ROAR: Citizens will meet officials on the Internet

Vladimir Kremlev for RT
The Russian authorities promise to transfer public services into electronic form in advancing towards an information society and fighting corruption.

At a joint meeting of the Russian State Council and the Presidential Council for the Development of Information Society on December 23, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said a common policy will be set for the electronic provision of services for all agencies and regions.

New website www.gosuslugi.ru intends to help citizens get easy access to public services and information from government bodies. So far, the website only gives information, not services, Medvedev stressed.

“The president praised the efforts of the Ministry of Telecoms and Mass Communications, which launched a unified web portal of state services in December,” Kommersant daily said. Minister Igor Shchegolev said that “during the first two days, 1.5 million people have already visited the site,” the paper added.

The traffic on the new site is comparable to “that of popular websites,” the minister said, adding that “an important step has been made towards a real, people’s information society.” Shchegolev also said that the system will be developed on both federal and regional levels, the daily noted.

“Medvedev warned the governors that he would dismiss them if they fail to transfer the system of public services into electronic form,” the paper added. Meanwhile, some regions may already boast of successes in this sphere.

President of the Republic of Mordovia Nikolay Merkushkin said at the meeting of the Russian State Council that an electronic system of state services has been introduced in the region’s rural areas. “And 100% of Mordovia’s citizens have received access to digital television,” the daily added. “However, he asked for the federal center’s help in further developing electronic services,” the paper noted.

Observers say that because of the lack of proper digital services, citizens waste their time in queues, while businessmen and the state itself lose money. Governor of Astrakhan Region Aleksandr Zhilkin said at the meeting that “only one percent of Russians consider the quality of state services as positive.” The majority of people mention such problems as “long waits in queues, having to apply with the same question several times, and corruption,” Gazeta daily quoted Zhilkin as saying.

At the same time, governors do not consider transferring services over to digital form an easy process. Governor of Perm Region Oleg Chirkunov told the paper that “no document exists on paper at the regional level.” At the same time, the region’s government “faces strong resistance” at lower levels, he added. “Everyone has their own position and everyone wants to use their own software,” he said.

Nikita Belykh, Governor of Kirov Region, also said that “everyone uses different software and state service procedures.”“We are planning to launch public services in electronic form starting in the middle of 2010,” he said. However, it is unclear how many services will be digitalized in the region, he added.

Most services are expected to be concentrated on the main state web portal. If it provides people with proper services in the future, it will help in fighting corruption, analysts believe. Pavel Salin of the Center for Political Conjuncture even said that “the president is creating institutional foundations for the fight against corruption.”

“The president has set the task of transferring all state services into electronic form by 2015,” Salin said. “The program of the electronic government has been realizing in the country since 2002,” he noted. “However, the transfer of general information of a particular department onto the Internet has been the only achievement of this program so far,” he added.

“It is now practically impossible for citizens to communicate with officials through the Internet,” the analyst said. “And when the question concerns state purchase contracts, even getting reference information is sabotaged as much as possible.”

Transferring the direct communication between citizens and businessmen with officials into contacts through the Internet “eliminates the grounds for corruption,” the analyst said. It will be more difficult to take bribes, he noted, adding that the contacts “will become more transparent for controlling bodies.”

Salin believes that officials will try to sabotage the transferring state services into electronic form. But when it is finished, it will be possible “to significantly reduce the level of corruption,” he added.

Sergey Mikheev of the Center for Political Technologies agrees that the provision of public services online will be helpful in fighting corruption “because there are a lot of services that can be replaced by computer technologies.”

The corruption sphere will narrow “if the system works,” the analyst told Actualcomment.ru. However, he added that only time will tell if the program is successful.

“On the other hand, one should not think that using the Internet will solve all the problems,” Mikheeev noted. In particular, he does not support the idea of connecting all schools to the web. “The Internet also has its negative sides, channeling a lot of destructive information, spam and advertising,” he said. “If this flow goes to every child or pensioner, will it contribute to the country’s prosperity?” he asked. “However, the idea of e-government is right,” Mikheev said.

Dmitry Volodin, analyst at the Russian company Electronic Office Systems, stressed that European countries and the US have accumulated experience in the sphere of public services via the Internet. “There are positive examples and functional technologies,” he told the same website.

“Thanks to the high attention that the state pays to this problem, the country makes gradual steps towards e-government,” the analyst added. “Now it is possible to speak about technical readiness of necessary infrastructure, at the federal level at the least.”

However, some problems still remain, Volodin said. They include the issues of identification of citizens in their communication with state officials and protection of personal details, he noted. Also, “uncoordinated information resources of different organs” should be put into order and integrated, he added.

The task is to create “a convenient system of citizens’ access to necessary information,” he said. But the most difficult thing is to ensure “the interest of state organs themselves in information transparency and their qualitative cooperation with the population,” he added.

So far it is unclear if people will like the new form of communication with officials, Volodin said. If the mechanism of cooperation “is convenient, transparent and understandable for citizens, one should not expect any problems with introducing new technologies,” he said.

Sergey Borisov, RT