When a government proclaims a war against bureaucracy, it is time to take a deep breath and not panic (too much). This is true especially in the cases when “electronic communication with the authorities” becomes the slogan of the day. No, this is not a story about the fear of computers. This is the story of how well-established civilization gains can be transformed to send the citizens, businesspeople, and civil servants on a terrible odyssey with entirely new bureaucratic processes.
Last autumn, the Slovak government presented a plan that could make life easier for citizens and businesses. It decided that the authorities will no longer ask citizens and businesses for statements and extracts from state registers, but that these will be obtained by the authorities itself instead. This is not at all a banal goal. Last year, various public institutions in Slovakia requested 620-thousand extracts from citizens and entrepreneurs – the vast majority included information from the Trade and Business Register and extracts from the Letter of Ownership. All these information the authorities have at their disposal, whereas an individual or a businessperson does not get as much as a stamped copy. Moreover, these requests and the submissions of the summaries cost EUR 3.5 million in administrative costs.
Therefore the proposed plan seems promising. Hopefully, this is just the beginning of the changes in the administrative sector. The transition of the state to the digital age offers a unique opportunity to fundamentally change the way of communication within the sector, as well as between the authorities and the citizens. Such transformations could (and certainly should) result in the possibility of, for example, establishing a company via a single website. This was the case in New Zealand. A set of good practices can be also observed in Estonia, where the tax office automatically collects data from banks or employers, and the taxpayer simply receives a pre-made form with a single click when submitting a tax return. There are many other examples around the world that clearly show that the digitization can be made extremely useful for bureaucratic purposes.
However, former digitization campaigns in Slovakia have had mostly unfortunate results. They usually lacked a meaningful concept and were not ambitions enough. Until now, the public administration has largely managed to partially transfer existing acts (including those that are completely unnecessary) into the digital form. When dealing with basic administrative procedures, such as establishing or transferring a company, an average citizen has always found it difficult to find the documents s/he needed in the vast network of applications and confirmations available. In the new system, these problems did not disappear. Only that now these documents can be obtained online.
A good example to illustrate such a case is the procedure of setting up a company. Despite the success of the Unified Contact Points, it is still rather challenging. According to the World Bank’s assessment, Slovaks have to go through six procedures that take 11.5 days in total (if everything goes smoothly). Although bureaucracy and digitization have been introduced in this area rather successfully, they have not been applied efficiently throughout the process.
In terms of electronic submission of tax returns, digitalization brings only marginal advantages. Anentrepreneur must honestly fill in the same forms as before. S/he will, however, save some time by not having to submit the forms in person in a tax office.
In the public administration alone the situation is bad enough. Various departments and offices operate on different information systems, and there is no rule indicating they should be interconnected. In the worst-case scenario, digitization results in the officials have to do the paperwork in a more traditional manner, upload written requests into one information system, and only then scan these documents. The emergence of the digital age has not only failed to reduce the amount of work, but in some cases it has actually tripled it.
The government’s new digitization plan thus seems unusually promising. It has a clearly defined goal and is to solve a very specific problem. However, the anticipated results should be taken with caution. Although the government usually has the best of intention, the results are oftentimes much different.
Translated by Martin Regulli