The Kremlin Has Launched One-Stop Shops on the Internet to Improve Public Services Delivery to Russian Citizens and Curb Its Own Bloated Bureaucracy
Source: By Tai Adelaja
Russia’s long-awaited electronic government kicked off on Saturday, amid muted concerns that a weekday deployment could expose the networked system to floods of requests or trigger a database shutdown. Billed as a new anti-corruption frontline against Russia's unwieldy bureaucracy, the new system will also help Russia’s 65 million Internet users to enjoy basic public services without so much as leaving their comfort zones.
"Starting October 1, all federal government agencies will adopt a new work procedure: an electronic inter-agency cooperation in the provision of public services,” said Deputy Prime Minister Vyacheslav Volodin, who declared the system open for use on Friday. The electronic government portals will henceforth provide a single, convenient place to take care of all the steps of a complex administrative process involving multiple government offices, and will spare Russians the humiliating experience of running from office to office, Volodin said. A new law, also effective October 1, will prohibit federal officials from asking citizens to provide any kind of information that is already in the databases of other federal agencies, he said. “The introduction of the system will deal a severe blow to corruption and bureaucracy,” Volodin, who oversees the project, said.
The idea for Russia’s e-government program was first introduced in May 2009, with strong backing from Russian tech-savvy President Dmitry Medvedev. Back then, Medvedev said he wanted the more than 1,500 state services digitalized and put online by 2015. Russians, he said, have been subjected to indignities like facing long lines to make inquiries, or turning to several government bodies for simple information. While a recently launched Web site – www.gosuslugi.ru – has been providing crucial information about government services, the Russian president said the portal has done little by way of solving problems. “It is obvious that introducing electronic services will solve many of these problems,” Medvedev said.
Russia's electronic government is currently a network of 61 federal agencies. Five of these – the Federal Tax Service, the Federal Treasury, ROSREESTR (Russian land registry, cadastre and mapping agency), the Federal Migration Service and the Pension Fund – are regarded as providers of most-in-demand government services, and therefore would carry the greatest workload within the system. "They ensure the main flow of information exchange in the provision of services," Volodin said. "Of the 337 services that require information sharing between agencies, 304 services require certain information from these five departments."
Both the Economic Development Minister Elvira Nabiullina and Federal Tax Service Head Mikhail Mishustin talked up the system’s likely economic benefits on Friday. Nabiullina said the government could save up to one billion rubles annually on ROSREESTR services, such as issuance of land and real estate permits. The e-government is also expected to keep government spending down in the long-term, in part by cutting back the number of government officials and freeing up office buildings currently occupied by state bureaucrats, she said. All regional and municipal agencies are expected to hook up to the system starting on July 1 next year.
Communications and Press Minister Igor Shchyogolev said test runs have shown that the system can effortlessly withstand up to two million hits daily, adding, however, that it will have no problems handling up to two billion hits daily. Russians also should not worry about information security, Shchyogolev said, as specially secured channels have been built to guard against database leakages. "In order to retrieve sensitive information such as property rights, a user would need an electronic signature, which is very reliable and will protect citizens' personal data," Shchyogolev said.
Deputy Prime Minister Volodin was not so optimistic. “Don’t expect miracles from the system on October 1,” Volodin said. “Unexpected hitches, mistakes and even misunderstandings should never be ruled out.” In addition, the database fed into the system includes "dirty statistics" – that is, inaccurate or erroneous information that can create problems for users, he said. In order to evaluate the performance of the system, the government has decided to open a hot line for ten days and act on possible violations.
Russian state agencies currently receive 81 million applications annually, according to the Economic Development Ministry. However, in order to obtain a single official paper, Russians have to visit no fewer than seven other government agencies to collect supporting documents. Such labyrinthine system has had a multiplier effect on the total number of applications sent to federal agencies, pushing the number up to an estimated 560 million per year.
Criticism of the system has ranged from the possibility of cyber-attacks on a country that is heavily reliant on e-government to a low level of Internet usage, especially in the country’s 83 regions. While 60 percent of Muscovites use the Web, in the majority of other regions this figure is only 30 to 35 percent, analysts say.
The measure is also unlikely to garner enthusiastic support from Russia's teaming bureaucrats, who are facing criticism for scuttling the Kremlin’s ability to introduce key reforms, while keeping themselves busy providing difficult solutions to simple problems. The number of federal officials in Russia almost doubled in the past five years, from around 600,000 in 2005 to over 1.1 million in 2010, prompting president Medvedev to sign a decree in January to reduce the number by 20 percent by 2013. President Medvedev said the cutback “would save the federal budget up to 40 billion rubles ($1.24 billion) in unwanted expenses.”