The reforms concerning digitalization, their progress, are ongoing challenges that North Macedonia faces. Digitalization should be in step with the latest trends and improve the lives of the citizens, offering high-quality, fast, and efficient services. At a time when the world and Western countries are moving forward every day, the Republic of North Macedonia (MKD) is still lacking appropriate digital infrastructure, regardless of the constant promises of the authorities. The greatest expectation for 2023 is the establishment of the Digital Agency.
Portalb.mk produced a review on what has (not) been implemented last year and the challenges in this area in this year.
E-Services portal with shortcomings
Undoubtedly, the digitalization of the services is in the interest of the citizens and a huge benefit, but also a requirement for joining the EU. Throughout the years, the investigations of Portalb.mk have proven that the results of reports, analyses, and surveys conducted in this area by international and national institutions, but also the local non-governmental organizations, are not just criticism on paper but a serious problem in everyday life of the citizens queuing in front of counters for a document.
North Macedonia still doesn’t have a database for the usage of the electronic services offered by public institutions. Subsequently, it is still unknown how many services are provided electronically, compared to the services offered in physical presence.
Citizens of North Macedonia have a hard time getting documents digitally “with just one click”. This is due to the fact that the country is offering a limited number of electronic services, without utilizing the potential of the national portal. In addition, there are citizens who are not sufficiently informed about the electronic services provided, although they have the equipment.
The National Portal for Electronic Services – “E-Services” provides electronic applications for a number of electronic services, paying fees and administrative taxes, monitoring the status of procedures or undertaking other steps related to some other administrative service. To do all this, however, the citizen has to create an account, i.e., “e-ID” profile. This portal has 87,468 registered users, and 30,156 requests have been submitted through this portal so far.
Currently 835 services from 1,288 public institutions are available on this portal, out of which 66 are digital. Worth mentioning, however, is that the services are not fully electronic. For most services, only the procedure is explained, but the citizens have to go in person to the appropriate institution to receive the document. The expansion and advancement of the number of fully electronic services is still a challenge.
The third report on the state of affairs and the guide for promotion of the Digital Agenda in North Macedonia developed by the Metamorphosis Foundation for the period June 2021 – June 2022, stresses the fact that although the numbers of electronic services and of their users increase from one year to the next, the portal uslugi.gov.mk is still not promoted enough. At the same time, a large number of services are not electronic, while the ones that are, require a great deal of waiting, which is not inappropriate, concerning their significance and purpose. The political will and policy are on a high level and one of the priorities of the Government. There are many strategies in this area, but most of them are obsolete and need updating.
In a television debate organized by the Metamorphosis Foundation, it was said that a strategic approach for the development of the digitalization process on local level was lacking, because almost all current strategies were focused on the services given by the central government. The process of providing e-services to municipalities can be accelerated by using the central portal E-Services.
One-click services are still far away, the citizens pay the price
One of the processes that were not completed in 2022, was the digitization of the registers that would have secured a database the country can use for its digital systems for providing services. In an interview, Kristina Petrovska from the Administration for Management of Registers, specified that the digitalization of the Administration was expected to be completed until the end of 2023.
Concerning the process of digitization of registers, this year the Financial Police initiated criminal indictment against three employees of the Administration for Management of Registers due to suspected tender-fixing, thereby inflicting damage to the state budget in the amount of €46,000.
Although electronic documents are legally recognized and have the same value as physical documents, our institutions are still not working with electronic documents. We proved this in our research, by showing that educational institutions, banks, and notaries were not sure whether they should accept electronically issued birth certificates.
On the other hand, the institutions in the MKD have weak mutual communication through the Interoperability Platform, that provides for exchange of data via electronic systems for providing efficient and fast services. The data Portalb.mk got, shows that in general, all institutions from the Platform have a decreased number of finished transactions this year, a number that was supposed to be higher than last year.
Through its investigative stories, Portalb.mk showed how the insufficient connection between the institutions exposes citizens to unnecessary administrative procedures, thereby, inter alia, increasing their costs. Instead of finding data and documentation themselves through the electronic systems, the institutions are forcing citizens to que in front of one office to the next in order to get various “certificates” that cost money, time and energy.
This year Portalb.mk undertook a research project pinpointing the irresponsibility of the institutions in the country, specifically the municipalities that change the names of the streets without registering that change in the Main Register. Subsequently, and due to the fact that the institutions do not have a common electronic system, citizens must wander around and pay for various certificates.
On the other hand, public institution employees continue to publish data in scan-to-PDF format, instead of using the open PDF format. This is a problem for the citizens when analyzing the data – corrections cannot be made, nor can data be copied from such a format.
Teaching without electronic textbooks, courts with a new AKMIS, inspectors with a new electronic system
Regarding digitalization of education, the Ministry of Education and Science announced that textbook digitization has begun and that the process would last five years. The positions on this issue were very much divided: some advocated for full cancellation of hard copies and introduction of teaching exclusively with electronic books, while others demanded the opposite. Bearing in mind that the MKD does not have an actual digital infrastructure for learning exclusively from electronic books, the MES stepped back and decided to proceed with the traditional form of teaching. Now, however, books are published electronically and students can learn from them, but this option is voluntary.
In the course of 2022, for the very first time the ninth grade students enrolled specific schools by using an electronic form. To prove their authenticity however, students had to submit the same documentation in the schools, to the Registration Commissions.
The civil society sector also pushed and insisted on digitalization of the educational system in the country. By means of various activities the non-profit sector requested the introduction of digital learning methods. University students and young people demanded digitalization of higher education, and submitted their recommendations in the form of a policy paper titled “Digitalization of Higher Education – Challenges and Opportunities” advocating for the development of a National Strategy for Digitalization of Higher Education.
In the course of 2022, granting recognition and equivalence of foreign diplomas in North Macedonia started in a digital form. Digitalization of scholarship applications for academic year 2022/2023 abolished the long ques of students and parents or guardians in front of the Ministry for submitting the required documentation.
In March 2022, the process of installing ICT equipment in the five Basic Courts, as part of the Operational Plan for Digitalization of the Judiciary, began. The courts from Kavadarci, Strumica, Shtip, Skopje and the Civic Court were included. By digitalization of the courts, the parties in cases will be able to participate in sessions even without physical presence. This year, the Kingdom of Norway will donate €6.8 million for a new electronic system for allocation of cases (AKMIS), since the judges used to manipulate the old system. During 2022, the first trial in the new digital court room within the prison in Idrizovo took place.
Concerning the digitalization of the inspection services, the information system for inspection surveillance “E-Inspector” was promoted in December. The platform “E-Inspector” for modernizing inspection services was developed with the assistance of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and it became operational in February 2022. It will continue operating for 18 month or until August 2023 under the auspices of the Inspection Council. By 2024, “E-Inspector” should be connected with all 28 inspection services. It will be linked with all inspection services on central level, with the possibility of connecting municipal inspectors, as well. It will enable automatic planning of inspections on the basis of risk assessment and monitoring of preliminary actions of targeted subjects. The system will also enable automatic allocation of cases to inspectors and regions/areas.
Civic sector monitors and contributes to the national diglitalization process
Just as in the last year, the transformation of the country into a more digital country was also facilitated this year as well by the civil society sector, especially by Metamorphosis Foundation as the leader in this area by means of actions, research and collaboration with the governmental sector. The project “Increasing Civic Engagement in the Digital Agenda – ICEDA” implemented by Metamorphosis Foundation from North Macedonia, together with partner-organizations from Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro and Estonia is worth mentioning. The project is financially supported by the European Union and promotes better digital services in the region of the Western Balkans.
This year, as part of this project, a study visit to Estonia was organized, that included participants from the Government. Knowledge and regional dialogues regarding the digital agenda were exchanged. Two Digital Agenda reports were also published; the first one published in January was titled 2021 Digital Agenda Progress Report of Western Balkan Countries, while the second one was published in June 2022 on the State of Affairs and Advancement Directions for the Digital Agenda of North Macedonia (2022). The final study on the development of digital governance and literacy in the Western Balkan countries for 2022 is already prepared and will be launched in the upcoming days for the public.
As part of the project, 29 infographics, 3 videos, 2 animations, 9 research and educational articles were created, as well as 6 webinars, 29 sub-grants, out of which five were distributed in North Macedonia. Throughout the year, Portalb.mk reported on the events as well as on the digital problems faced by the country.
Last December a regional conference E-Society.mk took place, promoting the progress made in the Digital Agenda of the Balkans.
Hopes and challenges for the upcoming years
In the next two years, North Macedonia should establish an Cybersecurity Agency, which should prevent possible cyber attacks, as well as a Digital Agency. In an interview for Portalb.mk, the Minister for ICT and Administration, Admirim Aliti, confirmed this information. The budget of the Ministry for 2023 amounts up to MKD 1,580,029,000.
Just a few days before the end of 2022, at the 115th session of the Government of North Macedonia, a decision was taken for North Macedonia to participate in the Programme of the European Union “Digital Europe for the period 2021-2027”. The Ministry for Information Society and Administration is competent for this programme.
By signing the Agreement, the country became a member of the Digital Europe Programme from the 1st of January 2023 and all civil society organizations, companies and institutions can participate in projects implemented through this Programme, whose indicative budget is €7,5 billion.
In the budget for 2023, the Ministry of Information Society and Administration has allocated funds for digitalization of services for citizens and businesses in the amount of MKD 154,795,000 (€2.516 million) or MKD38 million more than last year.
North Macedonia has a long way to go in its digital transformation.
Although the country undertook reforms, a great deal of works still awaits. This was concluded in the latest EC 2022 report on the progress made by North Macedonia on its European integration path. The Report indicates the shortcomings that the country needs to work on as well as the points of accomplished results.
This study was developed as part of the project “Increasing Civic Engagement in the Digital Agenda – ICEDA”, co-funded by the European Union and implemented by Metamorphosis Foundation (North Macedonia), Academy for e-Governance (Estonia), Movement Mjaft! (Albania), Partners for Democratic Change Serbia (Serbia), NGO 35mm (Montenegro) and Open Data Kosovo (Kosovo).
This investigative story was developed with the financial support of the European Union. The contents of the investigative story are sole responsibility of the Metamorphosis Foundation and the author and in no means does it reflect the position of the European Union.