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Digitalization and War: How Civil Service Can Avoid “Digital” Collapse

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nataliya Alyushina 
February 13, 2023

Surprisingly, digitalization made an easy “entrance” into Ukraine’s reality. A few years ago it was difficult to imagine retired grandmothers mastering E-pension, remote services and Telegram news. Today, everyone in Ukraine understands that smartphones act as access points to new opportunities and a new quality of life. One of its dimensions in particular includes the digitalization of the public administration sector.

The benefits of a digitized PA sector are obvious. They include transparency, zero tolerance to corruption, and 24/7 accessibility. Digital interaction between the state and society saves time by enhancing the speed and sustainability of service delivery, reducing the burden on public authorities and strengthening control.

At the same time, the digitalization of public services creates risk in our conditions, both technologically and militarily. One of those risks, for example, stems from the differences between digital and human decision-making logics. Digital logic is aimed at rationalization and uses quantitative judgments. The logic of a civil servant is determined by experience and understanding of human needs. It allows results to be achieved, even in financially suboptimal conditions. For instance, “digital” will never agree on the opening of a school or hospital in a territory where there are not enough consumers of the service. A human, on the other hand, assesses a wide range of factors and makes a non-linear decision.

The digitalization of public services is changing the management and decision-making systems that affect the quality of the services provided. People are accustomed to interacting with qualified professionals. Digitalization also involves them turning to the digital interface. In the first case, there is flexibility and variability among a wide range of solutions. In the second case, algorithms decide everything.

Instructions dominate in the nature of software. Its logic simplifies processes, not assuming the variability of solutions. It adjusts services to the limitations of technology, while losing the social essence. Therefore, it is important that digital logic takes into account the human factor. “Hardware” is a logistics tool, while a service generator is a public servant. Their work is more complicated than the rules of the algorithm. 

The military dimension of risk in the context of building a digital state is more significant. The weak point of digitalization is dependence on technical conditions. It manifests itself in the conditions of infrastructure destruction and blackout. This threatens to cut off citizens from digital services and to lose the threads that bind the state and people.

The war makes us rethink the tactics and development strategy. We return some traditional instruments that were previously absorbed by digitalization—like courier mail and paper workflow—back to government authorities. We consider them to be reserve instruments for strengthening the public administration system.

It hurts to admit that the war is throwing us back. While we were once building a digital European civil service, we are now returning to the “paper” routine. However this can be justified since this way we will manage to avoid critical risks.

At the same time, I must note that these developments have sufficient strengths alongside their risks and that we remain committed to digitalization. Even in blackout conditions, we can use working digital tools. This can be seen via an example of the work of in the civil service. For example, on October 10, the day of mass attacks by Russian terrorists and power outages, the human resource management information system (HRMIS) managed to register 128 user authorizations.

Even still, during those most difficult three days, when the machines were powerless, the stability of public administration was ensured by the people. They are our main capital and will allow us to return to a full E-state after the victory.

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