My Electronic Country
Online coverage of presidential elections, and 10 million citizens’ trips between government agencies made virtually – Russia is stepping up the deployment of information technologies to be used in the country’s government and administrative systems. Igor Schegolev, aide to the President of Russia, talks about the best practices and solutions that Russia is ready to share with its BRICS partners.
How would you characterize Russia in terms of IT development?
The internet economy in our country is growing much faster than the real economy, at the overall rate of up to 30% per year. In 2012 ICTs accounted for nearly 4% of our country’s GDP and this figure continues to grow. Our country has become one of the leading nations in terms of exporting software and software development services – the only countries we are significantly lagging behind are India and the United States. In 2012 Russia jumped ahead of Canada, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and many other countries and is now ranked 14th in the world in terms of innovations. The government and government programs in this area are certainly not taking the back seat in this process.
Which programs are you referring to?
I am primarily referring to the government program entitled ‘Information Society’, in the framework of which we created the e-government. Our successes in this area are widely recognized. For instance, according to the United Nations E-Government Survey 2012: E-Government for the People, today Russia is ranked 27th in the world in terms of the level of e-government development. In just two years we jumped ahead of 32 countries, leaving half of EU members behind. Parenthetically, this was the best result among the BRICS countries and we are ready to share with our colleagues our insights as to how and why this approach works.
It is probably the first time that the UN experts assigned such a high ranking to our country in terms of IT development. What brought that about?
First off, we migrated a large variety of public services to electronic platforms, making them accessible anywhere in Russia. For the first time ever Russian citizens were given an opportunity to enjoy these services in the comfort of their own homes, without having to physically visit government agencies. To this end we opened an Integrated Public Services portal on the web. Needless to say, at that time this was a bold move. Some were concerned that ordinary Russians would not accept this novelty and were not likely to use these services. However, on the day when the portal went live, all of our concerns dissipated when we saw the incredible public interest. This new and previously unknown resource shot to the top of the Russian Internet segment in terms of the number of hits. Today more than 4 million users from every corner of our nation enjoy the portal on a regular basis. More than 5,000 public services have been made available to them in electronic format. In 2012 alone Russians received 15 million services electronically.
Secondly, to be able to make such a broad variety of services available to the public we needed to teach the authorities to communicate in an electronic format. Trying to connect 25,000 different federal and local agencies, and make them operate online as a single organism, is hardly a walk in the park. To facilitate this work, communication lines have been laid across thousands of kilometers in all 83 constituent entities of the Russian Federation, and the required computing capacities have been deployed. However, we still had to motivate the authorities to get connected. We came up with a simple yet efficient solution: it was expressly prohibited for government agencies to require that citizens submit certificates or other documents maintained by other agencies. That brought about a situation where officials either had to personally run and fetch such certificates required by the public, or start interacting electronically. As a result, today all of the federal agencies and most local authorities are connected to the e-government infrastructure. By the end of 2012 we registered more than 10 million exchanges of information and electronic certificates between government authorities that did not involve the general public. In other words the Russian people were spared 10 million physical trips to various agencies.
Essentially, you managed to help people feel the advantages offered by information technologies. Do you think there would be an enabling social environment for replicating the lessons learned from the e-government project in other public areas?
Of course I do. For instance, last year we successfully completed a project called ‘Web Elections’, where the Russian presidential elections were broadcast online from all polling stations. Imagine, just 2 months before the elections kicked in we had to develop a solution, buy and deliver the hardware to 90,000 polling stations, and make it all work together. Add to that 53,000 new ‘last miles’, and the requirement to build more than 9,000 kilometers’ worth of new communication lines, and to arrange for 3,700 satellite communication channels. The sheer scale of this project is measured in nine time zones!
The software used to support the video broadcast was developed by Russian specialists, based on open-code resources.
Granted, on top of that, not only did we have to resolve numerous technical issues, but also garner the support of millions of people, who voluntarily agreed to go to the polling stations in the virtual mode and observe the voting process and the counting of votes.
On the election day – March 4th, 2012 – 500 million hits were registered on the webvybory2012.ru website, which means that one million unique users visited the site every hour. All in all, site visitors watched up to 1 billion live videos – more than 500 years’ worth of video footage recorded in one day.
Our lessons learned have already been replicated in the Ukraine during the parliamentary elections there. That project was also implemented by Russian programmers.
Do you think Russia’s partners from the BRICS countries would be interested to learn about these successes?
There is no doubt that in recent years the BRICS countries have made tremendous strides in developing and adopting various information technologies. However, the projects I was just referring to have never been attempted anywhere else in the world. They are too complex and ambitious even by modern standards. Now add to that the size of Russia, diverse landscapes and climatic regions, and a varying population density across different regions, and you will have an idea as to why it would pique the interest of our partners. The solutions and technologies we created could be successfully replicated in any other country in the world with an initial computer penetration level, and any population size.
Naturally, we would not have been able to do so much over such a short period of time if it were not for the help of our powerful national telecommunications operator, who handled the main infrastructure and resource load, acting both as the developer and the operating organization, and assumed responsibility for the project’s outcome. So it is also a fine example of partnership between the private and the public sectors.
You are dealing with the development of electronic democracy in Russia. Do you think the government is ready to hear the voice of the citizens?
Of course it is ready. A project entitled ‘Russian Public Initiative’ – a system that enables ordinary Russians to submit their proposals and initiatives online – will go live already this April. According to a decree issued by the President of the Russian Federation, if any of these initiatives are supported by 100,000 citizens within one year, they must be addressed by the government. It has been decided that similar mechanisms for collecting initiatives will be used at the regional and municipal level. This will enable our citizens to get directly involved in running the country. Together we can change the country the way we see fit, which is what democracy is all about.