Civil society organizations (CSOs) are assuming growingly critical roles in a rapidly evolving digital landscape. These organizations act as intermediaries between citizens and governments, advocating for inclusive digital policies and services that cater to the needs of all.

In the Western Balkans, the ICEDA (Increasing Civic Engagement in the Digital Agenda) project aimed to foster and improve CSOs role and positioning in order to do just that. From shaping the digital agenda, to spreading a culture of cybersecurity and cyber hygiene. In conversation with Kristina Mänd, today’s host, Mila Josifovska Danilovska, Program Coordinator at the Metamorphosis Foundation from North Macedonia, tells us the ins and outs of this project.

Engagement and the digital agenda in the Western Balkans

Need and motivation behind emphasizing the role of CSOs in the digital transformation of the Western Balkans had been there already for some time. In 2018, Western Balkan governments committed to a comprehensive digital agenda aimed at modernizing public administration, enhancing public security, and boosting productivity. However, this initiative often remained poorly understood by the general public.

Through the ICEDA project, the aim was to increase civic engagement by monitoring government developments and building capacity among stakeholders, including CSOs, media, decision-makers, academia, businesses, and marginalized groups. “We leveraged the potential of the civic sector, in influencing the digital developments in our country in favor of the citizens,” Danilovska says. Efforts included research, capacity building, and the establishment of a regional network of CSOs dedicated to promoting inclusive digital transformation.

CSOs catalyzing policy and service design

In many ways, the ICEDA initiative directly influenced CSOs’ involvement in policymaking and service design. Initially, CSOs encountered resistance from institutions regarding their inclusion in these processes. Nevertheless, the project played a pivotal role in advocating for their involvement, emphasizing their access to expertise and direct connections to citizens.

Across the region, capacity building efforts empowered over 50 CSOs and media organizations to actively contribute to digital transformation. They influenced over 150 e-services and policies, even contributing to the crafting of Montenegro’s digital transformation strategy. Collaborative efforts extended to the media, with investigative articles shedding light on bureaucratic inefficiencies, leading to positive changes.

Cybersecurity and Cyber Hygiene

Security and safety themes were not left on the sidelines – cybersecurity and cyber hygiene. The ICEDA project proactively raised awareness and educated citizens on these matters. It became evident that citizens in the Western Balkans were vulnerable to scams due to a lack of digital literacy. Misinformation proliferated on social media due to this digital knowledge gap. 16 e-Government Support Centers, established in various cities, played a crucial role in assisting marginalized groups and citizens in increasing their digital literacy and protecting their digital rights. These centers collectively served over 31,000 citizens, highlighting the importance of empowering individuals to navigate the digital world safely.

Recommendations for CSOs in Digital Transformation

“There is a limit to what one can do alone” is Danilovska’s warning to civil society organizations worldwide. So here are some valuable recommendations, as emerged from the conversation, for CSOs aiming to play a more significant role in digital transformation:

  • Build Expertise
    CSOs should invest in developing their expertise in digital policy and technology. This includes understanding the intricacies of e-services, data privacy, and emerging technologies, allowing them to provide informed recommendations and advocate effectively.
  • Collaborative Partnerships
    Forming alliances and partnerships with other CSOs, government agencies, and tech industry stakeholders can amplify CSOs’ impact. Collaborative efforts enable the pooling of resources, knowledge, and influence.
  • Engage the Youth
    Involve young people in CSO activities. They are often early adopters of technology and can provide fresh perspectives and insights into digital issues. Engaging youth ensures a more comprehensive approach to digital transformation.
  • Promote Digital Literacy
    CSOs should actively engage in digital literacy initiatives to bridge the digital divide. Promote education and training programs that empower citizens to navigate the digital landscape confidently.

The ICEDA project served as a transformative force in the Western Balkans, offering valuable lessons for CSOs worldwide. It underscored the necessity of bridging the gap between citizens, governments, and digital transformation. CSOs should be actively engaged early in the policymaking and service design processes. Moreover, fostering a culture of cyber hygiene and cybersecurity awareness is paramount to ensure the safety of digitally vulnerable populations.

The ICEDA project’s success not only empowered CSOs but also catalyzed a cultural shift and deeper understanding of digital transformation. The collaborative efforts of CSOs, institutions, and partners like e-Governance Academy set a path ahead for others seeking to embark on a similar journey towards a digitally inclusive society. In an evolving digital landscape, governments must adapt to the changing dynamics of civic participation. By embracing transparency, cooperation, and inclusivity, they can foster a stronger democracy where citizens actively engage in shaping their future.

The full podcast is available here alongside the news which was taken from the website of e-Governance Academy.