Diia – Ukraine is setting up a leading digital government in the midst of a war. What’s our excuse?
Ukraine has managed to put in place an astonishingly comprehensive set of digital government services, with 70 key public services available, half of the adult population participating, and a goal of digitizing all government services by 2024 – despite the fact that the country is fighting for its very existence. in a war with Russia.
This remarkable achievement was showcased at a special meeting of the CIO Strategy Council, a group of prominent CIOs and industry leaders in Canada.
Senator Colin Deacon opened this exclusive event by introducing Mstyslav Banik, Director of Electronic Services Development Directorate at the Ukrainian Ministry of Digital Transformation. Banik appeared via a Zoom link from Ukraine. A video recording of the presentation is available at this link.
According to Senator Deacon, one of Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s first acts as president, immediately after the election, was to create the Ministry of Digital Transformation with the express purpose of “building the most convenient country in the world”. , and not just to digitize services, but to simplify them and reinvent the way they are delivered.
Deacon then published a full case study, which can be downloaded via this link.
Zelenskyy’s intense commitment to this initiative is reflected in the name of the mobile application which is the center and symbol of government service delivery. It’s called Diia, which in Ukrainian means “action”. It is, appropriately, also an acronym which, loosely translated, means “to meet the state”.
Zelenskyy’s personal commitment provided the “political will” that led to the project’s success even in the midst of war, according to Banik.
He explained that the Ukrainian government, similar to our federal government, has many ministries that could and did put up resistance to the massive change that this project represented. The design and implementation team was made up largely of tech professionals who — and Banik included himself with a sheepish smile — “didn’t really understand the politics.”
The world has come to see Zelenskky as a brilliant wartime tactician, but according to Banik, he is also a master of government policy.
Zelenskky appointed a chief digital transformation officer and ensured that each department had a position similar to what would be akin to the deputy minister level in Canada – an extremely powerful government position. This sent a message to the heads of all ministries.
He also sent a clear message to the design and delivery team that the job of the digital transformation staff was to “create a win for the head of government department.”
According to Banik, the head of a department, a figure both physically and politically imposing, swore that “there would never be a digital passport”. Months later, he attended a press conference to salute his department’s first successful steps toward a digital passport.
Roadblocks after roadblocks have been removed by this amazing team, using everything from persuasion to what we might consider social media shaming.
The team has done its homework. They identified the top companies that should adopt digital signatures and documents to provide critical mass. When the head of one of the major banks said that his bank would not support this, they pointed out that potentially thousands or even hundreds of thousands of customers who successfully used the Diia app would have to give up the convenience or switch to another bank.
With half of Ukraine’s adult population on board, a company’s ability to resist adoption has been significantly reduced.
Ukraine also passed a law making it illegal to refuse to accept digital documents. For any business that would refuse or still resist, social media was used to shame them, with videos of disgruntled customers going viral in Ukraine. The impact of social media, according to Balik, has been enormous.
Public support was essential to the success of the implementation, but it was well deserved. The team not only designed a portal and an app, they redesigned government services and simplified them to make them more convenient. They did not just digitize the passport, they sought to “reinvent the concept of the passport”. In another example, Balik noted that a form that had 58 fields was reduced to one with 10 fields. Even after that, they continued to drive to make the process frictionless, with the goal of reducing inputs even further.
Even before development of the app began, they had substantial consultation and communication with all stakeholders. This communication did not end when the portal and application were created. There is a strong video-based training component that offers support for anyone trying to learn how to use any of the digital government services. It also plans to test trainees, and the training has been so successful that prospective employers want test results to prove candidates are competent in digital services.
To encourage usage, the Diia app also enabled live streaming of TV channels, including the major Eurovision Song Contest featuring a Ukrainian music group.
While it might seem alien in terms of design, it wasn’t just popular – it was prescient. With the Russians attacking media sites, the government had popular two-way communication with the people. Not only could the government get its message across, but it could also consult citizens. They obtain, according to Banik, between one and two million responses to surveys or other requests for advice and consultation from citizens.
Security and privacy are the top perceived barriers to digital ID and digital government. The app and portal are designed to appeal to users by providing better protection than physical documents.
Trusting neither the cloud nor the device, the digital signature is split in half, with one half kept in government cloud storage and the other half on the citizen’s device. When the identity is confirmed, the signature is gathered.
Even when documents are requested, they are not stored in the application. Relevant information is requested from the government registry and proof is provided if required. But whether it’s a signature or codes, whether it’s QR codes, barcodes or digital keys for financial services, they’re designed to refresh every three minutes, so which makes it virtually impossible for someone to copy them by photo or other duplication.
The popularity of the application and the services it generates fulfill what digital signatures should do – give better levels of privacy and security. Today, the app can be used to login or access services instead of traditional login providers – Facebook, Google or other services. This ensures that knowledge of what a citizen is accessing remains between the department and the citizen. There is no need for a third party to be able to monetize this information or store it insecurely.
What can we learn in Canada from Ukraine? I hope we are already learning and that there are signs that governments in all sectors are taking a new approach to e-government initiatives. We are moving forward, but have we moved boldly enough and fast enough?
The idea that you need to simplify the process before creating an online portal or application is essential. We would all be well served if our goal was not just to put a service online, but to make it “the most convenient service”. Like Ukraine, we need to think about reinventing things we take for granted to make them more effective.
Have the political will overcoming even the most powerful resistance to change is something we can learn. Governments have traditionally found many reasons why they cannot simplify a process. What COVID has taught us is that the things we “couldn’t do”, could be done if we had the will to do it.
Security cannot be an excuse for inaction. We must demand creative solutions to improve security without losing convenience.
Make it easy and make it entertaining. Having the Eurovision Finals on the government portal was fun, but it helped create a huge user base who weren’t just engaged, they were fans.
Don’t be afraid of use a large number of participants and legislative powers to ensure businesses and stakeholders accept the app and standards to deliver more value and convenience to citizens.
An opportunity to share and lead
The Ukrainian digital government experiment has been so successful that even Estonia – the global pioneer in digital government – has sought to adopt the Ukrainian model for its digital services.
Ukraine has been more than willing to share its information, and even its source code, with governments and standards bodies like the CIO Strategy Council. By offering to share its experiences, Ukraine makes a contribution to its citizens and to the citizens of countries around the world. They offer us their experience and even their design – if only we are willing and able to accept such a gift from this beleaguered nation that has proven you can do digital government even in times of war.
But sharing is only effective if we have common frameworks and standards that allow us to share our innovations. With standards, we can innovate knowing that what we develop can be widely shared and used. Standards development is one place where Canada can really advance its own digital government.
The CIO Strategy Council is a strategic vehicle for this type of leadership. It is not just a national discussion forum, it develops standards used in Canada and around the world. It also pursues a complementary strategic role by becoming an accredited body responsible for issuing certification marks to leading organizations that meet recognized national standards for digital governance. If we can leverage groups like this and continue to bring all players together to find common ground, we too can make a contribution to our citizens and on the world stage.