Digital Transformation, as Critical During Conflict as in Peace

Jul 2 , 2022

Recent history is showing that the digitisation of government services serves as a critical foundation for navigating not just development, but also crises such as armed conflict and pandemics, writes Ieva Zilioniene, consulting business lead at NRD Companies ( and former deputy director general at Lithuania's Communications Regulation Authority.

The pandemic, armed conflicts and natural disasters have again brought the importance of digital services delivery to the forefront. While governments across the world are struggling to strengthen their public digital services, it is clear that changes or transformations related to digitalisation must start with a political will to change and the assessment of the digital maturity levels of existing public services.

Two of the most glaring (and contrasting) examples of the influence that digital transformation and crisis have on each other can be found in recent European history.

Take Estonia, a small Baltic state of just over a million people, which in 1991, after 50 years of foreign influence, with limited legacy technology systems and virtually no resources to speak of, began a transformation into what is now considered to be one of the world's most digital nations. It rose from the ashes of the cold war.

Out of necessity and with a healthy dose of political will, Estonia launched the Tiger Leap initiative in 1996, a country-wide IT infrastructure development program to catch up to the West. The initiative sought to update local IT infrastructure and establish computer skills as a priority in schools. And in 2001, Estonia created X-Road, a secure and interoperable open-source data exchange platform.

Considered to be the backbone of e-Estonia, X-Road allows the nation’s various public and private sector e-service information systems to link up and function in harmony. The results of the Estonian initiative are astonishing – 99pc of the government’s services are online. Over 3,000 different services are offered, saving three million working hours annually. Only two services are (currently) not offered online – getting married and divorced.

Not to say that the digital transformation in Estonia occurred without a hitch. In 2007, the country experienced a widespread cyber-attack. Originating from Russia, the attack simultaneously took offline fifty-eight Estonian websites, including those of the government, most newspapers and many banks. Although no information was lost during this event, Estonia had backed up important data outside of its borders before the attack.

Another story on digitisation is Ukraine. Recent world events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and its devastating humanitarian crisis have made it evident that the benefits of digitalisation of public services outweigh the challenges facing such a demanding undertaking.

Ukraine started its digital transformation efforts in 2014 and has since risen 18 places in the United Nations E-Government Development Index. The Ministry for Digital Transformation (MDT) was established in 2019 and has since created Diia, its flagship and modern platform that acts as a one-stop shop for public services. Diia, which interestingly enough was modelled after Estonia’s X-Road platform, offers over 70 different government services, including hosting digital passports and driving licenses that carry the identical legal status to the paper versions. Ukrainians, many of whom have been forced to relocate due to the Russian invasion, are now able to electronically and through an app, change their registered address without the need to appear in person.

Ukraine’s digitisation efforts that precede the start of the war also allow the government to stay in touch with its large population and rapidly assimilate new forms of assistance. It hosts live streams of Ukrainian TV and radio stations and allows the distribution of relief payments to employees and the self-employed in regions affected by the war, using an eSupport platform which was used during the pandemic. Because Diia already holds payroll, business registration and residence records, users can verify eligibility and apply for support directly through the app.

The country’s pre-war adoption of a digital government model is undoubtedly bearing fruit in these difficult times.

Such examples emphasise that governments often face enormous pressure to appease their constituents' expectations regarding service delivery in times of peace and crisis. Government reputation depends on its “digital appearance” – the way it is represented digitally through its portals, services, and interactions with citizens online. People expect to accomplish things easily when going digital and they expect continuity during times of war and natural disasters. The development of simple yet practical guidelines is crucial to help public sector representatives navigate the digitisation process of public services.

History has taught us that when it comes to government digital transformation, conflicts create opportunities and pre-emptive digital maturity helps navigate troubled waters.

PUBLISHED ON Jul 02,2022 [ VOL 23 , NO 1157]

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