The date is January 3rd, 2023. Right after the New Year's Day you have decided to do your administrative chores as a citizen. You use your smartphone to request a change of your residential address, by getting into the app for e-identification. A while later, while you go back from the store, you visit the Post's office and, using your personal ID with chip and e-signature, request a new driving license. At the end of the day, you feel a bit down, so you call your personal doctor and he gives you an e-prescription through your phone. Your requests haven't been turned down by someone saying "We will need a certificate for that!" or "Try elsewhere!".
This unlikely and unrealistic scenario of today might become unlikely but realistic at the start of next year, if the government's plans for digitalization go, well, according to plan. The difference from previous years is that this time Bulgaria has an entire ministry in charge of the update. The former State Agency for E-government will be transformed into a Ministry of E-government.
"The plan is ambitious, but that is why we are here, to be ambitious", says Bozhidar Bozhanov. Once the most famous analyst of e-government in Bulgaria, Bozhanov is now the first minister of e-government in Bulgaria, since December of 2021. The ambitious plan he is talking about should mean that Bulgaria will become different in just a year. Bozhanov and his team are now trying to make things happen - things that have been theoretically worked on for the last twenty years.
If the plan succeeds, the new government would prove that the reason why Bulgaria has dragged its feet on e-government is entirely political, not technical; reform of the administration is possible and the state does not need an army of bureaucrats; and that the life of citizens and businesses can be a lot more easier.
E-government means that all administrative services will be available in digital format. This would save businesses and citizens thousands of "empty hours"- time they now use for waiting in line, going from one institution to another and meaningless printing of documents.
It would also bring a bigger change. According to a report by the International Monetary Fund, the level of development of e-government directly correlates with foreign investments. The logic is simple: the easier it is to make business in a country, the more companies want to invest in it and not waste their time with bureaucracy.
The promises of real digitalization so far have always rung untrue - in the last decade of GERB rule, e-government was always spoken of in future tense, at least until the coronavirus hit in 2020. Then it became clear that the state could be digitalized - and fast. There were strategies, some of them developed with the help of Bozhanov, but they have never materialized.
Bozhanov points out that Bulgaria has some electronic administrative services even now but most of them are not widely used, mainly because nobody knows that they exist. "With my e-signature and knowledge of the law, I can do everything electronically, but the idea is that not only a group of selected few should be able to request such services," says Bozhanov.
Bulgaria, January 1st 2023
Bozhanov says that by January 1st 2023 it is realistic to deliver on these promises made by the coalition government:
- Developing national e-identification system, or in other words, digital ID card in the smartphone. According to Bozhanov, the state will make its own software and not use private software;
- End of the use of most personal certificates and seals;
- Posting financial statements from businesses in one place, not in three, as it is now. All of them will be machine-readable and in tables, not in the current form of scanned documents;;
- Converting sites like Bulgarian Post offices to one-stop shops where administrative services are available all in one place, so citizens don't need to go to different institutions;
- Radically cutting back paper usage;
- Start of ID cards replacement. The new ID cards will have built-in e-ID and e-signature that could be used through NFC technology or in the said administrative service centers;
- Core services of e-healthcare, such as e-prescriptions. A National Health Information System is being developed by the majority-state owned Information Services company;
- Along with that, Bozhanov says, the electronic "systems should start talking to each other", i.e. the state-run registers should be able to exchange information in the same format.
According to Bozhanov, the plan is ambitious but realistic. The main problem is not the writing of code, but changing minor details in a number of laws which formalize the need of stamped documents, for example. Another problem is whether the administration itself is ready for such changes. Many state employees do not have the necessary technical skills and they have trust issues when the person requesting a service is not in front of them. That is the problem that should be solved by e-identification.
Who am I?
"Electronic identity is the key to everything," says Bozhanov and puts this task as the top priority of his ministry. E-identification is, simply put, the digital equivalent to an ID document which shows who is requesting what. Right now Bulgaria does not have a unified system for e-identification and it can be said that the country is some years behind - the logic is to have e-identification and then e-services, not the other way round.
Georgi Dimitrov, member of the board of directors at Evrotrust, a company providing e-identification solutions, says that Bulgaria is far too late to the party. "Every day, every year, we lose tens or hundreds of thousands of hours waiting in line and circling around. And one of the main reasons for that is that even if you do have an e-service, the other side does not know whether that is you or not. Private companies have used e-identification for years. You can buy something on lease without going to the store, just using your phone. But you can't do that with the state administration", says Dimitrov.
According to him, it is logical for the state to buy licenses from one of the two Bulgarian companies working in the field - Evrotrust or Borica, or both. This would save time. Bozhanov, however, has another idea - the state will write its own software to be distributed among the population. The e-government minister says that it is "a specific job, but not actually a lot of work".
Without saying it directly, Bozhanov probably does not want to be accused of choosing one software over the other, which is an obvious risk when you have an overall of two companies providing e-identification solutions in Bulgaria. This might slow things down a bit.
The e-identification tool is an app in the phone. With private companies customers have to put their data in the app, take a photo of their physical ID card and some photos from different angles during registration. Overall, it takes several minutes, after which they can sign and authorize documents in the app.
Like Estonia, but not exactly
Bozhanov says that Estonia and Denmark are two of the examples that Bulgaria is following. Estonia is probably the most famous example for efficient e-government in the world, but there are differences with Bulgaria's way: the systems in Estonia are decentralized, while Bulgaria's e-government is centralized. And the good example of Estonia has some disturbing elements, which are bordering utopia or dystopia: one of the end goals of the Baltic country's e-government is to practically put an end of anonymity in the Internet. According to Toomas Hendrik Ilves, president of Estonia from 2006 to 2016, everything, even writing comments in forums, should be synced with the state e-ID, and everything that a person writes on the Internet should be traceable to the real physical personal that does it. On the other hand, for the state to be responsible, the decentralized system lets anyone know if their data has been accessed, and by whom.
The hard road to less administration
Bozhidar Bozhanov will have to guide the process of digitalization while steering the structuring of the new ministry. According to the plan, the old state agency would become a ministry, and after that Bozhanov says there will be another agency with operating functions, while the ministry itself will work only on policy. The code itself will be written by the Information Services company.
The structure however will be even more complex. The main goal of e-government is to have less administration and less people in the state apparatus. When Bozhanov says that the old agency will become a new ministry and there will be also a new agency, he is quick to say that there will be no more state employees than there are today in the old agency.
Logically, digitalization should trim administration, not the other way round. According to figures from 2020, Bulgaria has around 142 thousand state employees, which sounds even more "impressive" given that its population is now 6.5 million people, according to the 2021 census.
The new ministry, of course, won't be able to directly cut back headcount. This will be a task for every ministry and a priority for deputy prime minister Kalina Konstantinova. At times she will double the give political support to Bozhanov by saying "Yes, it can be done!", when the administration says "No, it cannot!"
That is the plan. Bulgarians, however, have heard quite a lot of promises of cutting back administration throughout the years. Boyko Borissov, the former prime minister, told the ministers from his first, second and third cabinet to cut the headcount but the number of bureaucratic positions only rose rather than fall.
Less, but more
The other part of the digital plan of Bulgaria is not only for the state to offer services, but for the administration to be able to work with them. As Bozhanov says, one of the biggest problems of Bulgaria today is not that there are no e-services, but that even the administration does not know whether they exist or not and there is no trust in anything that is not on written on paper.
"A lot has been done, much less has been achieved. The indicators are how many systems we have introduced, how much money we have spent, how many services we have. But nobody cares how much they are used, by how may people, how much time they have saved. This way of thinking has brought us to the point where we offer services, but they are not being used," says Bozhanov.
Low-skilled employees are not only a headache, they are also a real problem when it comes to the cybersecurity of the state, which is also a responsibility of the new ministry, says Bozhanov, who until recently was CEO of cybersecurity company LogSentinel.
Bulgaria is hurt by that scarcity of skilled cybersecurity experts in government bodies. In addition to the notorious data leak from the National Revenue Agency in 2019, in the last two years the country has been subject to numerous denial of service (DDoS) attacks. This type of cyberattack leads mainly to problems with the image of the country, as there is no leakage of data.
Overall, the new ministry starts its work with a basket full of responsibilities and challenges. If it can operate according to its plan and score several quick victories, this will be felt by all: citizens, businesses, the administration and will ultimately increase trust in Kiril Petkov's government.