“The Government needs to become as flexible and mobile as an IT company, to automate all functions and services,… reduce 60% of officials, introduce large-scale privatization and outsourcing of government functions”: Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation.
Ukraine may be suffering a rising wave of rolling power blackouts and internet outages as the proxy war between Russia and NATO intensifies, but that doesn’t seem to have crimped the Zelensky government’s ambitions to transform the country into a digital wonderland. In the past week alone, Ukraine’s central bank unveiled plans for a digital E-hryvnia and Kyiv signed a digital trade agreement (yep, they do exist) with the United Kingdom.
The newly signed “DTA” is ostensibly aimed at helping the Ukrainian economy recover from its current malaise while also boosting both countries’ digital output. And guess what it includes? A provision for collaborating on digital identity. From a UK government press release:
“[T]there is a critical need for people to be able to use digital solutions to prove they are who they say they are, despite the loss of critical documentation or displacement across borders. The agreement provides a framework for the UK and Ukraine to cooperate to promote compatibility between their respective digital identity systems to help address this.”
While it is true that identifying citizens in the midst of war is both a challenging and vital task, digital identity is an area in which Ukraine already excels. In fact, as the digital rights group Reclaim the Net notes, it has a great deal to teach the UK on the matter:
Ukraine’s highly-sophisticated digital ID, Diia, is used to grant the public access to most government services online. It has nine digital credentials: the ID card, the identity provider (IDP) certificate for network access, birth certificate, passport, driving license, tax number, student card, and vehicle registration certificate.
Diia was first launched in February 2020 by the Ministry of Digital Transformation, which itself was created in late 2019. The platform is partly funded by the European Union’s eu4digital initiative, which in its own words “aims to extend the benefits of the European Union’s Digital Single Market to the Eastern Partner States, channelling EU support to develop the potential of the digital economy and society, in order to bring economic growth, generate more jobs, improve people’s lives and businesses.”
The EU’s support of Ukraine’s digital transformation is also a means of bringing Ukraine closer to the EU Digital Single Market, according to Ambassador Matti Maasikas, the head of delegation of the European Union to Ukraine. The ultimate goal of Diia, which means “action” in Ukrainian, is to digitize and automate all government services as part of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s “State in a Smartphone” concept.
“For citizens, the government should be just a service – simple, but more notably comprehensible,” Mr. Zelenskyy said at the beginning of the Diia presentation. “In general, our goal is to make sure that all relations with the state can be carried out with the help of a regular smartphone and the Internet. In particular, voting. This is our dream, and we will make it real during presidential, parliamentary or local elections. It is a challenge. Ambitious yet achievable.”
This coming from a man who in March banned the activities of the country’s largest opposition party, the Opposition Platform—For Life party, as well as ten other political parties that Kiev regarded as “anti-Ukrainian” and “collaborationists”.
War as a Catalyst
Ukraine’s digitization of government services predates the conflict with Russia, but in the eternal spirit of never letting a good crisis go to waste it has been significantly expanded and accelerated in the succeeding months. In early March, Simon Johnson, a former chief economist at the IMF, and Oleg Ustenko, an economic advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, floated the idea of creating a universal basic income, paid for with the billions of euros of frozen Russian assets.
While the idea didn’t quite take off, due largely to fears about the potential blow back from expropriating Russian funds, Ukraine has experimented with digital financial handouts. On March 6, Ukraine PM Denis Shmyhal announced a “War-Time Economy” with a one-off payment of 6500 UAH (roughly $200) to employed, self employed, and other entrepreneurs who lost employment in some of the worst effected areas of hostilities. Given how desperate people in the country are, the offer of free government assistance is particularly alluring…
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