Our world is becoming increasingly digital, and the COVID-19 pandemic is further increasing the use of digital activities such as video meetings, online shopping and virtual family gatherings. Similarly, governmental services have developed rapidly into new digital formats, aiming to be more transparent, efficient and accessible.
Our research team in Sweden analyzes digital government practices and policies by focusing on democratic transparency, inclusion and development. During the past two years, we have had the opportunity to arrange the Academy of Sustainable e-Government for Resilient and Innovative Democratic Public Administration (SeGRID), targeting high-level young policymakers, public servants and civil society workers operating in the Western Balkans region. The aim of SeGRID is to promote a sustainable digital government transformation and to allow participants to exchange knowledge and ideas for digital government. It is funded by the Swedish Institute.
In this article, we present participants’ chosen best practices for sustainable democratic digitalization in the Western Balkans region. At present, research in general has a limited understanding of how digital government evolves within emerging democracies. The research needs to focus on digital government as a widespread global trend impacting a full range of states. This is due both to the increased integration of new technologies and how public values often transform into increased demands for transparency, openness and inclusiveness for the general public. For internal governmental structures, these shifts are often heralded as bringing increasing efficiency of governmental activities and funds as well as changing the means for how citizens and different governmental branches interact. The use of digital technologies in government also creates enhanced possibilities to bring services closer to citizens. Hence, using smartphones, mobile applications or other internet-based technologies can, in many instances, open up new practices and even foster democratic participation, transparency or other democratic values.
We asked participants in the SeGRID Academy of 2020 to identify and discuss best practices from their own countries. Together, they highlighted 21 best practices: four from Albania; two from Bosnia and Herzegovina; eight from Kosovo; two from Montenegro; four from North Macedonia; and one from Serbia. These numbers roughly reflect the respective number of participants from each country, and the best practices are presented and discussed below. A more detailed analysis was published in proceedings of the 54th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.
The Western Balkan context
The countries of the Western Balkans are all emerging democracies that have risen from regional tensions, previous conflicts and non-democratic governments. The region is characterized by economic austerity when compared to the neighboring EU countries. Here, regional scholars have previously identified a relationship between the development of digital government and higher levels of economic development. The Balkan Barometer, an annual survey performed by the Regional Cooperation Council, showed that 74% of the region’s citizens use the internet. Among these countries, North Macedonia has the highest use of internet, yet only 4% of the population use governmental e-services.
As recent trends highlight, the institutional developments within these countries have taken divergent turns, and their geopolitical considerations make them candidates or potential candidates for EU membership. For such membership to materialize, these countries must comply with the standards put forward by the Copenhagen Accord. In this context, digital government and the use of different technologies are all important means to foster or drive necessary reform agendas to strengthen existing institutions.
1. E-Albania works primarily as a catalogue and repository for services and information from all governmental branches – a “one-stop-shop.” It also allows citizens to pay taxes and other fees.
2. Electronic prescriptions is the national system for digital medical prescriptions. The service facilitates citizen-to-government interaction as it allows citizens to request medications, wherein a doctor acts as an intermediary between the user and pharmacies.
3. Ask the State is a portal where citizens can send electronic requests for information or complaints.
4. Flight authorization is a web page where flight permits are issued. Airlines need to fill in a flight application to be allowed to land at the country’s airports.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
6. Land Register allows anyone to check who a plot of land in Bosnia and Herzegovina belongs to. It is an interactive map service based on Google Maps but showing the official borders and ownership of pieces of land.
8. Digital drivers license became the world’s first nationwide mobile driving license service. The citizens of Kosovo can use an app to show their driver’s licenses on their smartphones. To verify the license, public authorities need to use a matching app on their smartphone.
9. e-Kiosk was first developed to print forms and certificates. However, it has developed into a more integrated service where citizens can pay their taxes, indicating that the adding of new layers upon existing services can further mature and extend e-government provisioning through existing means.
10. EDI taxation portal is a system for e-declaration and e-filing. It is a digital way to pay taxes
11. e-Certificates allows citizens with a registered civil status certificate and residency in one of Kosovo’s municipalities to access and print dated and signed certificates needed to apply for certain public services.
12. Milk Collection Centers is directed to farmers. It is a system where they have access to information and data from the Regional Offices of Food and Veterinary Agency. They also have the ability to apply for payment from the government.
13. Kosovo Judicial Council is an online portal that allows citizens to easily access information about all the courts in Kosovo and more. The portal provides information on Council decisions, disciplinary decisions and statistics, judgments, and job opportunities in the Council.
14. City of Pristina Portal is a way for natural and legal persons residing in Pristina to be informed of which documents are required when applying for certain services, as well as for downloading documents needed for further manual processing by city administrators.
16. Study at home was established to facilitate e-learning for younger pupils amidst the spread of COVID-19 and consequent lockdown of schools. The portal relays class curricula and course videos.
19. Diplomatic mission certificates is a service used by North Macedonian embassies and consulates to help the North Macedonian diaspora apply for and receive birth, marriage or death certificates, regardless of location.
20. City of Skopje e-Services is a document repository that contains application forms for certain city services and subsidies. The platform also allows netizens to contact the local city council.
These selected best practices of digital government from the Western Balkans all indicate ambitions to increase citizens’ access to digital services through basic measures that address daily needs such as employment, healthcare and permits of different types. As discussed during the case presentations, easy and inclusive access to case materials or other relevant information makes citizens more included in how the government conducts case work and increases internal efficiency and impartiality. By opening such possibilities, the services not only enhance accessibility and transparency, but also strengthen the legitimacy and trust for governments.
Some of the best practices presented above are indeed advanced attempts of services that cut across sectorial barriers, foster democratic processes or put citizens in direct communication with local councils. Even if these countries are relatively new, the list is also telling in that that the bulk of the digital government services provided by the Western Balkan states remain as requisites for traditional, manual case work procedures such as printing and signing papers. Factors such as digital participation or use, low trust in governmental institutions, a persistence of traditional bureaucratic norms or general design issues are all likely to influence how these services are implemented and used. The main reason for the challenges raised by the SeGRID participants was the lack of resources in terms of funding and competences. Resources are key in facilitating the seamless transaction of data across government and between government and citizens, improvements in transparency and formation of democratic culture.
Read the full paper: Wihlborg, E. et al. (2021) Best practice of digital government in emerging democracies: Illustrations, challenges and reflections of state building processes. Proceedings of the 54th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.
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