“Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy,” wrote Franz Kafka in The Metamorphosis. Though these words were meant to convey protagonist Gregor’s disappointment in his company’s management ethics, they serve equally well as words of caution to Armenia’s new bureaucrats.
Armenia’s Velvet Revolution was won on the pledge of increasing the quality of life, job creation and economic growth. Now, with revolutionary zeal slowly eroding, the incoming government is left with the unenviable task of delivering on promises. To achieve this aim, it must tackle its Kafkaesque bureaucratic apparatus.
The solution to bureaucratic ineptitude may be quite straightforward: digitizing government services. Yet, for a nation which likes to see itself as a regional leader in tech, so far, achievements in e-governance reform are far from impressive.
Upon independence, Armenia inherited the Soviet Union’s infamously incompetent Nomenklatura system. The financial cost of lost productivity to the endless ballet of form-filling, stamp-stamping, paper-pushing, and eye-rolling on the part of underpaid desk-jockeys could be counted in the tens of millions of dollars.
The solution to bureaucratic ineptitude may be quite straightforward: digitizing government services.
The Armenian government has been toying with early forms of e-governance (or E-Gov) since 2000. With financial and technical assistance from the European Union and the United States, Armenia gradually began moving certain services to the web. This trend started with the creation of dedicated web portals for various ministries or agencies. Ekeng.am, a government agency tasked with unifying and coordinating E-Gov efforts, started operating in 2011. With more and better internet penetration across the country, Armenians gained the ability to register businesses and pay taxes online. Citizens received digital ID cards with even more digital applications. This modest progress in digitization alone significantly increased Armenia’s corruption perception score.
Businesses filing taxes online complained less about petty corruption on the part of revenue service officials. The replacement of the dreaded “stamp” for a digital signature also significantly reduced unnecessary paperwork for business transactions.
Despite these humble successes, a lack of political will and technical capabilities hindered the implementation of a comprehensive E-gov apparatus. At the moment, the state has managed to digitize less than six percent of its services. Digital cooperation between various government ministries and agencies remains minimal. There has been little, if any, coordination of digital services, branding or web design. Certain civil servants even use Gmail or Yandex email addresses for official correspondences. Despite the creation of unified databases for some government agencies, Soviet-style bureaucratic traditions remain strong. In many cases, digitization has actually led to additional backlog due to bureaucrats’ insistence on duplicating the work done by computers with pen and paper. Documents still get misplaced, taxpayers continue to get frustrated, while an under-qualified but overstaffed civil service erodes trust in the State. Armenia currently ranks 87th in the UN’s E-Governance Index, behind Iran.
A 2018 white-paper on digitization strategy developed for the previous Armenian government with EU assistance established a framework to fully digitize government services by 2030. The guidelines feature six focus areas: government efficiency, tech-savvy workforce, digital infrastructure, cybersecurity and tech-oriented private sector.
Achieving this ambitious objective would bring quantifiable benefits to both the Armenian state and its citizens. According to the framework, once fully implemented, E-Gov would reduce the cost of government services by 50 percent, dramatically reduce corruption, increase competitiveness and add three percent to Armenia’s GDP growth rate.
The rationale is pretty simple: the ability to fill in paperwork once – and then again automatically through a digital ID – would significantly reduce the cost of business transactions. Instant access to public services from a home computer would eliminate the need for “personal days” from work to pick up routine paperwork. Finally, doing away with “the human element” would effectively remove any opportunities for corruption.
Added together, this means a leaner, more efficient government, a more competitive private sector, and happier citizens — a winning recipe for Armenia.
E-Gov services should facilitate the lives of citizens by design. Taxpayers should experience joy through the experience of logging onto a single account with clear and transparent access to everything from their medical files to their tax records. A delightful user experience would encourage taxpayers to adopt these new services.
Carrying out such a dramatic shift in the philosophical essence of governance would be an accomplishment in and of itself. Such an initiative would entail far-reaching organizational reshuffling, investments in digital infrastructure and a clear vision for government services.
The good news is that Armenian policymakers don’t need to re-invent the wheel. Estonia, a fellow post-Soviet nation of 1.5 million souls, has encountered great success in its mission to reign in rampant bureaucracy and provide effective government services to its people.
Ott Vatter, the Deputy Director of Estonia’s e-Residency program, explains that his country’s E-Gov strategy was born out of desperation. Upon independence, Estonia did not have the resources to maintain physical offices and pay functionaries across the country. From the onset, the attitude towards governance prioritized taxpayer needs and budgetary concerns. The result came in the form of X-Road, centrally managed distributed integration software, which forms the backbone of the country’s digital services suite.
In the years since independence, Armenian policymakers have faced many of the same challenges as their Estonian colleagues. Armenia can no-longer afford to run continuous budget deficits. Digital government services could reach every community across the country without costly infrastructures like government offices and civil servants.
Bureaucrats, of course, have a vested interest in resisting change, since their jobs depend on the inherent inefficiency of their government. Downsizing could be met with opposition. According to Vatter, “bureaucrats do not create value.” The purpose of government is to serve its taxpayers, not itself. For many outgoing Estonian civil servants, ever-growing private sector opportunities unleashed by the digitization of services offset the short-term spectre of unemployment. The same could be said for Armenia.
The previous Armenian government was set to accept the recommendations from the E-Gov white paper and implement the digital transformation agenda in March of 2018. The Velvet Revolution, which broke out a month later, stalled these plans. The new administration, which benefits from the legitimacy it gained in the December 2018 elections and continued popular support, has a duty to reduce the cost and resources of running a bloated public administration. The only viable way to boost worker productivity, encourage economic growth and regain trust in the Republic is the comprehensive implementation of effective E-Gov services.