How COVID-19 crisis accelerates government digitalisation
By Khrystyna Kvartsiana

How COVID-19 crisis accelerates government digitalisation

 

In the context of the global pandemic, technologies enable the continuity of our social and economic life. Digital governance once again proves its necessity for greater societal resilience. However, this time it might get significant political support as the governments have realized how vulnerable they are before this crisis.

 

The last few months have become unprecedented for the whole world. The pandemic caused by the outbreak of Covid-19 has made governments introduce severe restrictions on the freedom of movement, locking down citizens at home. As a result, global production networks were significantly damaged, and economically we are moving to the major global crisis since the Great Depression.

Not all the governments, though, handle the crisis similarly: while some have their hands tied to efficiently communicate about the pandemic and to provide public services, the others have succeeded to do it online. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN/DESA), while highlighting the crucial role of e-government in addressing the Covid-19 pandemic, reports that there has been a significant increase (almost by 30%) in the number of countries that included information and guidance about coronavirus on the national portals. 
 
The COVID-19 pandemic increased the demand not only for existing digital government services but also for the new ones. In Greece, a country that has been ranked 26 out of 28 OECD member-states in terms of e-governance, today, as reported by Euronews, “new digital applications are available for hundreds of government services, including an electronic prescription service and a mobile platform for the cabinet to function remotely”.

 

The UN/DESA recorded an increase in the usage of digital ID and digital signature in some countries, as a result of the rise in the number of applications for unemployment allowance and other social support. In Armenia, for instance, more than 5,000 citizens used the one-window system for electronic requests in March 2020 compared to 900 in January 2020.

New Solutions 

In a number of countries, multiple stakeholders have been engaged to develop new solutions to address the crisis. In Estonia, one of the digitally most advanced societies, immediately after announcing the quarantine the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications launched an online hackathon “Hack the Crisis”. The 48-hours brainstorming resulted in new solutions that are already put in practice including the state chatbot Suve that answers the coronavirus-related questions, the platform Zelos that matches volunteers with seniors needing help, and Share Force One platform assisting companies to share the workforce that would otherwise stay inactive. 

Asian countries significantly advanced in combating the spread of coronavirus by developing and implementing the applications that rely on tracing the infected citizens. One of the most prominent examples is TraceTogether application developed in Singapore that helps to identify the infected person in one’s radius, using Bluetooth on his/her smartphone. The Post-lockdown Republic of Korea is going to maintain the tracking of its citizens through applications and credit card data. In the meantime, China has introduced an application that assigns a health QR-code for its citizens. Although all these applications’ main objective is to isolate infected people from public places, some scientists are concerned that giving up on personal data protection will be irreversible after the pandemic in some societies, especially in authoritarian regimes).

Political Challenge 

The COVID-19 crisis has not left aside political life, having most of the democratic instruments like elections, protests, conventions, and councils limited or suspended. Several European countries (France, UK, Spain) postponed their local elections, Poland delayed the presidential race, while 16 states in the USA pushed their Democratic primaries over coronavirus. Taking into account 70 other elections scheduled for 2020 worldwide, Dr Robert Krimmer and others highlight the emerging opportunity for internet voting as a tool to sustain the democratic process. According to them, despite the obvious bottlenecks connected with technology usage, this method has proven its cost-efficiency and relatively fast institutionalisation in Estonia. Therefore, it should be considered as a solution in the context of coronavirus potential impact on democracy.

Building Hard Evidence 

Multiple digital solutions that emerge today as a prompt response to the Covid-19 crisis build hard evidence for advocating government digitalization in the future. It makes it inevitable to accept that a higher level of digitalisation will efficiently maintain the continuity of public services delivery and economic viability, as well as resilient institutions. On the other hand, a vast expansion of e-governance reveals significant social and political issues like the question of privacy, a digital divide, lack of international cooperation to exchange good practices and others that need to be addressed on the way. 

This crisis, unlike many others, can be a unique opportunity to address some of the major challenges that e-governance has faced before. By creating innovations and having the largest population sample to test them, digital governance advocates can gain considerable support from political leadership, nurture the culture of e-participation, and speed up government digitalisation. As the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, “The post-coronavirus world will be different and much more digital than before”.