Alexei Kuzovkin on the electronic transformation of the public sector in 2020: The state as service provider

Most dictionaries define the state as a form of social organization on a certain territory, as well as the instruments needed to maintain its existence, such as laws, government officials, and law enforcement, including the taxes and fees collected to finance government operation.

There is no undisputed scientific definition of a state, but there is general consensus regarding the forms of relationship between the state and its citizens – or more precisely, what any state that at least aspires to fairly distribute resources must do in return for the taxes it collects from people and businesses.

In other words – services. At its most basic level, a state is a provider of services: maintaining a fair legal system, defending national borders, combatting crime, and developing transportation and other elements of social infrastructure. These services constitute the bulk of what a state does with the tax revenue it collects. There are, of course, other views. Some believe that the state has intrinsic value and that taxes are a means of controlling the people, but this myth has no basis in reality.

On a more grounded, practical level, government services are essentially a very long but ultimately finite list of procedures for interactions between government agencies and citizens. The majority of these procedures require minimal human involvement and they can be automated.

For many years in Russia, accessing government services – something as simple as drawing up a property deed – was a hassle that required getting documents from numerous agencies, which could take hours or even days of waking up at dawn to stand in line and wrangling with the bureaucrat behind the glass. Now that these days are more or less behind us, it's hard to believe this ever seemed normal.

It took many years of hard work to create a new paradigm, which includes, inter alia, integrated government service centers (IGSC) and the Government Services portal. The digitalization of state agencies (e-government) began in the early 2000s. Implementation of the Electronic Russia program was scheduled to begin in 2002, but its design and practical implementation only got underway in the late 2000s. A vast amount of data had to be converted to digital, and the databanks of various agencies had to be formatted in the same way, which was an extremely complicated job, considering the haphazard way they had developed over the course of many years, back when no one figured that one day they would have to be merged. As the result, it took a considerable amount of time to modernize and integrate the various agencies' databases, and to create systems that allowed them to communicate.

We are now in the year 2020. The country has the integrated Government Services portal and regional portals, of which Moscow has the best in terms of the number and variety of services available. It offers all or nearly all of the services which previously took days of going to various offices and standing in long lines.

Want to make a doctor's appointment? Get your driver's license? Apply for your passport? Replace lost documents? Check your debts? All this can be done by computer or smartphone for the most part.

As the number of available services grows, they are being divided into distinct categories of related super-services with predicative algorithms to prompt visitors to the portal with possible options. These super-services will be the main innovation in 2020, setting a course for the further digitalization of government services, efficiency gains, and lower time and material costs for government agencies and people.

Of course, not all of these systems are fail-safe. Everyone has heard about the problems with making benefit payments to families with young children during the coronavirus pandemic, when that section of the Government Services portal crashed: the system was overwhelmed and the various agencies had failed to coordinate actions in advance.

Truth be told, the Electronic Russia federal program, which was supposed to be implemented in 2002 ̵ 2010, is still ongoing. The same is true of the Information Society program. A year ago, HSE experts published an extremely negative overview of developments in this sphere.

However, work is underway, and not without results. Public opinion has changed on acceptable standards of digital services that government agencies must provide, and the demand for quality services will continue to grow.

One nagging source of concern is the lack of business involvement in the provision of government services. Of course, there are some positive examples to the contrary: in the early 2010s, the Armada group of companies implemented several projects, which have sped up and simplified the process for all sides. But the spread of this positive experience to other spheres is hindered by red tape.

For example, no businesses other than banks have access to the Interagency Electronic Interaction System (SMEV). Access to the Government Services portal is limited, forcing users to do everything manually, which makes it impossible to scale up. This is holding back government services in general.

Hopefully, this problem will be solved in the near future. But the potential of super-services in this respect is limited because they only involve citizen-state interactions, while businesses have been left out, despite the fact that there are quite a few commercial enterprises in the country with the interest and ability to help improve services.