Economy & Tech
20 July 2021
Practices under the pandemic simply show that Central European states are not equipped with the technology, legal framework and willingness of state employees to move closer to the digital economy.
There was a strange bunch of people waiting for Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš that day in the middle of March in front of the government’s office in the centre of Prague.
They were a couple of successful Czech IT businessmen who came to offer help to the Czech state, which was at the beginning of what is now a long fight with the pandemic.
The prime minister accepted the help and this group, which created the Covid19CZ team, cooperated with some state agencies. Together, they would develop telephone support, an information line, and create a contact network among regional offices of state sanitary agency which would, later on, form a backbone of so-called ‘smart quarantine’ – a system to track people who were possible transmitters of the disease.
The IT guys wanted – free of charge – to help with old technologies and the weak digitalisation of the state facing an unprecedented threat of the pandemic. They created a mobile phone app, and they helped to develop the first Czech ventilator for hospitals.
The most famous example was Pavel Řehák, a director of a small insurance company. He calculated the exponential growth of the pandemic at home in an Excel spreadsheet for his personal use. Řehák ended up in the prime minister’s office realising that no state office could do the same. He warned the government what was ahead.
Those people, who are used to cooperation, quick decisions and flexibility from the private sector, have been met with fierce resistance from state institutions and bureaucrats as well as cases of personal hatred.
Some of the regional sanitary offices refused to use the newly-created tracking system because it was developed under the auspices of the head of the Prague sanitary office.
“We have our own, they told us. It was the first slap, when I did not understand what was happening,” entrepreneur Petr Šimeček later told to Czech daily Hospodářské noviny. Šimeček was one of those IT guys from the private sector coming to help.
The Covid19cz team has achieved a lot. Yet, when giving newly developed systems and apps into the state bureaucracy’s hands, they have lost hope that the state could use and develop them further.
‘Smart quarantine’ turned out to be a fiasco over the summer and only became functional to some extent when the Czech army stepped at a later stage. In all Visegrad Group countries, mobile phone applications aimed to help with tracking ended up in oblivion.
“We have seen that even if the prime minister or a minister supports something, it does not mean it will happen,” said Jakub Nešetřil in an interview with Hospodářské noviny in April of last year. He is another IT entrepreneur helping the state to tackle COVID-19.
More recently, Šimeček, Nešetřil and others speaking to the media showed their disgust toward the bureaucratic obstacles, personal hatred or even indirect bribe offers made by some of the state officials with whom they were supposed to cooperate.
“Even now I do not know when even the best work for the state becomes useless,” said Petr Šimeček in an interview with HN in December. „Bureaucrats are not able to implement the decisions into practice,” he concludes.
There is an expression in Czech bureaucratic language for one particular obstacle – ‘resortism’. This means to refuse a better solution from another ministry only because it was not created in-house. One ‘resort’, say the Ministry of Finance, will never adopt a solution proposed by another, such as the Ministry of Transport, because they belong to different parties or the ministers simply hate each other.
In the Czech Republic and other Central European states, the pandemic has shown how weak digitalisation of the state and e-government is. Doctors from the region were happy that at least e-prescription systems were working. It was and still is possible to limit visits to some patients, thereby decreasing the danger they will get the coronavirus.
All across Central Europe, there are successful IT companies. Avast, Eset, Asseco, Prezi are only examples of a globally acknowledged sector which – in comparison to the state IT sector – lives, works and does business on another planet.
The COVID-19 emergency has shown how big the gap is, not only in technological terms but also – and mainly – it is a question of mindset. Czech entrepreneurs have got that far because they got support from the prime minister – but only a rhetorical one.
In other countries of the region, the situation was different. State simply closed itself and refused any interference from the private sector.
In Poland, for example, the only viable and reliable statistics of illness and deaths was provided by the young student Michał Rogalski who organised around himself a group of volunteers. His work ceased in November when the government ordered regional sanitary branches not to disclose statistics to the public. Since then, Polish researchers do not have reliable data from then on because public statistics are full of mistakes, which Rogalski and others continue to uncover.
Slovakia changed its government during the first wave of the pandemic. There was a primary struggle with governance because Prime Minister Igor Matovič could not organise and lead. Since then, he has continued to behave like a soloist in opposition.
Hungary is building a very central state administration under the Fidesz government, so while even the IT sector is quite strong, nothing resembles the Czech Covid19CZ initiative.
In Hungary, many private companies have no willingness to cooperate with the state after previous experiences. There were some private and civil initiatives to support teachers, parents or health workers similar to what has happened all around the region. But this was not organised by the state, promising money for IT hardware for schools.
For example, in the Czech case, when the second wave started in the autumn, many schools did not get anything or were only in the ‘preparatory’ (i.e. paperwork) phase.
The whole of Czechia was moved by the private initiative of a well-known public TV journalist, Nora Fridrichová, who organised a collection of notebooks for children from low-income families to participate in distant learning.
A small online initiative has changed into something much bigger. Some mobile operators gave free internet access to hundreds of low-income families and companies delivering thousands of pieces of IT equipment.
The combination of pandemics and private IT initiatives has shown how bad is the state of digitalisation in Central Europe, and that not a case of technology but mindset.
E-government is a joke here. E-prescription working all around the region are the exception. In Hungary, for example, you can start some of your dealings with public administration online, but finally, you always have to go to the office.
In Czechia, you can have a unique electronic tool (a ‘data box’) for communication with state administrations. It is managed by the state post company Česka pošta but it is hardly an easy-to-use tool and does not have an English version, unlike the Estonian e-residency system.
A similar tool is available in Slovakia and Poland where state e-government services are supposed to be under one webpage umbrella. But because they are not user-friendly and reliable, only a handful of people use them.
In those countries, it is not possible to talk about central education online tools which have dramatically helped Greece, for example, to overcome online learning difficulties.
Practices under the pandemic simply show that Central European states are not equipped with the technology, legal framework and willingness of state employees to move closer to the digital economy. This part of the economy is growing fast and might bring many opportunities for the future to the region, which still relies economically on cheap labour in workshops of Western companies.
COVID-19 has shown that the potential is here; however, as the Czech case shows, the obstacles are enormous and not solely of a technical nature.
One example: the Czech state changed the toll system from paper vignettes to electronic ones, similar to those already used in Hungary and Slovakia. To do this, the Ministry of Transport made an untransparent bid for an unbelievably high price.
As a result, one Czech IT businessman brought together a hackathon to show that the private sector could make it cheaper and quicker. It was a big media event, last January, exactly one year ago.
About sixty IT guys with support from other private businesses (such as free catering) have built a basic electronic toll system solution. On a web page, one could buy an electronic vignette. The total price was about a quarter to a third of the initial offer.
Then COVID-19 came and the state – in profound silence, because the media have been looking elsewhere – rejected the private companies’ solution and introduced the Ministry’s system for an unreasonably high price and with erratic functionalities during the first weeks of operation.
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