Almost all strategies for the development of an information society and digital technologies relating to public administration reform plan activities for the state to create an enabling environment for innovation and to ensure delivery of personalized, easily available services for all users, thereby enhancing the transparency and accountability of state institutions. In the case of North Macedonia, however, digitalization strategies are focused only on services provided by the central government. Little attention is paid to the digitalization of services provided by local self-government units. As shown in the Analysis of e-services in municipalities of the Republic of North Macedonia, published by Metamorphosis Foundation for Internet and Society, in spite of increasing demand and expectation from local self-government units, there is no strategy in place for the digitalization of services provided at local level. This is much needed at a time when resources available to municipalities are downsizing and the use of technology could help them do more for their citizens, with less resources.
The Government and municipalities in North Macedonia (RNM) must use digital technologies to establish an integrated system of public services that would allow flexible, accountable and safe provision of services for all, without any exceptions. Such a system must also meet the demands of citizens, that is, users, in respect of monitoring performance and public spending in their municipalities, and for holding them accountable. This includes, in particular, greater transparency and more efficient access to information on the overall work of municipal administrations, starting with strategies, plans, and ending with their budgets. Transparency and accountability are of crucial importance as they contribute to the prevention of corruption and increase trust in municipalities. Equally important is compliance with security standards for the protection of citizens’ personal data, which represents another key issue that affects public trust in municipalities, and is an important pre-condition for increased uptake of digital services and tools.
In order to make digitalization sustainable, a mechanism for monitoring the quality of e-services needs to be in place. Continuous and comprehensive consultations are needed with users, that is, citizens and businesses, in various ways, to assess whether the digital services meet their needs. Moreover, sustainability of e-services depends on their continuous operation with high quality and consistent standards of delivery, reducing the number of incomplete and outdated e-services to zero. At the same time, before engaging in the digitalization of their services, municipalities must first optimise business processes and streamline procedures for service delivery, and only then engage in planning digitalisation.
While almost 85% of households in RNM have access to the internet, of which 80% have access to broadband internet, due attention should be paid to the so-called digital gap, which includes not only access to infrastructure and internet, but also adequate skills of citizens whereby all of them, without exception, are able to safely and competently use digital services and enjoy the benefits of the digital transformation in our society. In addition, there might be little economic justification for investment in the digitalization of local services that do not yield revenue for municipalities, in spite of them being necessary and of priority importance for a large number of citizens. Challenges related to the digital gap indicate the need for a systemic approach and investment in the improvement of digital skills among the population, in order to ensure a level of digital literacy and skills that would justify investments in the further digitalization of services. Therefore, digital literacy, that is, the digital skills of citizens to access information and other digital resources, to browse and to value their quality, and to produce and distribute digital content, remains essential for the cost-effective utilization of the advantages offered by the digital transformation of society for social, educational, economic, political and other societal purposes.
Digitalization is not an end in itself. It is not sufficient to discuss, or even to understand the potential of digital technologies, because it is more important to find ways for these to be most efficiently integrated into municipal administration work, expressly for the purpose of raising the quality of services delivered to citizens. This would contribute to citizens’ increased confidence in municipal and state institutions, and would ultimately strengthen democracy in general. Digital technology has the potential to offer all of that, but requires a serious plan for digitalization of municipal services, and most certainly, it requires sufficient resources for its implementation, both human and financial.
It is of exceptional importance for existing enthusiasm and political will for digitalization to be transformed into specific actions and projects. Citizens, businesses and all other stakeholders should be consulted, and priority should be given to the digitalization of local services that would bring about change and tangible benefit for citizens.
The Analysis of e-services in municipalities of the Republic of North Macedonia can be downloaded here.