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Is the Digital Revolution the Balkan's Big Chance?

TEXT: Nikola Babić - 14. December 2021
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The Western Balkan countries lost the economic race with Western Europe over the last thirty years, and many consider the digital revolution as their big chance to make up for lost time. Are they close to bringing this vision to life?

It is a popular opinion in the Western Balkans that the countries are rich in highly educated people who can compete with the experts in the higher-income countries, and that digitalization offers the chance to make up for lost decades of economic development. There is even action around this belief: each government has positioned digitalization and retaining their best IT talent at the top of their agendas. Western Balkan countries have also signed a few agreements like the Regional Roaming Agreement and the Digital Agenda for the Western Balkans. The IT sector has become a significant contributor to the national GDP and the national export of each Western Balkan country. But the key question is how these efforts are contributing to improving the lives of citizens and businesses.

In this article, I looked at the scope and quality of e-government services for citizens in the Western Balkans and compared them with those of two similarly positioned countries, Moldova and Georgia, as well as the European Union. The article is based on data collected from 10 interviews with development practitioners in Eastern Europe, observation of their eGovernment portals and desk analysis of EU eGovernment benchmark reports during November 2021.

How citizens can benefit from digitalization

E-services are an important aspect of modern life; people don’t have time to stand at numerous counters fighting with bureaucracy. This is where e-government can make a substantial difference, and Southeast and Eastern Europe are trying to keep up with the global trend. Each country in the region has established an e-government portal where they display their services. E-government development was additionally incentivized by COVID-19, and many people agree that this global disaster has positively stimulated digitalization like nothing before.

Obtaining personal documents (birth certificate, certificate of nationality and marriage certificate) and personal identification cards (ID card, driving license and passports) are traditionally the most used governmental services that consume a big chunk of citizens’ life. These days, Albanians obtain all personal documents (that don’t have an ID photo) fully online; they are available through the e-Albania portal, where they can be generated immediately at no cost. Georgians, Serbs and Moldovans can also order these documents online, but they must wait until the request is processed and delivery services do their job. While citizens of Kosovo and North Macedonia should have access to this service soon, as per information on the portal, Montenegro people and Bosnians for now can only learn about the procedure online, and must complete the rest of the process in person.

Personal identification cards are a bit trickier; they require a physical presence at the state facility because of the need for an onsite photo. However, this constraint has been successfully addressed in a few cases: Georgia accepts pictures sent by post, and Serbia issues a driving license online to those who have a picture not older than three years in the system. Other Balkan countries just offer information about the application process for personal identification documents online; in Serbia, this process was eased by making an appointment online.

Tax portals are not widespread across Eastern Europe. Still, in some countries like Georgia and Serbia, citizens have an accurate overview of their obligation to the government. While most of the countries are issuing modern ID cards that allow an e-signature option, the electronic signature remains a big unknown for many citizens. They mostly connect the e-signature with access to a few services that require personal identification via an ID card and a pin, however, more significant penetration of this service is pending, and it will require some legal clarifications as well as training for users.

Among the more common and visible services for citizens is the connection to central registers and confidential data that requires personal authentication, advanced security protection and connection with other systems. It is difficult to group them since they cover a wide range, including reporting a communal issue in the neighborhood, submission of application to a kindergarten, registration of a foreign person as a guest, residence permit application and birth registration. The development of such services is a tedious job that can last for many years and be very complex, requiring restructuring of the organization and IT systems. While these services are important, the crucial factor for the digitalization of government services is that other ministries, departments and agencies contribute to and digitalize services specific to their mandates, which further displays their strategic orientation toward digital transformation. The Eastern European countries, apart from Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, are blossoming in this sense, digitalizing hundreds of different services every year.

Measuring the quality of service offerings

The e-services developed in the Western Balkan countries are regularly displayed as part of the EU e-government benchmark reports, since they have participated in the survey since 2018. The reports assess e-government by four key dimensions: User Centricity, Transparency, Key Enablers and Cross-Border Service. The first report featuring Western Balkan countries promotes three Albanian and one Serbian e-government service as good practices. The 2019 report highlighted four North Macedonian services, and the 2021 report listed a few cases from each Balkan country. It is interesting that the good practice list tripled since the first report, which indicates an overall quality increase of e-government services.

© European Union, 2021
According to the European Commission's "E-government Benchmark 2021" report, these countries added the highest number of new online services between 2018 and 2020. © European Union, 2021

The electronic seal and the Public Administration Module are two of the Albanian e-government services that were promoted as a good practice. Citizens and businesses of Albania can download 33 official documents with legal value fully online from their personal computers. About 60 years of waiting time in queues was saved in one year, and three times fewer hardcopy documents were printed by the institutions providing the 33 documents in one year. Albanians saved half a million dollars just on getting their civil status certificate during the first year of implementation.

The Serbian tax authorities have completely digitized their work and introduced e-tax applications that provide persons and companies with access to their balances for each national government tax. This is especially impressive considering that just a year before a person or an entrepreneur often waited several years for a tax report. The property tax reform project (MED) in Serbia, implemented by Helvetas, won the Global Helvetas Innovation award for its contribution to the digitalization of local property tax in Serbia.

The 2021 European Union eGovernment benchmark report ranked the Serbian e-government service slightly above the service of Albania and North Macedonia; Montenegro achieved the lowest score.

The opinion of survey respondents was very positive towards new e-government services and dealing with public administration, which is also echoed in a recent PAR Monitor public perception survey. The survey reports that citizens of all Western Balkan countries think that dealing with public administration became easier in the past two years.

Comparing the region to European Union countries

The Western Balkan countries are offering almost the worst e-government services in Europe, according to the EU benchmark reports. “Almost” because the Romanian e-government service is ranked lower than the Serbian and Albanian counterparts. There is a big gap between the four Western Balkan countries that scored 43% on average while the rest of Europe scored 71%.

© European Union, 2021
Countries' overall e-government maturity (EU e-Government Benchmark report, 2021) © European Union, 2021

From the user centricity aspect, which means the extent to which the government delivers and designs services with the user needs in mind, the Western Balkan countries are doing much better, with an average score of 70%. However, the rest of the countries are also better in this aspect. Out of Western Balkan countries, Serbia leads on service availability online, and Albania is the best on mobile friendliness. The Montenegro e-government service is at the bottom of the list both in general and for each sub aspect separately.

The gap between Western Balkan countries and the rest of the EU is even greater compared with other benchmark aspects: they scored just 40% on the transparency of services. On the key enablers aspect, which refers to authenticity, the region stands even worse at 35%, while the average is 65%. The cross-border availability of services in the region is the worst aspect, at just 22%.

Observing from the perspective of different life events, in the region Serbia offers the best e-government service support to Start Ups (ranked 22/36), and Career (27/36), and Albania is offering the best e-government services to families (19/36).

Western Balkan countries, except Montenegro, were progressing gradually in the last five years, however they remained at the bottom of the ranking. Despite the fact that Serbia and Albania made great progress this is still far from enough to keep up with the e-government development in other EU countries.

What the digital revolution means for the Western Balkans

Each revolution requires huge changes, and the changes offer a chance to shift the balance between system elements. The post-communist countries are strongly capacitated to compete with the most developed EU and world countries, and can hopefully minimalize the gap in the economic development. However, it is true that the gap is getting bigger over time, as well as the gap in digitalization. The most developed countries committed significant resources to the digital transformation, and the region follows it.

Local companies, through the export of their services, contribute to the digital transformation of more developed countries. To revert this trend, the region needs to do better at innovation. The entire economy needs to embrace the digitalization trend, implement new technology and learn by doing. The capacities are available and the resources for a digital revolution exist. Balkan countries must continue reaching outside their comfort zone to use this opportunity.

Nikola Babić is the economic and vocational skills development (VSD) portfolio coordinator of Helvetas Eastern Europe.

This article appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Helvetas MosaicSubscribe to never miss an issue.

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