New government promises a new era in state IT

State IT to become more effective, bringing better services for citizens and businesses

Investment Minister Veronika Remišová Investment Minister Veronika Remišová (Source: TASR)

No matter how many millions the state poured into its information systems, it always resulted in slow, inefficient, and uncooperative IT services for individuals and businesses. Weak cooperation between individual ministries and state organisations, and information asymmetry when state administration lacked IT experts to assess the quality of proposed and supplied IT solutions, were marked as the most frequent culprits.

The government of Igor Matovič, with a declared strong anti-corruption focus, has resolved to change that. It transformed the office of the vice-prime minister for investments and informatisation into the Ministry of Investments, Regional Development and Informatisation (Investment Ministry).

Its ambition is to make digitisation and informatisation more effective.

“Save, make it more effective, simplify it and get rid of bureaucracy,” Investment Minister Veronika Remišová (Za Ľudí) in early June 2020 defined the main goals of her ministry, as cited by the TASR newswire. She said her plan was to reduce the high dependence on external IT capacities by bringing in internal ones. “The state must be strong enough not to be a slave to suppliers who subsequently prey on the state.”

State IT company arrives

To achieve the goal of creating cheaper, more modern and more flexible state IT systems, the ministry launched a new state software house. It officially kicked off its operation in Košice on September 11.

Investment Minister Remišová branded it the start of a new era. The new company will allow the state to take the road of more flexible and more efficient creation of its information systems, she said.

“The era when the state was fully dependent on supplies from private companies, where there was space for corruption and murky practices often occurred, is over,” said Remišová, as quoted by the SITA newswire.

The Slovensko IT joint-stock company is led by Pavol Miroššay, former head of the Košice IT Valley association, who will also chair the board of directors. Its main task is to improve state services in IT, including the testing of external supplies, with the help of dozens of top programmers and other IT experts.

“So far the IT systems operate in individual departments in isolation and there has not existed any master plan to unify them,” said Marek Antal, Investment Ministry state secretary (deputy minister). “We decided to do a major reorganisation and create a new way for the state IT to function and be managed.”

The company started off with 80 employees, including programmers, testers and other positions. The core of the company’s staff is created by former employees of the Košice branch of the WireCard company, who have experiences with creating global pro-client solutions.

“I think we have a historic chance to change state IT services and elevate them to a new level,” said Miroššay.

The state software house was assigned three basic tasks. First, to create a new app called eSlovensko – Slovensko Do Vrecka (Slovakia in the Pocket), which will connect people’s smartphones with state institutions and gradually enable them to arrange their agenda by phone. To communicate with the state, people should receive their own ID, which Remišová hopes will be ready in a few months. Secondly, to put together a team to test systems and IT solutions supplied by external companies in order to secure the impartial and professional assessment of the supply quality. These tests are currently carried out by suppliers, which often resulted in delivering low-quality solutions, noted the minister. The third task is to create a platform to engage students in developing apps.

As it is not in the capacity of Slovensko IT to cover all digitisation and informatisation projects, the state will keep commissioning the better portion of the projects to external suppliers.

“They will enrol in public procurement tenders and compete for individual orders,” Andrej Ďuríček from the communication department of the Investment Ministry told The Slovak Spectator.

State software house welcomed Slovensko.Digital, an initiative of IT specialists launched in 2015 and devoted to the informatisation of the public administration, has welcomed the idea of improving the ability of the public administration to tackle IT tasks by its own capacities.

While they have not had the possibility to become acquainted with the plans and tasks of Slovensko IT in detail so far, they see a need to fundamentally improve the state’s ability to create small concrete solutions and operate its own IT systems, especially the central components.

“We expect the biggest space for the new state software house to become engaged,” Ľubor Illek of Slovensko.Digital told The Slovak Spectator.

The initiative considers it right that the ministry not only has the competence to create rules, laws and standards, but also be responsible for their implementation at the central level. In this respect, the transfer of the NASES organisation under the administration of what is now the Investment Ministry in 2018 was a significant change.

“Just as NASES’ task is to operate key components of eGovernment, we expect Slovensko IT to be able to flexibly create solutions according to the ministry’s specifications,” said Illek. “As it is a state company, we also take for granted a fundamental degree of transparency of its activities and the ability to participate in participatory processes.”

Regarding the services that state IT companies should carry out for the state within informatisation and e-Government, Slovensko.Digital noted that the publicadministration needs, first and foremost, to address the so-called information asymmetry identified 10 years ago. This means creating sufficient internal qualified professional capacities for the management and implementation of IT projects.

“We are glad that after years of negligence in solving this problem systematically, we see today concrete steps towards improvement,” said Illek, adding that the roles of project managers, process and data owners and others must be filled by capable specialists employed in public administration in the long-term.

Biggest pains of informatisation and e-Government

Slovensko.Digital issued a report on the state of e-Government in Slovakia in late 2019, in which it assessed the situation in selected programmes of the informatisation of public administration.

“It shows that even though we know ‘how things should be done’ in several areas, none of the intentions are progressing as planned,” said Illek.

The initiative has identified the management of informatisation as a theme in which substantial improvement is a priority – including the planned achievement of results, the quality of electronic services for citizens, public procurement and the already mentioned management of human resources in public administration.

“These are not problems that can be solved by changing the minister, but it is true that much more vigorous solutions were expected,” said Illek.

Slovensko.Digital assesses positively the anti-corruption agenda of the current government and is convinced that the correction in this area will be reflected in the long-term improvement in many ways, up to the quality of work performed for public administration.

Scandals in state IT

In the past 10 years, all IT projects for the state have been supplied by private companies. Among the largest ones Slovensko.Digital lists the new Tax Information System, the Central Public Administration Portal, the electronic highway toll collection scheme and E-health. They have been supplied by IBM, GlobalTel, Swan Mobile, SkyToll, NESS Slovensko and Lynx companies.

“However, all these projects became known to the general public mainly due to scandals, whether in connection with high costs, suspicions of unfair practices, but also problems in the field of quality and usability,” said Illek. “Such a perception of e-Government is unfortunately characteristic of the current situation.”

More funds into digitisation Slovakia is expected to receive around €5.8 billion from the

European Commission in the next three years from the Next Generation EU scheme. The A Modern and Successful Slovakia document of the Finance Ministry envisages investments in the digitisation of Slovakia alone worth almost €500 million. However, Remišová demands four times more.

“If we want to be a successful country and to ensure transition to a knowledge-based economy, we must invest in digitisation and innovation,” said Remišová, as cited by TASR.

Her ministry has submitted to the Finance Ministry source materials for investments into five pillars of digitisation. Her priorities include high-speed internet connection for households – which, she says, emerged to be a key problem in online education during the coronavirus lockdown in the spring – , the boosting of digital state services for the public and digital skills not only for the youth but also elderly, and the transition to a digital economy.

“These investments are worth about €2.1 billion, so we have enough quality projects, which will be possible to finance from the recovery plan so that the 20-percent quota is met,” said Remišová, referring to the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, speaking about the need to invest 20 percent of the Next Generation EU scheme on digital.

Slovakia must submit its recovery plan to the European Commission by April 30, 2021 at the latest.

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