AuthorUrs, Nicolae
  1. Introduction

    Online services are increasingly seen not so much as a novelty, full of excitement and potential, but as just another utensil in the public institutions' toolboxes, helping them reach more citizens and companies (clients, in NPM parlance) and serving them better. Better quality services can be offered through e-government, and so, the administrative burden can be reduced and public institutions' back-offices can reap efficiency benefits (Katsonis, 2015).

    Romania does not deviate from this trend, at least if we look at the official declarations. The efforts to implement e-government measures and services throughout Romanian public institutions date back to at least 2001, when the first relevant legislation was adopted: Law no. 544/2001, on Free Access to Information of Public Interest, which also stipulates the kind of information that is provided by default, including on the institution's webpage, and that the requested information can be delivered through electronic means whenever possible. Afterwards, a number of IT and eGov strategies were published (in 2003, 2008, 2014) (European Commission, 2015). Romania, as a member of the European Union, is also within the scope of the Europe 2020 strategy and, especially relevant to our discussion, for the Digital Agenda flagship initiative, which aims to 'unleash the digital potential and diffuse the digital culture widely across the EU' (European Union, 2016). The Romanian government agreed to a set of goals (for example, at least 35% of people use e-government systems; at least 60% of citizens use the Internet regularly; at least 30% of citizens make purchases online; etc.) which, presumably, would help public institutions focus on these objectives and advance the development of a digital society.

    In order for e-government initiatives to stand a chance of success, a number of pre-conditions must be met. Chief among them are internet access for a majority of citizens and a minimum level of computer literacy (Meyerhoff Nielsen, 2017). In order to gauge the digital skills of Romanian citizens, a number of indicators were analyzed (the uptake of online banking, looking for a job or participating in an online course, the percentage of Romanians interacting with local or central government online, the percentage of citizens with digital skills above basic). While the connectivity numbers are promising (76.4% of Romanian households have internet connection; the average for EU countries is 86.9%; Romanians have access to the second most affordable broadband connections in the EU; over 65% of fixed connections are rated to 100Mbs or more, the highest rating among European Union's countries), the numbers for digital skills are not very encouraging. Below, a few relevant figures (the EU average is in brackets):

    Table 1: Uptake of online services and digital skills (% of internet users, 2017) Online Looking for Online Interacting Digital banking a job online course with skills government above basic online 10.7 (61.4) 13.1 (20.1) 4.96 (8.79) 12.6 (57.4) 37.6 (75.9) Source: Author's own calculations based on Eurostat data (2017) Especially worrisome is the low uptake of online banking (offered by almost all Romanian banks) because the same principles and types of online interactions can usually be found in governmental online services.

  2. Context: national and local digitalization

    The push to digitize public institutions can come both from central and local level, depending on a number of factors (size, centralization, management style, etc.). Some research studies advance the idea that local governments are ill-prepared to implement e-government services for a number of reasons. Streib and Willoughby (2005) argue that for innovation in digitalization to happen, especially at the local level, there are a number of requirements: a stable environment (introducing, maintaining, and developing online services is a long-term process, requires stability and predictability); financial resources to spare (on top of investing in all the necessary hardware, software, and training, attracting IT professionals in public institutions is not an easy task); knowledgeable leadership (it is not essential for the managers to be IT specialists, but they must understand the basic costs and benefits of various alternatives); good IT people, preferably from inside the institution (they will be tasked with implementing all the procedural changes, along with all the technological tools necessary for a digitalization strategy to work); good internal communication (without an important majority of the employees understanding the strategy and on board, the implementation will most likely fail). We need to add here a clear vision of the whole process and a credible strategy to achieve it; without this 'map' of the road ahead, the journey could be much harder. Countries all over the world are grappling with this tension between national strategies and local implementation. Norris and Reddick found, in a study from 2012, that local governments in United States had not benefited as much as predicted from digitalization, and that changes were incremental and slow.

    If we take a look at Romanian city halls (we chose city halls because, in Romania, the majority of governmental services are provided by these institutions), we can tell from our previous research (Urs, 2018) that their internal IT departments, which are tasked by default with digitizing public institutions, are overwhelmed. The lack of necessary resources extends not only to people and money, but to authority inside the organization, without which it is extremely hard to determine the changes in procedures and mindset necessary for sophisticated online services to work (Edmiston, 2003).

    If we look at countries that top the UN E-government Index (United Kingdom, South Korea, Australia, Denmark, Finland, Singapore) or to newcomers moving fast in this field (Estonia is the obvious example here), there are a number of prerequisites that help in achieving sophisticated online services that citizens and companies increasingly expect from public institutions. These include a national systems of unique identifiers for both individuals and companies (such as eIDs), digital signatures (with all the accompanying infrastructure), standards for interoperability, national registries, an authority within the central government with the resources (money, people, power) to determine change in public institutions, and inter-ministerial working groups of some kind to help with the implementation of digitalization programs. Close collaboration with private companies (especially banks and mobile operators) and high level of citizen trust in government help too (Meyerhoff Nielsen, 2016, 2017; Kitsing, 2010). These pre-requisites are usually developed or implemented by the central government, with various degrees of centralization, depending on...

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