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Embracing digital governance for upgrading public services

On its way to establishing its digital government, Vietnam is looking to take some examples from nations like Estonia, which managed to bring public services to a level that serves the public and emanates trust.

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In Estonia, all citizens have their own ID cards which can be used for many purposes, reflecting the nation’s successful digital transformation drive.

After three years of living in Silicon Valley – one of the global hubs for innovative IT, Estonia’s former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves discovered a paradox. Despite the presence of some of the most successful tech companies worldwide, some things still worked like they did back in the 1950s.

When he needed to get his driver’s licence, Ilves had to go out, visit the government office, fill out forms, and wait for hours before being able to submit his application. The entire process would take weeks of waiting. Unlike a digital life with smartphones, clouds, and highly intertwined applications, administrative and public services in many economies are crawling far behind when it comes to innovation and user experience.

Although attempts have been made to lift governance into the 21st century, security issues have so far impeded the development of accessible public services. “If my data is stored on a government’s server, I don’t know how secure it is,” Ilves said.

According to virtual private network provider Atlas VPN, globally there were 17 million known leaked government records during the first quarter of 2020 – a 278 per cent increase compared with the first quarter of 2019.

In the United States, government control has been overshadowed by the private sector when it comes to services and security. However, Ilves found that in such a scenario, where governance and public services are not digitalised, private-public partnerships could be established.

For instance, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not monitor citizen and immigrant movements itself but rather buys data from private surveillance companies to track their locations and find individuals if needed.

At the Vietnam Reform and Development Forum 2020 held last week in Hanoi, Minister of Planning and Investment Nguyen Chi Dung said that inclusion that is ensuring equality in digital access is one the most important requirements of digitalisation to realise inclusive growth goals and sustainable development.

No matter what solutions are implemented and how modern they are, the human factor is still decisive in leading and shaping the transformation process. As such, well-trained human resources are seen as the prerequisite for a successful digital transformation.

Minister Dung believed that with the companionship and effective technical and financial support of development partners and the high determination of political institutions, Vietnam will soon be able to restore growth and improve its resilience to future shocks.

Multi-channel model


Vietnam currently looks to realise its digital government with a vision to 2030 as the mainstay for its socioeconomic development model. The integration of such services with the simultaneous digitalisation of economy and society to reform governance could enable the country to create and serve personalised services for citizens and businesses based on data analysis.

Nguyen Trong Duong, deputy director of the Department of Informatics under the Ministry of Information and Communications, said that the digital government is a multi-component model, with many channels providing new services based on one ecosystem, of which half of the participatory public services are provided by non-state organisations.

Meanwhile, in contrast to the world’s strongest economy, Estonian citizens only directly interact with the government if they are getting married, divorced, and transfer property.

All other transactions between the state and citizens happen online, backed up by the country’s own sophisticated security system. In its 20 years of use, this system has never been down and never been compromised.

The question one might ask is how Estonia managed to digitalise its government and offer nearly all public services online.

“My inspiration came from two sources; from my own life and the big leap in technology that became visible when the first internet web browser launched in 1993,” Ilves said.

After the country’s independence in 1991, Estonia was a poor nation in dire need of reform. From the start, it took a digital approach and by 2000 every school was online, and every classroom was equipped with computers.

After establishing a high-tech national ID system in 2002 – in which physical ID cards were paired with digital signatures that Estonians use to pay taxes, vote, do online banking, and access their healthcare records – the nation decided to extend this offer to foreign citizens.

Since 2014, more than 50,000 foreign nationals have become digital citizens in the country’s e-residency programme, mostly to run their business online from the small Baltic state.

Eliminating bureaucracy

According to former President Ilves, building digital governance is much more than simply a matter of technology, because after all, it must be a political decision first. “Managing digitalisation is not just about bringing the government online, nor is it merely turning paper records into PDF files. Digitalising government means rethinking how to operate and govern,” Ilves explained.

One major issue for many nations when approaching digitalisation is the problem of trust and verification. With all their bureaucracy, written processes, signatures, and stamps, current government systems struggle to constitute trust.

In Estonia, every citizen and e-resident ID card also serves as a unique digital identifier, which is used to securely access all government services. Ilves argued that trust and confidentiality play a decisive role, meaning that the collective leadership needs to show real leadership qualities and explain what it means to go digital and how it works to its citizens.

“This also means that leaders must at understand the basic aspects of what must be done to digitalise and, when required, need to explain the reasons for doing them. Rushing to buy a solution will not solve the legal problems that arise, while those are the basis for trust in the whole system,” Ilves argued.

Estonia favours a transparency-based system designed for people to comply with the law and meet cultural expectations. Meanwhile, digital transformation and the Fourth Industrial Revolution are also having a huge impact on the Vietnamese economy and society.

Public trust in government leadership has shown to be one of the highest in the region and globally amid the pandemic. With this prerequisite, Vietnam only lacks the right policies and technology to follow a similar approach to Estonia.

Winfrid Messmer, chairman of the Digital Sector Committee of the European Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Vietnam, found that IT infrastructure is a fundamental element of the digital economy, and thus, essential to any digitalisation efforts of the country. According to Messmer, such technology must reach everyone to be a driving force for development.

However, besides the correct infrastructure, to achieve holistic digitalisation and eliminate the need for paper documents and red stamps entirely, trust in new technologies needs to be achieved first.

Meanwhile, local companies like VVN AI are already working on solutions like e-Know Your Customer services with facial and written identification, which could be used for sensitive services such as banking and communications.

Van Oanh/VIR

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