Shedding an Outmoded Paper Trail in Serbia

The Pursuit of e-Governance in Belgrade Receives A Pro Bono Assist From IBM

Let’s time-travel to Serbia, circa 1999: it was a time before smartphones or Wi-Fi. The largest hard disk available had a 340MB capacity and cost USD$499. Meanwhile, the volume of printed paper generated for record-keeping and the demands of the modern age was reaching new heights with each passing day.

Today, every consumer product we desire is ’one click away.’ The dizzying pace of innovation in the Information Technology (IT) industry, now the fastest growing sector, affects the global community in countless ways with each new milestone. Hard disks that sell for USD$499 in 2018 have 12TB of capacity (one terabyte is equal to 1,000 gigabytes), and the largest data centers in the world store as much as 100PB (one petabyte is equal to 1 million gigabytes).

Given the vast technological progress experienced since 1999, it is astounding to think that in the Republic of Serbia, the laws regulating data storage for businesses have not changed for the last 20 years. This of course means that no framework for e-Government or the use of electronic documents is in place, putting a tremendous burden on Serbian society.

Given the vast technological progress experienced since 1999, it is astounding to think that in the Republic of Serbia, the laws regulating data storage for businesses have not changed for the last 20 years.

Serbian institutions have a long tradition of using paper in everyday official communication with citizens and businesses, and between themselves. They still keep their records in paper form. This is both costly and inefficient. The government and business community spend millions of dinars, the local currency, every year, creating, maintaining, transporting, and storing millions of paper documents, which slows down the decision-making process, among many other frustrations.

In 2016, the law still required Serbian businesses to store invoices, receipts, and other documents in paper for 3–10 years, depending on the type of record. For years, the law was met with protest for its impracticality, particularly from business owners who viewed the law as a step in the wrong direction with regard to the antiquated system. Besides issues with data storage, business owners decried their inability to use modern conveniences such as e-signatures, e-documents, and e-payments due to their lack of regulation.

Stepping in the right direction
Like any paradigm shift, the change could not initiate itself. The National Alliance for Local Economic Development (NALED), an independent association of over 300 businesses, local governments, and civil society organizations working to improve living and working conditions in Serbia, set out to spearhead this movement.

In 2016, NALED partnered with IBM’s pro bono program, the Corporate Service Corps (CSC). It was an instrumental first step toward creating a framework for e-Government in Serbia.

In an engagement facilitated by PYXERA Global—a nonprofit that specializes in implementing Global Pro Bono programs for corporations seeking to leverage their core capabilities for social progress—four experts from IBM CSC arrived in Belgrade in May of that year, tasked with investigating the current state of practices and regulatory framework regarding e-Government. The team consisted of Edmundo Fortajada, a Continuous Process Improvement Project Manager from IBM Philippines; Mahesh Ganesan, a Project Executive with the Smarter Workforce/Kenexa Business Unit from IBM USA; Andrew Meyer, a Delivery Project Executive for Global Technology Services from IBM USA; and Aneeta Razdan, a Global Value Driven Proposal Program Leader from the department of Transformation & Operations for IBM India.

During a full month working with NALED employees, the CSC team conducted extensive research, leading to targeted recommendations to facilitate the transition. They scheduled meetings with important stakeholders from the government, the business sector, and the international community—including state secretaries, assistant ministers, the deputy speaker of the National Parliament, and the US ambassador to Serbia—which allowed them to gain valuable insight into the problem.

With additional information from various global reports ranking diverse approaches and detailing best practices, the team, in cooperation with the experts from NALED, developed a series of recommendations for Serbia’s e-Government framework. One of these was to establish a central body mandated to drive and coordinate all e-Government-related activities while ensuring representation from all stakeholders.

Other recommendations called for creating common data definitions and authoritative data sources, implementing open data standards, and ensuring legal alignment with any new e-Government laws. The pro bono consultants also delivered a thorough action plan to assist in planning the implementation.

At the end of their month-long engagement, the team presented recommendations to government and business representatives at a round table in Belgrade City Hall, at an event that was specifically organized for this occasion. The strategy they unveiled contains analysis of the issue, identification of the main problems, suggested solutions, as well as prioritization tools for implementing e-Government in Serbia.

The chairman of the event was Ana Brnabić, President of NALED’s Managing Board at the time. She actively collaborated with the IBM team during their time in Serbia, which gave her a thorough understanding of all the important phases of the program. Ms. Brnabić went on to become Prime Minister of the Republic of Serbia, declaring digitalization one of the focus topics of her mandate.

Final presentation of the Framework for e-Government. The IBM team presents with Ana Brnabić, president of NALED Managing board at the time and current Prime Minister of the Repiblic of Serbia.

For the pro bono consultants, the experience was an opportunity to work with the Serbian government, meet with top officials, plant seeds of success, and watch the change unfold. In between intense work sessions, there was also a time for fun and games—from an organized visit to meet the royal family to cycling tours, an ethno workshop, and NALED’s family day barbeque.

It was brilliant working with Edmundo, Mahesh, Andrew, and Aneeta. Their experience contributed greatly to the change that was made, and learning about their project management methodology was a valuable learning process. Moreover, we have had so much fun! – Dragana Ilić, Coordinator of the E-government Alliance, NALED

In the time since the team’s departure, 20 companies that had long been pressing for this type of progress founded the E-Government Alliance. The Alliance intends to serve as the foundational entity driving the change to come. At first, member organizations were primarily ICT companies, but soon enough, many other sectors wanted to join—retail companies, banks, and even local governments recognized the importance of the Alliance.

There are now 49 members of the E-Government Alliance and its significance is clear. The action plan for the development of e-Government in 2017/2018—designed by the Alliance—is now being implemented by the Government of the Republic of Serbia. The Alliance was also a government partner in the development of a legal framework for implementation of the eIDAS directive—electronic Identification, Authentication, and trust Services—adopted in October 2017. The Law on e-Government, which relies on the CSC team’s strategy recommendations, was adopted in April 2018.

The visit of IBM experts also initiated the formation of the Coordination Council for e-Government, a government working body chaired by the Prime Minister, which manages projects designed to improve the electronic operations of all government bodies, down to the local level.

As it is a topic that affects all three sectors equally—government institutions, businesses, and the civil sector—e-Government implementation must be approached with mutual understanding, cooperation, and a sharing of best practices. This approach has already proven valuable in recent cross-sector panel discussions and round tables.

Strengthened by the partnership with PYXERA Global, initial support provided by IBM, and expertise from the E-Government Alliance, NALED positioned itself as a provider of professional and technical support on the regulatory efforts of the Serbian government and a public advocate on electronic administration and e-business. The light at the end of the tunnel from underneath overwhelming amounts of paper-based record-keeping shows a future of economic growth and prosperity for a Serbian society operating efficiently and effectively in the modern era.

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