Five key questions that shaped the Eastern Partnership Digital Conference

  • Date: 28/10/22
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Resilience, crisis response and recovery were the bold focus of the 2022 Eastern Partnership Digital Conference on 24 October. The event built on the first Digital Conference in 2021 by zooming in on the priorities for digital transformation of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) region. With the ongoing Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, speakers highlighted concrete solutions and tools at hand, sending a clear message: unprecedented actions are possible even in a challenging environment. The digital transformation should be at the heart of the efforts towards recovery, resilience and reforms in the Eastern Partnership region. 

Panellists and presenters addressed issues and opportunities around five key questions:

Digital governance: how to design services that citizens choose to use?

The demand for digital public services in Ukraine has increased due to displacement, loss of documents, and emergencies since February 2022. Valeriya Ionan, Deputy Minister for Eurointegration in the Ministry of Digital Transformation explained how the pioneering ‘Diia’ digital governance platform has already helped 18.5 million users. As an example, Ukrainians without documents can use the application to identify themselves, to report lost or damaged property, and to access rolling news. This work builds on years of Ukraine’s collaboration with the EU, but more remains to be done: “It is very important for us to have the EU’s support, and to initiate new technical assistance projects that will help Ukraine recover.” 

The Diia platform is an excellent example of how design and delivery of digitalised public services should stem from a citizen-centric mindset, according to Nick Thijs, Senior Policy Adviser with the joint OECD/EU SIGMA Initiative. He stressed the importance of backing up such products with a complete policy framework to ensure high-quality digital governance is woven into a more general right to good administration.

Users of all kinds must be kept in mind when improving the experience of digital government services, according to Harmick Azarian, Digital Government Transformation Lead with the Ministry of High Tech Industry of the Republic of Armenia. “We don’t just have citizens. We have people who have no documentation and ensuring their experience is also very important,” he explained, adding that improving digital government services must not be dismissed as ‘merely’ design, so users turn to such services as a matter of choice.

In Moldova, where there are currently more Ukrainian refugees per capita than in any other country, stronger ties with private investors have led to the successful creation of a digital service to help find shelter, food and medical assistance. “It was such a pleasure to work together with the private sector, co-developing digital tools to help refugees,” explained Iurie Țurcanu, Deputy Prime Minister for Digitalisation.

Digital infrastructure: how to align strategy with investment opportunities?

At least 80% of EaP citizens are to have full access to high-speed affordable internet in coming years. To achieve this, investment in digital infrastructure is key. Himmat Singh Sandhu, a Digital Development Specialistwith the World Bank observed that the global connectivity market is growing, and that major content providers (Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Facebook) use around 60%, rising to 80%, of the total international bandwidth. 

The Georgian government is prioritising high-speed broadband internet services in rural areas and securing private investment in telecommunications, the conference participants heard. The country has already made great progress towards harmonisation with the EU legislative and policy framework, and is very actively engaged in the EU4Digital Initiative. “We hope to see Georgia as a part of the EU’s digital single market,” emphasised Guram Guramishvili, Georgia’s Deputy Minister for Telecommunications and Information Technologies.  

In Ukraine, Valeriya Ionan, Deputy Minister for Eurointegration in the Ministry of Digital Transformation emphasised that the restauration of the country’s digital infrastructure is a priority, as in many areas this has been severely damaged or destroyed following the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. Optical networks, mobile towers, lengths of cables and digital equipment that are crucial for digital communications have been affected. 

Digital economy: how to bring digital transformation from start-ups to the entire economy?

The digital economy is defined as how we can use technological resources to generate wealth, according to Jesús Lozano, Member of the European Innovation Council and EU4Digital Senior Expert in Digital Economy. “When we talk about the digital economy, we very quickly go into the need to develop start-ups. But we also need to empower clustering of businesses, we need to do digital transformation of established business,” he commented, emphasising a broader focus needed than just developing start-ups.

Azerbaijan is geographically positioned between multiple regions “on the crossroads of international trade,” said Bakhtiyar Mammadov, the country’s Deputy Head of Administration of the Ministry of Digital Development and Transport. The country therefore sees the benefits of creating and strengthening cross-border digital links, looking into solutions for eTrade facilitation as well as digital transport corridors. Smart cities and villages were listed as further focus areas. 

Armenia has also been prioritising the interoperability of data for citizens and businesses, so that different public agencies avoid repeating the collection of information. In addition, the country has tested how to recognise EU and Armenian e-signatures to facilitate smoother digital economy processes. “We’re on that path and I don’t think there is any turning back now, so we will just take time to get there,” said Harmick Azarian.

With the support of EU4Digital, Moldova has been working on digitalising and simplifying customs services, to facilitate checks at the border crossing points. Iurie Turcanu stressed that the country is looking to become even more compatible with the EU – specifically with Romania, which is the primary commercial partner.

Digital skills: how to connect EaP progress with the EU as a benchmark?

Digital skills, technology and innovation are the three drivers behind the process of generating wealth using technological resources, Jesús Lozano said.

In Moldova “we started mostly with technology, and ended up with a lot of micro services interconnected – very powerful, very promising – but we didn’t invest that much in human capital,” reflected Iurie Țurcanu. As a result, he noted, digital transformation had to be reconsidered as a process to account for digital skills development.

While the EU has set very clear targets for its Member States, ‍Fabio Nascimbeni of the European Training Foundation noted that also in the Eastern partner countries the strategic documents recognise digital skills competences, capacities and capabilities as a priority. However, there is an uneven capacity to measure what it means to be digitally empowered, he said, adding that reaching the ambitious target of 1 million upskilled citizens in the EaP will require fully implementing a holistic region-wide monitoring system, similar to EU DESI, the Digital Economy and Society Index.

Cybersecurity: how to ensure resilience remains a backbone of digital transformation?

“With the war in Ukraine, we had to rethink completely our digital strategy,” added Iurie Țurcanu, noting that resilience of Moldovan administration had to be added as a new priority, along with the urgent need to strengthen the national cybersecurity system.

“When it comes to cybersecurity challenges in Eastern partner countries, it is very important to articulate the differences between the countries. At the same time, we are all aware that many of the threats are similar,” observed Tanel Tang, Team Leader of the European Commission’s Support Group for Ukraine. For example overall hybrid threats, particularly disinformation were cited as such common challenges.

Cybersecurity is one focus of the joint EU and Council of Europe CyberEast regional programme, which offers tools to increase resilience against cyber-attacks. It covers not only technical preparedness, but also alignment of legal and governance frameworks with EU legislation.

The EU has also mobilised €10 million to enhance the cyber resilience of Ukrainian institutions since Russian aggression began, with rapid response through the ‘EU Support to Strengthen Cyber Security in Ukraine’ project, covering software, hardware, critical infrastructure systems and evacuation. Furthermore, an additional €15 million has been allocated for resilient digital transformation.

“In cyberspace the borders are very vague, or sometimes they don’t exist at all,” said Tanel Tang, adding that experience with addressing cyber threats exists on both sides of the EaP-EU borders. This makes it important to continue bringing together different countries’ resilient digital transformation experts.

Further information

The Eastern Partnership Digital Conference on 24 October and the EU4Digital Phase II

Kick-off and Steering Committee meeting on 25 October 2022 are organised by the EU4Digital Facility.
 See the video of the 2022 Eastern Partnership Digital Conference and read about all the conference speakers.