very rewarding and enlightening.

“How incredibly pleasant it is to see how well these things come together: all of the enthusiastic Conference speakers in strong positions – presidents of countries and representatives of different Ministries in 4 different continents; together with their modest, grounded, humble, approachable but yet hyped and excited attitude towards the digitally empowered future. I know that what SINHRO is doing in Pančevo through ICEDA is just assisting with the preparations for the first steps, but it is so joyful to be part of making this digital journey a bit more accessible to join.” – said Nataša Lenđel, SINHRO (Serbia), ICEDA member.

Debora Peci, Democracy Plus (Kosovo), ICEDA member, shared that digitalization within public insitutions is something they have been pushing in Kosovo since their establishment. “This has proven to be a challenge in Kosovo, and we are still on the very early stages of this process. Therefore, learning more about how public entities can become more welcoming to these changes, has been very useful to helping us develop a more realistic approach to furthering the digitalization process.” – she added.

Bozhidar Cvetkovski, ACTAC (North Macedonia), ICEDA member, also recognized the importance of the Conference and saw it as a great opportunity to start applying the positive experiences from developed countries. However he warned that implementation of digital tools should not be rushed, without having well thought out and prepared strategies that are applicable in our community. “Our goal as an organisation is to transmit these good practices to the population through mass promotion and education, with joint efforts and forces with other stakeholders, CSOs, media and the Government. Only with good examples and great commitment will we be able to keep up with the countries that are good examples at this Conference.” – he said.

For Liljana Jonoski, Rural Coalition (North Macedonia), ICEDA member, this was the first time to participate in such an even and learn from world experts in the field. She reckoned that the topics discussed are so close to their reality and there is a lot which can further be applied in their daily work within the local e-government center. “There was a discussion about the acquisition and promotion of digital skills, and how important this process is for both institutions and citizens. It was also highlighted that digitalization is a process in which we constantly learn and despite its good sides, mistakes are often made, so what was emphasized is that we should all learn from mistakes and in this way make the use of e-services easy and accessible to all. This is especially important for us given the target group we work with and to whom we will really need to bring e-services and digitalization closer.” – was their message. She also mentioned that the Conference offered a great networking space as they were approached by the Citizenship OS platform who offered their support in the development of their platform for agricultural e-services.

The project “Increasing Civic Engagement in the Digital Agenda – ICEDA” , is co-funded by the European Union and implemented by Metamorphosis Foundation, Open Data Kosovo (ODK), e-Government Academy (eGA), Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability – CRTA, Lëvizja MJAFT, NVM 35 MM.