From the Editors

Coronavirus may speed up the implementation of online public services, but this is not digitalisation

A quick primer on what is, and what is not, digitalisation (in, at least, my humble opinion).

Across emerging Europe, governments are responding to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic by racing to implement digital solutions to help citizens reduce their day-to-day activity and levels of person-to-person contact. In many, if not all, cases, the digital solutions which are introduced over the coming weeks and months will remain in place long after the pandemic has become a subject for historians. It is therefore imperative that governments get them right.

It will not be easy, because in many places the infrastructure is simply not there.

In far too many countries in emerging Europe, fast, ubiquitous internet has not led to the development of stable, secure and reliable digital infrastructure. In Romania, for example, where state-level digital adoption has been slow despite internet speeds being amongst the fastest in the world, the few public services which are available online – such as the submission of individual tax declarations – regularly collapse when demand creeps above average. The system is cumbersome, poorly thought-out and – most crucially – merely recreates (albeit online) the offline experience of visiting a tax office.

And this is the key point: going online for the sake of going online is not the way forward. It is not digitalisation. As publishers discovered when they first attempted to move their print content online in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the possibilities offered by digital solutions created a space for small, nimble start-ups to usurp the traditional media. Those who were able to adapt, enhance their content and move away from the tired business model of placing ads next to words and pictures survived, and in many cases thrived. Those who could not did not last long. Public services are about to undergo a similar transformation.

The chances are, alas, that many countries are going to get it very wrong.

If only there were a successful model to follow…

I have written at length in recent weeks about the country which is not just emerging Europe’s gold standard for digital public services, but the world’s: Estonia.

Let’s look at just one sector, education.

Much has been made this week of the switch from classroom to online-based learning following the closure of schools across Europe. However, while online-based classes are welcome, and a great way for children to continue learning even when they are not able to go to school, these online classrooms are only temporary. It is highly unlikely that online learning will ever replace the human interaction of classroom teaching, and once it is safe for kids to return to school, they will.

But online teaching is not the be and all of digital education. Indeed, it could be argued that it is not digital education at all.

Estonian educators already know this. They have had access to a wide array of online tools to connect pupils, teachers and parents for some time. None of these replaces classroom teaching: they enhance it. These tools include eKool, a school management network that has more than 200,000 active users on a normal day, and Stuudium, a suite of apps with educational materials, assessment tools and messaging. Much of Estonian schooling is already in the cloud, and the vast majority of schools use tools like eKool and Stuudium, whether for lesson plans, homework, absence management or recording grades.

Then there’s Clanbeat, an edtech start-up whose founder Kadri Tuisk I met in Tallinn earlier this month. Using AI solutions Clanbeat’s vision is to support personal growth through building human agency and community support. Its first focus on that journey has been helping schools to be growth-orientated, with its software allowing for the development of personalised learning and teaching plans.

Again, Clanbeat does not seek to replace the classroom: it wants to make the classroom more effective. This is digitalisation.

It’s not just about ‘moving online’

Merely replacing a paper form with an online form – which is what I suspect a number of governments are about to do – is not digitalisation.

Take the relatively simple process of applying for a passport. If the state already knows my name, my date of birth and my address, why do I need to complete a form (in any format) that asks me for those details?

Real digitalisation means removing the need for a form in the first place. I should be able to logon to my e-government account and simply click on a ‘request new passport’ button. Once the relevant state authorities have confirmed my identity – using AI – a new passport can be sent to me. At a push, I might even consent to collecting it in person. This is digitalisation. Submitting the same forms, declarations and endless paperwork online is not.

Remember this in the weeks and months ahead. There is going to be a giant heap of bullshit produced by our governments (and, I would add, by plenty of private firms), all keen to show that they are ‘going digital’ and ‘revolutionising’ services.

Unless they actually cut out contact with public servants, unless they do away with pointless forms and declarations, unless they enhance an experience, they will be doing no such thing.