– Conversation with Alexander Yolovski, Deputy Chairman of the State e-Government Agency. Now, if we have to start somewhere about how far this process has gone in Bulgaria, how many institutions in Bulgaria can proudly say that they actually apply digital tools for managing their work and communicating with citizens? Can we divide them into those who are excellent and those who are lagging behind; are there processes in which things have happened already fast enough and others that you consider as an urgent, short–term priority?
– First of all, indeed, there are really accessible e–services for both citizens and businesses in a number of institutions. At the same time, however, the e–government conversation should not be simplified too much, as the mere e-Government is multilayered. For example, citizens of more than 10 years can submit their tax returns electronically. Businesses also submit their annual financial statements electronically. For several years now, even the reports that were required before being submitted to the National Statistical Institute and the NRA are submitted in one place.
In the framework of a recent intervention, even to this single point, the Registry Agency will join, so that the business in one place can submit its annual financial statements, not as it was 10 years ago, for example, in three. I.e. there are really good examples. The matter is that e-Government is not limited to simply having an administrative service available electronically. It is a very important element the mere administrations to communicate with each other electronically, not in paper. And, on the other hand, administrations to be able to exchange facts, data and circumstances that concern citizens and businesses, also electronically.
– So you do not have to visit or give all the same information online ...
– The citizen will not have to be a courier between an administration from which to take a certificate and take it to another which also uses it.
– And this is on hardcopy and ...
– There are several such bad examples where electronic services have been developed in the past requiring the citizen to go to take a document, scan it at home, attach it to an electronic form, and send it to another administration. I want to say clearly: This is not the e–Government we are aiming at.
– But it is a fact that the current Cabinet has put it as a priority and it is one of the first. Generally, by the end of the year, as many as possible, there would be no longer queues of waiting citizens in front of the administration at most of the places. Is it realistic to expect that as from this fall or the end of the year it may happen and where?
– The process is definitely irreversible. Since we have been talking about e-Government for more than 15 years, this is a long conversation that will not end with the completion of this initiative, which is currently being implemented with the already famous 12 paper certificates, for which the government has decided to take all necessary measures providing them in other administrations to be abolished. I.e. that such documents be required ex-officio, not the citizens to provide them. Of course, the deadline is short, but it is achievable, and we must keep in mind that all of these changes involve amendment in regulations and very often amendment of laws. Since the laws of the country, which are largely written without taking into account the current trends in information technology, these laws provide for paper processes. They provide, for example, that the applicant provides the following documents and list some documents. In such a wording, in a regulation, e–Government may not happen. That is why this initiative focuses on identifying cases in which a regulation, a law or a statutory instrument requires the provision of a paper certificate. These regulations will be amended and the State e-Government Agency has the technical solution to make it easier for the administrative authorities to actually access this data ex-officio.
– If we go beyond the regulatory framework, what are the other challenges on this path that you would outline as the most serious?
– The challenges are many, and perhaps first of all we need to mention the change of mindset. Since, fortunately, recently we have a very supportive environment for e-Government – we have clear strategic priorities; we have an amended e-Government Act that clearly sets out the objectives and the way to achieve these objectives. So perhaps the key challenge is changing the way of thinking within the mere administrations.
Here, of course, I am not talking so much about changing the way of thinking of the heads of administrations. Because it is clear that they, as administrative heads, assign tasks. It is necessary to change the way of thinking of the civil servants themselves. Because, in general, the civil service implies a rigidity. It supposes that stringent rules and procedures be implemented, and changing these rules and procedures always causes a turbulence. So the key to the success of e-Government is that it is supported by citizens, business, the State Agency, but also by the state policy and government officials as a whole.
– Just about the readiness of the administration and of its various units will talk after a while and how far it is available. We pause briefly and go back to the Business Start studio (...)
– We have come to the point that it is imperative to change the way of thinking, perhaps on both sides – both from the administration and from the citizens who work with it. About the new way things happen nowadays. The extent to which the Bulgarian administration is ready for this process and how much remains to be desired. Are we going back to the beginning of what we started – places where things happened faster and have such processes or there are still institutions that we can say that they are not ready for what is ahead? And, as we said earlier, it is about to happen soon.
– Of course, good examples are available. For several years, all joint stock companies submit documents to the Registry Agency only by electronic means. There is no possibility of hardcopy submission on desk. I.e. this is a specific example of how, when a technology base is available in the Registry Agency itself, an appropriate legal framework is available in the face of the law, things are happening. It is also a great facility for both business and administration itself. Because, you should agree, one thing is, when an employee works on his computer in an information system or even without an information system, another is when his desk has dozens of folders with many sheets that may be lost, scattered. Work goes much easier when it is structured, clear, and the risks involved in handling the documentation itself are reduced.
Of course, there are many administrations not only centrally but also locally, which, unfortunately, for various reasons are not yet ready enough to enter this paradigm of digital transformation. Somewhere the reason is mainly in the lack of budget. Otherwise, there is a lack of appropriately qualified individuals, as, you should agree, ICT work as a whole requires higher qualifications. Not only the S.E.G.A., but also the other institutions, are directly committed to creating a supportive environment for these things to happen. It’s a matter of time. Digital transformation is irreversible. We must be ready in advance. It will happen no matter if we want it or not. It will happen despite us.
– Do you think the time will come when you will have to think in some way about the unification of the different software solutions at the administration level. Because this process has begun for years, it is not from yesterday or the day before, but until now each structure has been making a public procurement, making a job what it needs and what it wants to give as a service; found a contractor and the latter was doing some software or a system. However, now the NRA has its own, the NSSI has its own, the Traffic Police works with its own. You say the idea is for these systems to communicate with each other. How will this happen?
– Bulgarian practice is rather complicated compared to other European countries. We have a very large number of state authorities, a large number of registries, a large number of information systems. It is not realistic, it could not be reduced to 5, 10 or 15, and the law has provided another direction. It is envisaged that all these heterogeneous systems of the different administrative bodies will interact under strictly defined rules, so it does not matter whether it is the information system of the NRA, NSSI, the Customs Agency, the Cadastre Agency ... In the presence of unified rules and procedures for exchanging data to provide data and exchange, if you will, of documents, these things will happen.
There is currently a key initiative in this direction, namely that a single technical protocol has been created to allow government administrations to exchange electronic documents. This is, in fact, one of the key steps towards the introduction of e-Government, as until now, although most central administrations have the technical conditions to send electronic documents to another administration, this was not due to lack of clear rules. Well, the rules are already a fact and these rules are, of course, tested in practice and they become mandatory within the next year.
So really Bulgaria in 2018, in late 2018, will abolish the exchange of paper documents between the administrations themselves. This in no way means that citizens will not be able to submit a paper document. It means that when two administrations communicate between each other, it will only be done electronically. Of course, the exception when material evidence is to be handed over is available. But the common line is towards the electronic exchange of documents and data.
– How do things stand, of course, I do not know how much this is in your institution’s prerogatives, but from the point of view of social adaptation – are citizens getting used to these innovations quickly and what are your expectations and guidelines?
– If we are really citizen oriented, if they are in the focus of our attention, i.e. we make the services convenient for citizens, citizens will undoubtedly increase the level of use of these services. It was not a coincidence that I started with the possibility of submitting a tax return electronically. This is an opportunity for more than 10 years and I myself, if necessary, use it. The requirement is, yes, the existence of an electronic signature, and sometimes this is the brake that prevents – the purchase of an electronic signature – the use of electronic services. But when with an electronic signature or with a PIC, soon with electronic identification – when many more services may be used and these services are at a reduced price as the costs of providing electronic services are much lower than the cost of providing such on paper. So, when that happens, when citizens have a larger range of services to use, they will be satisfied and will prefer this way and instead of queuing, they can do it from home.
– It sounds absolutely logical ...
– So the citizens are ready. Both companies and citizens are ready.
– I was just going to ask you about the business, how things are? Here, in Bloomberg, we can not miss also this point of view. These days, by the way, we commented very much. This is the case with, let’s say, the e–Procurement System, which appears in the law and should be statutory used, but it still does not exist, and this creates obstacles for the work of the companies. How do you see the matters?
– Business is one of the strongest factors for the development of e-Government. Since actually business is losing resources, funds, communicating with the state – stretching, slowly. The business has to hire people who know state procedures. This is precisely one of the focus of e-Government – to facilitate the communication of both citizens and business with the state. Not secondly, of course, e–Government and e–Services are a factor that reduces corruption. When it is very clear how a service is going, what are the necessary documents and steps, the possibilities for impact within the process are much smaller. So the business is expecting a wide spread of services for the business itself so that it does not waste time and resources but also rely on transparency of the system.
– Fair rules. Well, finally, how much do we appreciate the international experience? How far the principles of e-Government may be transferred from one country to another? Finally, the machines can talk to each other all over the world, however – what you started with – the laws are not exactly the same. How far such experience may be copied, good examples from other countries? Are we doing it?
– Surely, looking at both good and bad examples is good in terms of not wasting precious time and resources to pursue goals that will not be good or applicable to us. Good examples are many. There are countries that are exemplary often, such as Estonia, such as Austria. However, these countries have developed their e-Government in their specific local conditions. We may not directly take these overall solutions and apply them immediately on the Bulgarian territory. Currently, with the establishment of the State e-Government Agency and the rules and coordination imposed and implemented by the Agency, we aim to fill these gaps in the Bulgarian know–how in e–Government, taking into account good international practices.
On the other hand, the European Commission itself is working very seriously on developing and providing the Member States with software component that may be used in each Member State for issues related to European legislation. So, yes, the good examples are taken into consideration, but they should not be absolutized. We must take into account the Bulgarian reality, because if we introduce a foreign system, it will immediately meet the requirements of the Bulgarian laws, the Bulgarian procedures, the Bulgarian registers.
– And work will become more, instead of less ...
– There are countries in which there is no concept of registries, for example. I.e. we may not immediately bring some good practice that does not meet our current requirements. We may not abolish the Bulgarian reality and attract a foreign one immediately. So the transition must be smooth, but should be guided.
It will be driven in a certain direction and that is one of the functions of the State e-Government Agency .
– Thank you very much for this comment and wish you a great success in this endeavour, which is undoubtedly key and is a priority, as you said, for the citizens and the Bulgarian companies. It was Alexander Yolovski from the State e-Government Agency who shared his point of view.