To the Future Croatian Prime Minister – Part 2

Information and Communication TechnologiesDear Sir/Madam,

as announced in part 1, in this letter I would like to draw your attention to a few country-level, ICT-related issues I have stumbled across over the years. Once more, this is just a sampling of all ICT issues: I am afraid we have amassed many during decades of all but ignoring computing technology. The elections are just around the corner so I better get started…

Allow me to start with education as I cannot overstate its importance in my eyes or my concern with how it appears to be developing. The state has the last (only?) word on which text books can be used in schools (and rightfully so). However, it refuses to let the education system into the 21st century: this is roughly what happens… Every child needs at least several book per term. The books are printed paper books and the state delegates this expense (to a large degree) to the families and partially finances “free books” from the budget. Families buy the books, the children use them for a term and then they become useless because a child doesn’t have a younger sibling, or the younger sibling does not attend the same kind of school, or the course program changed (every few years, at times) etc. At best, the program stays the same and the books get sold at the beginning of next year or at least recycled as scrap paper otherwise. At worst, they take their place in our garbage land fills and remain there more or less permanently. What is to be done about it? I dare you to set a goal: declare that 50% of high school children in Croatia will use electronic books at the end of your term. Use a device like the OLPC laptop as a content delivery platform. Have the state step in and buy content from publishers, rather than printed books: it is the content that counts. Prepare and deliver book updates more frequently – because you can, when you deliver it electronically. Then stand back and watch the side-effects ripple through society: lower school expenses raise the standard and quality of life of families with school-age children; more children get the benefit of a public education; the program evolves much more quickly because there is no massive, inert publishing process to drag it down; generations of children become completely comfortable with a keyboard (I have already written about the importance of touch typing in school), with a computer, with the Internet, able to reach more information than existed a generation ago, able to exchange opinions in near real time…and all this while children are doing what they spend a lot of time on already – study. Finally, it is not as if there is much choice, anyway: if we do not provide an environment where they can learn these skills, they will quickly be left behind by children abroad who will study in such an environment. Of course, this requires serious logistics, planning and commitment from the Ministry of Education, but there is absolutely nothing there which is not feasible today. In short, it is the only hope we have to be competitive, independent, innovative and far above all, wholesome, healthy people. On the list of priorities it is up there with a functioning health system – just make it happen.

While not something people think much about, intent authenticity is a key prerequisite of a functioning society and a written signature is effectively the only mechanism currently used. Laws are signed by high officials, legal contracts by involved parties, truces between warring parties by their leaders, voters sign lists to confirm they cast their vote in an election or referendum…written signatures are the only way we authenticate intent, and authentic intent has become a prerequisite of today’s societies. The last several years, however, have given rise to a new way of authenticating intent, most prominently using e-banking: people are trusting computing technology to effectively “digitally authorize” transactions they make over the web and they trust it enough to handle significant amounts of money: roughly 750 000 people in Croatia used e-banking in 2009, and it was 30% more than a year before. It is high time to make a written signature a thing of the past by replacing it with a digital signature and in doing so, reduce the cost of e.g. referendums a thousandfold, streamline business, do away with mountains of physical equipment like fax machines, printers, scanners etc. necessary to process “(hand-)signed” documents and finally rid ourselves of a substantial number of public notaries which waste their lives and peoples time and money to confirm that a certain person did, in fact, correctly sign a document. Signing a document between three parties on two continents is a week-long endeavour at best: signing a digital document with a digital signature can happen in a second. Multiply this expense by the number of papers getting signed in Croatia yearly and we are sure to reach billion Euro costs or savings, not counting time saved, opportunities seized and so on. This is just the tip of the iceberg, but it is impractical to get into all the consequences here. To make this happen, two steps must be taken: Croatian citizens have to have smart card IDs (like Estonians do) and the FINA agency (in charge of digital signature technology) should either be made to do their work properly (they do not) or be replaced by an agency that concerns itself with actual, rather than nominal results. An ID card costs about 6 Euro (at most), so replacing 4 000 000 of them would cost 24 000 000 Euro – an amount we could probably compensate entirely with saving from the next elections.

Make e-Croatia more than a forgotten marketing idea, not to keep promises, but because ignoring the benefits of applied information technology is a certain way to be brutally outperformed by any other European economy. To begin with, the most valuable thing a country has (after its people) is real estate. A significant part of Croatia’s real estate is still managed the way it was during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a hundred years ago: dusty papers rot for decades in old bookcases as people who have spent decades of their life look up and fetch another paper, photocopy it, and add a few notes in a large book for the year 2011… This is fruitful ground for money laundering and a huge cause of countless headaches for the people of Croatia: there are probably hundreds of thousands of people still waiting for their papers to be sorted out from the ’70s. There was a distinct, powerful push to migrate information in the land register and cadastre to digital form and from 2004 to 2006, about two thirds of all real estate in the country was covered. And there it stopped dead in its tracks: it hasn’t moved since. Dear Prime Minister, please make it so that paper is no longer used in the land register by the end of your term: we know how (we have done a lot of the work already): just push it through.

After years of preparations and a shaky start, the introduction of ICT in our health system is finally becoming visible. However, the system is still amazingly primitive (obvious by the fact that citizens still have to carry papers around between doctors) and extremely unstable: if any of the software systems I helped build crashed every day (as the primary medical care system does), I would have long been a statistic on the unemployment bureau. Because of a low standard of living and because we are forced to pay for our health system more than almost anyone else in Europe for obviously poor service, there is effectively no alternative to the public health system. It has to work. System stability is obviously a technical or financing issue: it should go without saying that this should be resolved during 2012. The other part of the problem – the extremely slow pace at which the system is evolving is harder to diagnose, but might be a combination of a lack of authority and support to make decisions, lack of expert knowledge (experts are difficult to attract with the salaries offered in the public sector) and the fact that it is quite a big system, with many stakeholders. However, none of these reasons would justify not having a system (by the end of the term) where a patient’s history is visible to all doctors who need to access it, where misguided, harmful surgery (like taking out the wrong kidney) is all but eradicated and where staff feel like the system helps, rather than gets in the way.

On a mildly different but related note, to be able to vote away from my place of residence in the upcoming parliamentary elections, I had to get one public servant to issue a piece of paper (in my place of residence!) and take it to another public servant in the city I plan to vote in. In the process, the following happened: I had to bother family in my place of residence, prepare and send a written authorization to them, have them visit a public servant carrying a paper (the authorization), get another paper from the public servant, have them send it to me and finally carry it to another public servant (but not just anyone: exactly the one in the city I plan to vote in). Multiply this by hundreds of thousands of people who plan to vote outside of their place of residents and you have a chance to get a feel for what an exuberant waste of people’s energy, time and resources this is. This is the way it should have been done: I should not have had to announce where I was going to vote at all, but just vote – this is perfectly doable, but there is no initiative to make it a reality. Short of that and more to the point, I should have been able to access a (secure) web page where I could select a city to vote in and the public service in charge of organizing voting would ask and receive all necessary information from other public services, in digital form. In neighbouring Slovenia, a public servant is forbidden by law from asking citizens to provide any document issued by another public servant. In other words, they are obliged by law to directly exchange information between them rather than have citizens chase papers all over the country. There is no doubt in my mind that having a single point of contact for citizens and direct digital information exchange between public services can be realized in a single term and the effect on the economy and quality of life would make it very hard to remember how it was that we managed to organize out society before…

I will leave you with a final thought from Neelie Kroes, the EU Commissioner for ICT: “Without proper use of ICT over the next decade, Europe will become a broken economy”. I leave it to you to judge what this means for Croatia.

Whoever you are, enjoy the coming weekend: this Sunday evening, you will be celebrating your victory!

Kind regards, a concerned citizen


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