Paradigms of e-government are around the world are led by Estonia, whose size allows for experimentation and implementation of the most advanced and enviable systems in the world. Yet the tales of Estonia, may soon be surpassed by Poland, whose Digital rebirth is an ambitious project that will set the bar higher than anywhere in the world.
One of the leading minds behind this vision for a Digital Poland, has been Krzysztof Szubert, Strategic Advisor to the Minister of Digital Affairs and Plenipotentiary of the Minister for International Affairs.
Szubert sat down with Alexandros Koronakis to talk about some of the massive steps Poland is taking in this area. With the current Polish government being in office less than a year, a strategic decision was taken from the very beginning to change very much the way we are thinking of e-government, e-services, effective coordination within the digital space and the modern and innovative country in the end.
The strategy was developed in in the first few days of 2016, just after new government was up and running. “The strategy is designed in a similar way to the Digital Single Market; it’s not a very big or extensive book.”
The Strategic Action Priorities of the ministry are divided into 5 fundamental principles. Szubert explained that the first principle, relating to e-services for citizens, is the main pillar. The aim is to serve citizens by connecting dispersed institutions and turning complex procedures into consistent and simplified services.
“We would like to improve all the e-services in the government and have them be as integrated and reliable as possible in order to really convince people they can use these services from end to end, and be able to handle the different issues they may have.”
The second principle looks at cybersecurity; securing data and transactions in the public network and services, which Szubert says is of paramount importance once you have a centralized system.
The third principle, relating to infrastructure, seeks to accelerate development in order to achieve the challenging e-administration targets but also has a social and economic dimension of covering access availability in the vast area of Poland. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a cable, wireless, or satellite infrastructure because we have to cover the whole country,” Szubert explained.
The fourth principle, looks at developing the desired innovative economy. On the side the Ministry it would call for facilitating easy access to data gathered by public services. But the broader picture of the government, now having plans to take on the risk of investing extraordinary amounts of venture capital instead of banks, is to have those invested innovative start-ups stay in Poland and immune to foreign capital acquisition.
The final fifth fundamental principle addresses building digital competences across all age groups so that the entire population can benefit from digitization and compete on the global market. “We have to improve the competences in many areas starting with schools. We see that kids that are good at programming also have very good analytical skills, which they can later on use in mathematics or physics or other areas.”
Efficient and effective cooperation in the government
With the strategy being ambitious, it required an overhaul of the previous system of governance, and changes in the way the administration worked.
“We rebuilt the Ministry to have it organized in a much clearer way; a little bit like a corporation.”
As an entrepreneur and an investor, Szubert has been involved with several companies, making successful exits in even the most trying economic times. He explained that to succeed, it was important for the Ministry to have a flat, uncomplicated decision making process. “The pillars within the ministry, which are focused on the technology and digital area in general needed to be clear,” he said, “We didn’t want to go too far into the politics.”
Szubert explained that the first and foremost aim was to deliver the vision for a digital Poland, and that meant working across the government: “We realized from the beginning that the digital aspects are everywhere right now; they are all very much horizontal. Therefore, we have to work with all the ministries and all other organizations in this field. The strategy was also based on having a platform for which to talk to other people [in] other ministries on the digital aspects.”
Szubert says the feedback of the Polish citizens has been very positive. “When we created this plan it was about 15 pages long. We arranged an extensive public consultation and provided people with 3 to 4 weeks of time to give us a response of what they were really thinking. We received [circa] 500 pages of comments. We went through all of them and more than 97% were very positive on what we are doing.
Working with the EU
Szubert may be new to the political side of the digital realm, but he is very aware of the political power centres and intricacies. He immediately started liaising with the European capital, and realized he needed to invest in Brussels.
“We spent sometime visiting our permanent office in Brussels. We spoke quite a lot with people in the Commission, Parliament, and MEPs on many levels. We realized we needed to improve our presence even in a physical aspect. We decided there would be additional people responsible for the digital issues.”
Building relations with EU decision-makers and stakeholders has been an important element of the implementation of the strategy, and has been mutually beneficial. “We started to build relationships on the highest possible level and to have a very good relationship with the [European] Commissioners; to really understand what they are doing; where they are going; and to be a part of the discussion. Because as we talked to them and to the people from those cabinets, we also realized that in many areas they’re at a stage where they’re starting to think about [the implementation of their strategies]. So it was a very good moment to be a part of this discussion and really point out some of the areas that might be interesting for them.
When asked whether the European Commission was receiving support from the Polish government and not just providing feedback, Szubert responded affirmatively. “Yes, that’s the main basic idea in order to really be a part of the discussion on different fields.”
Szubert pointed out the difficulty in navigating the European Commission, where several Commissioners have overlapping portfolios in this respect. “This is a little bit difficult to coordinate – probably for them as well – but [also] for us as people who would like to work with them.”
The challenge, Szubert explained, lies in understanding from what point to what point each of them are responsible; and how the overlapping in some areas should be dealt with.
As to why he decided to start travelling to Brussels for politics rather than back-and-forth to Silicon Valley for business, Szubert exuded a sense of civic duty and an urge to contribute. Talking of himself and colleagues who had also set aside business success in this endeavor, Szubert said “We’ve done this for the last 20 years, so now we said, new challenge; we would like to see who we can really help.”