How Serbia plans to transition to a digital economy
ITU News caught up with Mihailo Jovanovic, Director of the Office for Information Technologies (IT) and eGovernment, Government of the Republic of Serbia, for insight into how the country is moving forward with the help of ICTs.
What is the government’s vision for a digital economy in Serbia? Why is it important?
The IT sector is one of the key priorities of the government of Serbia. The Digital Economy and an economy based on knowledge and innovation offer a unique opportunity for 21st century. Therefore the Serbian Government continues to strengthen support to entrepreneurs, young innovative and creative talent, scientists, researchers and all those stakeholders that are driven towards a healthy and prosperous ICT ecosystem.
Through enabling environment and raising capacities, we are certain that IT sector in Serbia will establish itself as the key enabler for further economic growth, attracting foreign investments, and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals together with our partners on regional and global level.
Creating a positive environment for the digital economy in Serbia will further provide opportunities for strengthening economic reforms, lifting our educational capacities, contributing to greater investments in research and development, and shaping social progress.
In order to continue the already set trend by numerous success stories in Serbia, it is important for us to ensure that there is a clear and promising vision coming from the Government in order to build trust with all interested in harvesting from the IT capacities in Serbia. The implementation of this vision is best seen through Serbia’s recent IT business achievements that have successfully aligned business and digitization to build some of the world’s biggest brands in their respective fields.
Let me name some of them: Institute “BioSens” from Novi Sad; company “Nordeus”, one of the world leaders in the “gaming” industry; the company “Seven Bridges”, which is engaged in the research of the genome in detecting cure against cancer, which has been declared one of the 50 smartest companies in the world. We also have the “Microsoft Development Center Serbia”, the fourth development center of Microsoft in the world, to name a few major private sector trends in IT industry.
I am proud to highlight the company, “Technology Partnership of Serbia”, comprised of European scientists working together from Serbia, Great Britain, Germany, Denmark and Italy, who developed the world’s first scanner that detects blood vessels that cause malignant melanoma with infrared laser beam in only 30 seconds.
Finally, we have the “StartIT Center”, an IT start-up hub with eight centers throughout Serbia, with objective to engage with youth and people with entrepreneurial spirit, sharing knowledge and experience related to successful examples and best practices of how to start a business and make it sustainable.
How will the recently established Office for Information Technologies and e-Government help achieve that vision?
The establishment of the Office came as a result of a long process that emerged through years of public consultations with the IT community in the country, in search for the best state-level IT solutions coordinated by the Serbian government. When the Government of the Republic of Serbia in July this year passed the Regulation on the Establishment of the Office for Information Technology and Electronic Government , the idea was to position this newly established body as a central function in the Government, which corresponds directly to the Prime Minister.
Digitization of state administration and improved provision of services to citizens, is one of the key priorities in the Government’s mandate. Therefore the Office was established with the main task was to consolidate state IT resources, to ensure the connection of various information systems, and to provide strong support and foundation for the development of Serbia’s e-government services.
By producing an effective electronic administration, citizens will benefit tremendously through abolition of parallel processes, shortening the time of administrative procedures, and overall increase of the quality of state services to citizens and the economy. At the same time, digitization of government administration is a very good way to fight corruption and raise transparency of public administration. Additionally, another major benefit is cost savings related to the funds allocated from the budget to information technologies, by developing our own information system.
What other policies or initiatives will help achieve Serbia’s vision?
The Office for IT and eGov deals with the development and implementation of standards in the introduction of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in state administration bodies and government services, while providing support in the application of information and communication technologies in state administration bodies and government services through the design, development, construction, maintenance and improvement of the computer network of republic authorities. The office will for the first time electronically unite all state administration bodies, communication infrastructure, security center of state bodies and government websites.
By establishing an efficient and modern e-government system, which is to be implemented professionally by the newly established Office, the Government of Serbia presents its strong commitment to educational reforms, reflected in the introduction of IT and computer studies as a compulsory subject in elementary schools, and also by increasing enrollment in IT courses at universities in Serbia by 20 percent and successfully conducting re-training programs for those professional looking for change in career. Various incentives for IT entrepreneurship are also a part of new sets of policies, striving to secure better conditions for starting up companies and assist the technology transfer to the market, to name a few.
The Office also coordinates the work of the National Center for Security of the ICT System (national CERT). It provides services of designing, developing and functioning of Internet access, Internet services and other centralized electronic services, and it is responsible for all ICT equipment procurement needs of state administration bodies and the government services.
We are moving step by step, module per module. In this long term process, we aim to involve many young professionals from our leading IT-related schools and startup scene. In this respect, we are planning to run first public hackathon for eGovernment, through which we will choose the best proposals and teams that will be offered opportunities with the Office.
It is also significant to note that the Office participates in the planning and construction of IT infrastructure for the new Central Population Register, where for the first time all relevant data of Serbian residents will be made available. Reengineering and redesigning the eGovernment Portal is a real challenge that we will meet in the coming period, as we have already included several complex information systems such as eZUP, eBaby, eSchool, eParticipation, vehicle registration, traffic examination, etc. while many new projects are been planned and prepared for launch.
Digital transformation brings a fundamental change in all spheres of human society, prompted by the use of information technologies. In a narrow sense, digital transformation refers to a way of doing business “paperless”, which can be applied in the economy, but also in different segments of society, such as public rights, entrepreneurship, education, medicine, mass communication and agriculture.
However, as of recently, the digital transformation has a much broader meaning in the Republic of Serbia. With digitization set as one of the priorities of the Government of the Republic of Serbia, digital transformation has begun to penetrate all pores of our society, leading to fundamental changes reflected in the emergence of an efficient, economical and transparent public administration.
In the e-government domain, the Office is dedicated to implementing “tangible” projects that ease the life and business operations of the citizens and business of Serbia on a daily basis: automatic verification of health booklets for 150,000 employers in Serbia means savings of about 500,000 hours a year, or around 1.5 million euros; the inclusion of increasingly more municipalities and cities in the eZUP information system for health insurance, ensures that citizens no longer have to be couriers carrying documents from counter to counter, rather that is done for them by the state, etc. Also all financial institutions are currently being invited to secure all types of electronic payments options to the e-Government portal, thereby fully enabling the use of all e-government services via the Internet, without the need to visit the counter of a bank or post office.
Digitization must be a continuous and comprehensive process that will encompass different spheres of society. It will change our lives fundamentally. The goal of the Serbian government is to be at the center of an electronic administration. We don’t want citizens and businesses to be couriers of the state. On the contrary, we want to become their service.
What can other governments learn from this initiative and Serbia’s experience?
I believe that the most important lesson that other governments can learn from our example is: “If you set priorities correctly and invest energy, passion and dedication – nothing is impossible!” The Government of the Republic of Serbia managed to profile itself as the carrier of digital transformation in the country in less than a year. The results we have achieved are maybe best illustrated with the quality of our work. We have managed to create and operate the National Open Data Portal, a central place where the data of state authorities will are and will be aggregated and available to citizens, private and non-governmental sector.
At this time, the portal contains a total of almost 200 sets of data set by fifteen state authorities. It is important to point out that the complete data opening, which is planned in the next two years, could lead to the growth of the social product up to one in the next two years, and employment rates of up to two percent, as is the case with other European countries. The expectations for this first state interactive portal are very high and we hope to immediately gather hundreds of organizations, thousands of users, and files measure in millions in the next two years. This National Open Data Portal is directly linked to the Open Data Portal of the European Union. This project is being implemented in cooperation with the UN Development Program in Serbia (UNDP) and thanks to donations from the World Bank, the UK Government’s Good Governance Fund (GGF) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).
Also, from December, the users of the national portal eGovernment for the first time will be able to pay online the administrative fees for any of the 720 different electronic services. Thanks to this long-awaited new functionality, the portal offers its users a complete online service for the first time, and it no longer requires physical payment of administrative fees.
We have opened the first State Data Center, where the key information and communication infrastructure is located, which is important for the efficient functioning of the electronic administration system and the IT system of the state administration. At the moment, the facility will soon be additionally equipped with tools for the Central System of Electronic Records and CERT. In 2018, the equipment of all state authorities will be gradually stored here, so that the Office for IT and eGovernment can start providing state cloud services – Government cloud.
The National Data Center has two teams: one for IT and one for eGovernment; and the centralization of state infrastructure will help streamline the budget, both in terms of using state-of-the-art hardware and software, but also for the future investment.
Thanks to eBaby, from April 2016 newborn babies can be easily registered in the birth register, apply for citizenship and residence, as well as health insurance. At the beginning of 2018 we have also enabled additional online service for parents in regards to submitting requests for child allowance and other forms of social assistance.
We tried to look up to countries that have already developed e-government services and that were replicable to our conditions, requirements and culture, which is the key to our success. Another valuable lesson we learned in this short period, and which could be significant for countries to follow is that strong leadership in implementing ICT policies and strategies requires understanding of emerging trends and past experiences. Only through top-down approach and through public-private partnerships, public sphere will harvest benefits from the information and communication technologies.
How can ITU help Serbia to meet these goals?
It is with profound faith that I share my confidence in the work of ITU and Serbia remains dedicated to working together with the ITU towards a better connected world, a vision we have shared many times in the past. I am much pleased to witness ITU’s many achievements, bringing its long-standing experience and determined efforts in building a solid foundation for the future information society, while contributing significantly in many international processes, including the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
We are bounded with the same vision, using the ICTs potential to make the world a better place, and with the combined energy, dedication and motivation to change and improve our communities, together we can achieve a lot.
Bridging the digital divide remains a challenge to be met which needs to be addressed on both global and national level, and we seek ITU’s guidance on ways forward towards creating conditions and infrastructures that allow new ICT services and next-generation networks to overcome inequalities and bad practices. We have worked very hard on adopting new policies and strategies that support innovation, regional cooperation, global partnership, as well as those policies that mitigate risks to business development, information security, online privacy, education and employment.
We would like to share our recent experiences and good practices globally and thus contribute to ITU’s activities in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and to harness the power of ICTs.