Frustrated by a stagnant IT market burdened by non-transparent government IT project tenders, nine Slovak IT firms have united to form an 'IT Klub.' Their goal is to create a unified voice for change that the government will not be able to ignore.
"All the biggest IT tenders in Slovakia have seemed non-transparent," said Ján Kondáš, director of strategic marketing for the Martin-based IT firm Gity Slovakia. In support of his criticism Kondáš cited the cancellation of the GSM 1800 mobile phone tender, the selection of Andersen Consulting to manage the installation of a software system at Slovenské Telekomunikácie (ST) and numerous delays in the vital ST privatisation process.
Members of the IT club, established on September 29, now hope they will be able to pressure the government into satisfying their demands for a fair and transparent market and thereby create better conditions for growth.
"We wanted to create a formal body of IT companies interested in transparency," said Kondáš. "We want to promote IT and show the benefits businesses and people in Slovakia can get from IT. We have been frustrated by non-transparent tenders and we want to use this club to present our views."
While the government has been seen as a barrier to these goals, some state officials say that they are willing to listen. Katarína Mathernová, an advisor to Deputy Prime Minister of Economy Ivan Mikloš, said that such clubs could have a real impact on government policy-making. "This is definitely a trend in Slovakia," she said. "Legislative processes in Slovakia are quite poor right now, and initiatives to positively influence legislation have been successful in the past. NGO's pushing for the Freedom of Information Act is a perfect example."
According to Stanislav Vanek, the director of the Telecom Ministry's regulatory department, the club's influence has already been felt. During the ministry's preparation of a new telecom law this fall, which is expected to establish an independent telecom regulatory body, Vanek said that the IT club had been consulted.
"We sent them a draft of the law and listened to their responses," Vanek said. "Of course, we didn't implement all the changes they demanded because some were not in line with EU standards, but we listened to their suggestions.
Vanek said that the Ministry would be willing to co-operate further with the IT club. "In the future we'll work with them on protecting their rights and creating regulations," he said. "Of course, we can't promise that all their needs will be satisfied, but we support the idea of working with them."
How much the government will work with the IT club and how seriously their demands will be taken depends on how ambitious the club is, Mathernová added. "It depends on how pro-active they will be," she said. "To increase influence they should write articles, talk to other policy makers, and so on. Look at tiny Transparency International Slovakia (TIS). They are influential today because [TIS Director] Emília Sičáková did not just sit tight and wait to be taken seriously."
Strength in numbers
The IT club currently has nine members: Alcatel Slovakia, Bull Slovakia, Comparex Informáčne Systémy, Delta E.S., Euro Media, Gity Slovensko, Login, Microsoft, 3COM and Varias. The group plans to expand to a total of 20 or 30 firms next year.
In order to increase the group's influence, Kondáš said that the club would focus on attracting large international IT firms, such as Compaq, Cisco and Nortel. "We are an open club, but we'd like to include bigger international players," he said.
Vanek agreed that the club would be more formidable with increased membership. "Right now, there are very few providers in the association," he said.
But non-IT club firms have shown mixed interest in joining up. Ľuboš Hlinka, sales director at Bratislava IT solutions firm S & T Slovakia, said that his firm was interested in joining the club because of the many benefits members receive.
"We would like to apply because we could influence the government," Hlinka said. "IT use in Slovakia is too low right now and we could use it [membership in the club] to promote our services. Also, it would benefit us to exchange ideas with other firms."
But other IT firms are leery of working so closely with business competitors. Peter Moderdovský, sales manager at software firm London Logic Bratislava, said that while his firm stood to benefit from membership, "it is a very sensitive issue because we would be co-operating with our competitors."
PosAm's IT Director Viktor Cingel expressed similar misgivings, saying that his firm had been invited, but declined. "There is no sense in putting competitors together and then saying that we are all going to help each other," he said.
For Kondáš, however, there is power in numbers, and if business rivalries could be put aside, the whole country could benefit.
"We have to do something to improve the environment in Slovakia," he said. "We want to help influence the market and find a way to incorporate all the expectations of Slovak citizens, politicians, and IT experts."