Preparing for the future: Digital technologies and the reform of Kosovo’s governance systems. In conversation with Ertan Munoglu and Norbert Pijls

Twenty years have passed since June 1999 when the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1244, which placed Kosovo under a United Nations transitional administration. Events have unfolded very rapidly since then. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February 2008, and so far 101 United Nations states have recognised its independence. The European Union has included Kosovo as a potential candidate for access. The pace of governance reform has been very rapid, with a number of international development partners designing and launching projects and programs across the country. How are these governance reforms being shaped by technology and what direction has the government taken to inform public policy or programming decisions through new technology?

To discuss these questions, I spoke to Ertan Munoglu, manager, and Norbert Pijls, director, of the Decentralisation and Municipal Support (DEMOS) project in Pristina. DEMOS is co-financed by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Swedish International Development Agency. It has been implemented by HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation since 2014.

Let’s start with DEMOS. Can you briefly describe the objectives of the project?

Our project document states that: “DEMOS supports Kosovo in its transition process towards a democratic, decentralised state in which municipalities exercise socially inclusive governance and provide effective services responding to citizens’ priorities and needs.” The objective is quite broad, which allows us to move towards it gradually through the three planned phases of the project, which can be implemented until 2024. More specifically, we try to achieve two things. First, collaborate with municipalities to improve their democratic governance systems and processes by strengthening citizen engagement in decision-making. We include marginalised groups in consultations and decision-making processes and apply sound human and financial management practices. The combination of these elements should lead to more efficient and effective public services. Second, we aim to work with government partners to support decentralised local governance and better coordination between central and local level public administration.

I am interested in how digital technologies are designed and used to inform policy decisions. These technologies are, in my opinion, a rapidly expanding element in the systems that provide evidence to inform policy decisions. What are you seeing in terms of digital technology being tested and adopted in the governance system in Kosovo?

Internet penetration in Kosovo is very high with close to 95 percent of all citizens and settlements. Kosovan local governments are increasingly using social media to engage with citizens, mostly through Facebook. These channels of communication have almost eclipsed the access to the websites that municipalities set up few years ago. Kosovan local governments are really active in finding ways to improve service delivery through digital platforms. For example, municipal assembly sessions are streamlined live for citizens, and there is standardised software that processes all citizen requests in all municipalities. Also, many municipalities deliver civil registry documents from printing machines that are usually placed close to municipal buildings, ‘geo-referenced’ software is used to register real estate and property tax, and some municipalities use geographic information systems to measure areas and count public furniture. The latter gives good information for determining where and what services need to be delivered (maintenance, construction, etc.).

Another example is the electronic procurement system that was introduced a few years ago by the state authorities, and the electronic information management systems that a number of ministries are putting in place to gather monitoring data on education, health and public sector human resources.

Looking at the future, some civil society led initiatives are beginning to test open data systems. Some municipalities are discussing ideas around smart cities, but the financial resources required to translate ideas into prototypes and public services are, for the time being, out of reach for the Kosovan government.

These (and other) systems are hosted on the servers of the Agency of Information Society, but they are not yet connected to one another for data exchange.

Digital technologies are one element of knowledge systems that include different types of data, information, analysis and research. What concrete steps have government agencies with whom you collaborate taken to increase the demand and use of evidence to inform policy decisions?

A very interesting initiative that the government developed and is now upgrading is the Performance Management System. Each year it collects and stores a dataset of about 100 indicators related to service delivery and good governance in all municipalities of the country. The system was introduced in 2008 and is housed at the Ministry of Local Government Administration. The ministry, in collaboration with DEMOS, is planning to provide a monetary prize to the best performing municipalities. The data collected through the Performance Management System allow for comparative analysis across municipalities of the quality of public services and governance. The system and the analysis it provides has the potential to help municipalities identify problems and gaps in public service delivery and design policies and programs to address them.

How are the data that go into the Performance Management System collected?

The data for the Performance Management System are collected by municipalities and reported to the Ministry of Local Government Administration. Different departments of municipalities collect the data and process them through a municipal performance management system coordinator, and eventually the mayor. This process usually happens at the beginning of each calendar year. The ministry then compiles all the data and produces an annual report on municipal performance. The reports are usually published around April-May.

The system is evolving. Currently we are working with the Ministry to improve the indicators and guidelines for data collection. The next step will be to design software to simplify data collection and analysis of the performance of municipalities. Ultimately, the plan to is open up the dataset in the system to the public to be used for research and analysis and to inform and stimulate fact-based dialogue between local governments, citizens and NGOs. The hope is that this will lead to better local policies. At the moment, municipalities with whom we work have expressed their appreciation at having access to the data but more work is required to test ways to bring the analysis from the data into policy decisions. 

Are there other initiatives that show similar potential?

Yes, there are. For example, the Ministry of Finance (with support from the Swedish International Development Agency) is working on improving the property tax information system. This is an important reform which is quite sensitive, and the data in the system are not publicly available yet.

The Ministry of Public Administration is developing a human resource management system that keeps records of the recruitment of civil servants, staff appraisals, staff turnover, etc. The system still requires manual input of data and the ministry is working on improving the technical side of the system. We have some anecdotal evidence that municipality staff access the data, but we are not sure about the extent to which they are used to inform decisions in municipalities.

The prospect of becoming part of the EU is an important incentive to reform governance and policy systems. From the outside, the accession process looks like a massive technocratic exercise. How do you think this process is shaping the demand and use of evidence in Kosovo, and in particular of new technologies to complement other sources of evidence, such as research?

The EU accession process places significant importance on standardising the availability and quality of public statistics through its emphasis on establishing standard geographic units and data collection (so called Nomenclature of Territorial Units of Statistics). Although the idea has been discussed for years, it is not yet being implemented in Kosovo.

The main objective of the Kosovan Government in the accession to the EU is to implement recommendations from the annual progress report that the EU publishes on the country. The process of drafting the progress report involves EU experts holding consultations with government organizations and units, NGOs, citizens, etc. Most of the data are then recorded manually. Some data are standardised and collected through software systems as in the case of  business registry, import and export data, taxation and duties, and government finances.

The EU accession involves strengthening the national statistical capability. The expansion of internet access that we mentioned earlier is providing an opportunity to collaborate with the Kosovo Statistical Office and test ways to complement traditional statistical data and analysis with data analytics. Social media platforms provide an opportunity to access new data, but the capability within the government to do so is not yet there.

This may be a generational issue. A more tech-savvy generation of civil servants and professionals, some of whom have studied overseas, is bringing new expertise into the governance system. They may well be the ones who will help reform the education system to be better equipped to provide the skills required by a modern and inclusive governance system of the 21st century.

Thank you very much, Ertan Munoglu and Norbert Pijls for taking the time to answer my questions.

If you republish please add this text: This article is republished from Knowledge Counts a blog by Arnaldo Pellini under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.

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