In search of the Holy Grail

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The common reluctance among Poles to visit public authority offices is no secret. As it turns out, the reason for this state of affairs is not only the tardiness of officials, but above all – the unwillingness of clerical entities to embrace new technology

By Sergiusz Prokurat

“We can only manage what we are able to measure,” claimed Peter Drucker, a renowned management theoretician. Modern IT systems make it possible to count everything that, until now, has been difficult to measure. Customer satisfaction, average customer service times, or the influence of music on purchasing decisions in shops. The fact that information technology is important has been confirmed by Alvin Toffler, another famous scientist, who came up with three waves of civilizational development: agrarian, industrial and informational. According to him, the ongoing third wave is linked directly to the creation of new technology, facilitating free communication between entities through the development of services and moving away from mass production. However, the third wave seems to have passed by public authorities in Poland and informatization and digitization have become indispensable preconditions of the country’s adaptation and development. However, what is digitization and informatization? “There is no single definition. In Poland, during the past 15 years, we have witnessed the process and challenges associated with the implementation of new technologies in public institutions,” said Jolanta Kulesza, a cyberspace expert from the University of Łódź.

The level of Polish e-administration has been assessed as lower than in Russia and only slightly above Andorra, Montenegro and Colombia.

Paper strongholds
According to one study carried out by the Polish Ministry of Administration and Digitization, in as many as one-third of all Polish public authority offices the administrative handling of cases is documented in paper form only. The worst situation is at municipal level, where as much as 37 percent of offices still keep their registers entirely in a traditional manner. How big is the gap separating Poland from other European countries? At the end of February 2016, the European Commission presented a new indicator – DESI (Digital Economy and Society Index), which helps to assess the development of EU countries on their way to becoming a digital economy and society. The ranking places Poland in 23rd position out of 28 EU member states. This indicator is calculated on the basis of the quantitative assessment of five economic aspects: infrastructure and spatial development plans of a country, human capital, access to and use of the internet, integration of digital technologies, and e-services. The average DESI index of the European Union in 2016 amounted to 0.52, which is higher compared to the previous year (0.5 in 2015), which in turn indicates that the general process of digitization in the EU is progressing. In terms of the density of fixed broadband services, Poland was in last place in Europe with a score of 0.3, while the European average is 0.87. According to the report, broadband internet connections in Poland, (allowing for at least 30 Mb/s) is potentially available to less than half of all households. Furthermore, Poland’s performance is not positive in terms of buying cloud solutions (second last place) and personnel qualifications – regarding basic skills of handling digital tools (third from bottom). Taking advantage of e-administration also remains at a relatively low level. Every fifth internet user submits online forms. Unfortunately, according to the e-Government Survey report prepared by the UN, we do even worse, as the level of Polish e-administration has been assessed as lower than in Russia and only slightly above Andorra, Montenegro and Colombia. Kulesza admitted: “Poland is not the leader of digitization in Europe. However, we have to remember that digitization is not easy to assess. If we managed to implement effective solutions, we would be able to reasonably measure the impact of digitization on the functioning and effectiveness of state institutions.”

Image: Shutterstock

Image: Shutterstock

Catch 22
Poles embrace small victories, such as the fact that for several years they have been able to register a business via the internet. Nevertheless, activities that can be accomplished from A to Z over the internet are relatively scarce. They always require personal intervention – a visit to an office. The same concerns the National Court Register (KRS). Applications can be found on the institution’s website. However, they must be submitted personally, and one cannot make a mistake while marking different options on the form, because after a several-week waiting period one can receive a written letter with a request to re-submit the document. If we go to the National Court Register when clerks’ counters are open but the cash desk is closed, and it turns out that a revenue stamp is needed, we can buy it from a vending machine. Unfortunately, none of that is possible, because they are only in operation when the cash desks are open. If we only have a credit card or a payment card, we will also not be able to complete our errand, so we will not receive a stamp on our letter and will be unable to submit the document.
The established law does not make the situation easier to deal with. For example, from January 1, 2016, property tax, agricultural tax, forestry tax, tax on means of transport, stamp duty, fees for municipal waste management and other such taxes cannot be paid by card in a public authority office. The amendment has transferred fees and commission costs associated with such payments onto the taxable person. Previously, offices used to bear these costs. And the implementation of such a provision requires changing POS software and the way of settling payment transactions with cards. Do you think you can use a mobile app? Unfortunately, not in Poland. Phones or tablets are not able to meet the requirements of the regulation on fiscal cash registers, i.e. cash registers and fiscal printers are sealed, so that there can be no access to the memory chip… and thus there is no program that could perform these functions. Polish provisions are among the most stringent in Europe.

Cloning solutions
When analyzing the situation in Polish public administration, the resulting conclusions do not appear to be too optimistic. It turns out that Polish authorities still take advantage of solutions offered by modern technology relatively rarely – and administration should be understood as services for citizens. “A service state and digitization means getting away from a regulatory state model. It is not only about the purchase of information systems and hardware. It is also about making use of new technologies that facilitate the creation of a service state. Digital transformation is actually seen as the transformation of governmental administration. It’s about remodeling the entire philosophy of the functioning of the state, so that it is set to help its citizens – IT is a tool bound to serve the purpose of transformation,” said former Director of the Central Computing Centre (COI), Nikodem Bończa-Tomaszewski. The institution was established to streamline and accelerate the process of informatization in the country. One challenge is the fact that each institution or ministry creates their own portals and systems, and so we have ePUAP, ZIP or SEKAP, which sometimes duplicate one another in terms of their functionality.
Disparities between the modernity of teleinformation systems, and the backwardness of institutions that implement them, are demonstrated by excessive dedication to “paper” and a reluctance to use electronic documents. More importantly, IT departments in public administration are very often powerless units that have no influence over processes in their parent institutions. They are undervalued – personally and financially – and do not exhibit long-term plans in terms of training and professional development. Therefore, the systems do not work, or they generate problems. For example, during the implementation of the System of State Registers (SRP) and the “Źródło” application back in 2015, the implementation was delayed due to the hasty development process. Once it was finally implemented, public authorities became overwhelmed by the incomprehensible chaos. Officials are still not able to keep up with entering data into the electronic database of Civil Status Services. There have been cases in which the SRP raised the deceased and gave up living Poles for dead. Instead of seven days, provided by law, to issue a certificate, it’s common to have to wait even a few months. The law is one thing, in practice it is entirely different.
“At my authority office a standard incoming letter is scanned, sent via the Proton system to the secretary or the head of department, then it is passed to the manager of the given organizational unit and the manager passes it over to the secretarial assistant, who will handle the case further. The manager not only receives the original letter and signs the list upon its receipt, but it is often the case that the letter is photocopied and only then does it reach the secretarial assistant. In this way, each digital letter is printed several times. E-mails sent to the authority office are recorded in the register, printed, and passed over to the next person in paper form. An e-mailed message has never been simply registered and forwarded without printing it,” claimed an anonymous official of a Polish office. She added: “When we see how the systems work, it is our practice that we, officials, recommend visiting us in person.” In most municipalities nothing can be settled via ePUAP. Central offices could influence this state of affairs but they do not see any special benefit in doing so. There were cases, when officials created a document in a text editor, printed it and passed it on to other officials to publish it in the Public Information Bulletin, which meant manually retyping the document all over again. Administration does not have any external motivation or pressure to be better and more user-friendly towards citizens.

Image: Shutterstock

Image: Shutterstock

Too many cooks
How can Poland become a digital leader? By removing investment barriers, increasing the availability of the internet, focusing on development of e-administration, and implementing new technologically advanced systems. As it turns out, this is not enough. “It is necessary to prioritize actions concerning digitization and appropriate investments in digitization. It would also be nice to have a center of competence or a coordination center, which would impose certain standards on administration,” said Kulesza. Currently, the coordination is dispersed and the process of informatization and digitization is implemented by several ministries and institutions.

“Each technological solution influences people in a positive and negative way, but we have to remember that digitization is only a tool in people’s hands. For example, in a democratic society, digital tools will dynamize social dialog and the exchange of information. While in dictatorial regimes they will serve the purpose of surveillance and suppression of the opposition,” said Bończa-Tomaszewski, noting that in the case of public e-services their development must be limited. Firstly, due to the right to privacy – a former idea from the ministry of finance involving voice identification for taxable persons was considered too radical. Secondly, due to the guarantee of credibility – conducting elections in which anonymity over the internet can be totally guaranteed is now technically impossible. Thirdly, due to the real needs of citizens. We can imagine a situation in which a country wraps citizens up with a thread of e-services that not only hinder everyday life, but also start to become a threat to freedom. To avoid this, the administration can only create e-services that pursue specific, well-assessed needs of citizens and bring measurable, calculable benefits. Finally, due to the anthropology of social interaction. We can imagine, for example, a country that renders e-educational services that could replace compulsory education and personal contact with a teacher.

Training citizens
Transformation into a service state is possible. We can simply look at what our banks offer. We are not trained on how to use electronic banking systems. We open an account via the internet and we operate it because it is intuitive and customer-oriented. On the other hand, e-administration systems, even if they work and are functional, are developed in such a way that we face obstacles in the form of technical requirements, incomprehensible formulations, different instructions, small-print annotations, reference marks, etc. We have plans and projects, but their realization, coordination and implementation fail. One of the most recent failures is a giant e-health project, under which every patient was to have access to their medical history via an internet account, they would be able to receive prescriptions by SMS or receive on-line referrals to a doctor. The failure of the project means a loss of millions of euros acquired from the EU for this very purpose.
Currently, there are a number of governmental documents that highlight the role of an open office, the transparency of public authorities through efficient and effective operating mechanisms which help to prepare, store and share data. It is also important to educate personnel in offices. Kulesza noted that, under the influence of digital transformation, the role of the official changes. “Sometime in the future, officials will be replaced by an IT specialist responsible for the whole process of document circulation.” However, this will not be possible to achieve unless the highest-level authorities set an example for local bodies in terms of best digital practices.

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