Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

The Bulgarian e-government - may be there is hope

Adelina Marini, June 28, 2009

After we saw that Estonia not only has e-voting but fully functioning e-government, it was logical to ask ourselves whether Bulgaria has something like this, even rudimentary. It might seem to you strange but for the last 4 years there is a lot of work been done on the construction of the e-government of Bulgaria and the main reason for us being unable to vote from our office or home is ... the Ministry of the Interior because the tenders for the introduction of personal ID cards with biometric data, such as the Estonians', have failed for different reasons. Why? This is another issue. What has been achieved in the building of the e-government, told me the e-government expert from the Ministry of state administration and administrative reform (MDAAR) Borislav Bochev.

One of the visible things of the e-government is the portal. This is the place where you can see and directly use some of the very few services, offered online. As Borislav Bochev explains, the construction of an e-government is a process which cannot be complete in 4 years. And, given that Bulgaria started building it relatively late in comparison to other countries, it is not that bad because it gives the opportunity to use the best practices. Beside this, a very solid basis has been laid: the legislation framework, the technical security and the training of state officials to work with computers.

Regarding the legislation framework Bulgaria now has fully operational E-government Law. It was approved relatively quickly, partly because most politicians considered it useless and not all of them understood what exactly it was about. Those who did though requested a 1 year transition period before the Law came into force, hoping that for a year the technical progress would be greater. Alas, it didn't work as they hoped but anyway the Law is now into force. "As any other legislation, this Law follows the logic and the connections with other laws and regulations but what makes this one revolutionary and turns over the whole process of interaction between the client and the administration, is the principle of single collection and multiple provision of data. In other words if a citizen requires certain service when he goes to the administration and files an application, because we're now talking about applications not requests, now he is not obliged to present data that the administration already has like certification of birth or a diploma. The Law is functioning now for a year and should be implemented but, unfortunately, as in any other law, this one also has transitional regulations, transitional periods, to say so", explains Borislav Bochev.

The Law covers all types state administration, people with public functions and organisations that provide social services - public utilities and all other social services. In other words, they are obliged not to ask citizens to present them with documents that they have already presented at any other administration. Instead, they are supposed to acquire these data internally. The Law also gives citizens the right to receive information about the status of their application like who is now working on it and at what stage it is at the very moment of asking. The administrations that process or collect data about citizens have to give access to that information of each citizen.

Another thing that has already been completed with regard to the e-government is the creation of its kernel to which each administration can connect and exchange with the rest documents. Another issue is that not all administrations are prepared to connect to the kernel. But the Law requires them to do so but it takes a lot of time all administrations to have their own systems built as well as the certification of their systems.

The third thing is training. Tens of thousands of officials have been trained how to work with computers. And regarding the frequent mockery from media and society, Borislav Bochev say: "these people will never become hackers, definitely. But when they have this basis and start working with specific applications and information systems, these people will know what to do". He often used in our conversation the example of the car: "to teach someone to drive a car does not require quite a lot of efforts. There were times when we were taught how to dissemble the gearbox because the cars we used to drive back then often broke and we had to be prepared. Now the cars are made in totally different way and we don't have to study how they had been constructed. Only basic knowledge of how to drive the car. The same way stands the issue of computer literacy".

This can clearly be seen in quite a lot of municipalities across Bulgaria that have introduced the e-government by, for example, having paperless sessions, voting online their decisions etc. There are also a lot of municipalities that offer services in 1 desk so that you don't need to line up in front of many desks to register for example your restaurant. As part of the work of MDAAR to build e-government was to provide almost every municipality with computers and introduced a revolutionary threat - any municipality that does not use its computers will lose them and will also be excluded from many other policies of the Ministry - like training courses, salary increases and any other sanctions. And this worked.

Borislav Bochev also said that some municipalities have relatively quickly changed their practices and started to hold their sessions online through their laptops and computers but, generally, 2 years is not enough for a total change of mentality that was built for ages. But if other things happen for 2 years, I, myself, am keen to wait.

Inevitably we started talking about introducing open source solutions for the state administration (which is stated as one of the priorities of the Bulgarian Greens for the parliamentary elections on the 5th of July). According to Borislav Bochev this is impossible, practically, And not that it cannot be implemented in general, but it would require quite a lot of unjustified resources. "The problem is, in fact, that people that can work with UNIX systems and with Linux in Bulgaria are not too many, they are not enough to guarantee the smooth transition of the whole administration to open source. And the problem is not only technological. It is rather complex because it would be quite difficult to connect many administrations that are at a different technological level". For more clarity Borislav makes quite an interesting comparison - it is very risky to change horses in the middle of the race. What we can save from MS licenses, if we turn to open source solutions, will be spent as hidden expenses, there will be a lot of losses because of ineffective work (or downtime). Not to mention the money that will be spent for the implementation of these new systems, added the expert.

There are quite a lot of things to be done like the updated strategy or road map of the e-government. The E-government Law and its 5 regulations are the framework and the road map or the procedures for the further development of the e-government from now on is still not approved. And this is a very serious process for which we need administrative capacity, says Borislav Bochev. In this regard it is important how we will answer the question what will happen with e-government if the MDAAR is being closed as there are signals from big political parties? In fact, this is included in the election programme of GERB - to cut structures of the Ministry. Mr. Bochev thinks that this might lead to certain delay while a new structure that will take care of e-government is formed. "This is policy without which we cannot participate actively in European processes. The change of administrative structures, responsible for the implementation of the e-government policy might lead to delays because this is related to changes in regulations and procedures. We have to bare in mind that very solid and stable foundation is being laid which can be developed further".

And with regard to the e-voting, the main obstacle at the moment is the lack of personal ID documents with chip, i.e. a device for identification of citizens in e-world (e-signature). As we know, the public tenders that the Ministry of the Interior held, failed couple of time for various reasons, one of the most frequent of which was that companies cannot file their documents without mistakes. Beside that biometric data IDs is a requirement of the EU, it would also speed up the removal of visas for Bulgarians for the US.

Most political parties that have claims for voice in next government state in their election platforms their full support of the e-government, for its development and even for the introduction of e-voting. Let's hope that this would happen because it would start a real reform of our national mentality and might lead to faster increase of GDP per capita, higher productivity, effectiveness and all other little words that have very pleasant fillings.