‘Here in Russia, we have a trend: we build digitalisation from the top and then pull society along’

Why two years after the pandemic “state digitalisation” gave the population “heartburn” and what to do with it

The problem of Russian society’s rejection of a trend for “state digitalisation” was discussed in Kazan. The issue was brought up at Volga expert club’s next meeting. Does State’s Digitalisation Lead to Power Digitalisation was the topic of the session that gathered political experts, IT business people and other specialists. Moreover, citizens themselves went into politics on social media, as a result, functionaries have to oversee them because of negative comments and take action on time, members the club noted. Read in Realnoe Vremya’s report on how to bring the state and society together in the digital era and make the State Services convenient even for “grannies with push-button phones.”

Digitalisation causing heartburn”

At Volga expert club’s next meeting, political experts and business people summarised the results of the intensive development of state online platforms. Especially in the last two years when citizens have been very actively offered to use electronic services. Moreover, “grannies with push-button phones” aren’t gone, members of the club noted.

Sad statistics were provided, according to which the share of students’ parents who aren’t happy with “the switch to online education” exceeds 90%, while the share of students who aren’t content about remote education isn’t low either, more than 70%. Director of Digital Business Development at Interfax Group Oleg Poletayev commented on this data and claimed that digitalisation caused “heartburn in society,” in fact, two years after the pandemic.

As moderator of the discussion Vladimir Kutilov claimed, this process has a greater impact on politics. Firstly, the possibility of citizens’ self-management became one of the consequences, in messengers or communities that started to replace the state’s functions. Can the Russian state offer its own platform for this? Moreover, social platforms notably outstrip public ones.

Secondly, thanks to the development of social media, people have a chance of asking a governor or mayor a question, which led to a crisis of representative forms of democracy and, consequently, a crisis of regional politics.

Thirdly, state digitalisation in Russia didn’t avoid the “human factor,” old-regime functionaries haven’t disappeared. Though the state spends huge money to digitalise citizens’ petitions, there is a functionary who is online, the efficacy of digital communication depends on his communication skills.

Ultimately, the reverse effect is possible too: state digitalisation will in the end bring to power digitalisation.

How social media and messengers change politics

Political consultant Grigory Kazankov thinks that digitalisation is just a tool, it gives mechanisms to both those who want power centralisation and those who want to decentralise this power. Until recently, digitalisation in Russia created more possibilities for ordinary people who considered that the central power shouldn’t be all-encompassing, while a problem could be solved on their own locally. An environmental protest at Shiyes is a good example: no political forces in the country were interested in these protests, “they missed the whole story,” Kazankov claimed.

But Shiyes is another signal of the global trend. The identity of parties changes because digitalisation gives society mechanisms of “direct democracy” (not “representative” like in electoral democracy with political parties). A lot of parties around the world still have to catch up with the state in digitalisation, not to mention society and the economy. A lot of old European parties disappear or change their essence leaving just a brand, the expert believes.

“The essence of parties will either change or they will simply disappear, including our five parliamentary parties,” Kazankov forecasted.

Functionaries have to monitor social media

Oleg Poletayev in general thinks that the appearance of the concept of invisible state has been the main change in the last 3-4 years, its idea is simple: a person as a citizen should have as few contacts with state agencies as possible. The citizen should be provided services with no need to personally appear at the office, even a superservice or proactive service in case of a certain situation in life: a baby is born, the state automatically creates all the necessary documents.

The “invisible state” is the opposite of the concept of “invisible society” like the USSR because tanks to social media, today’s society including gin Russia became as visible as possible, though it is divided into thousands of big and small groups.

“If we have a look at Vk.com as a structure where the country is represented, we will see that cities with a population of up to 100,000 people have tens of communities with different topics where road accidents and other things are discussed. And the state has to monitor, respond on time and “meet the demand.” Due to the same Yandex, demand for quick response appeared in society. Today we already wait for an answer while just formulating the request. If a negative comment appears on social media, it doesn’t receive a timely sound reaction from an authorised agency, this causes irritation and frustration in people,” Poletayev explained.

The speaker cited the first rating of governors assessing the trust of social media audience that recently appeared where celebrity governors like Sergey Sobyanin and Andrey Vorobyov (heads of Moscow and Moscow Oblast) were not in the top 20. Its specifics is that it includes small regions of the country where demand for short distances between the authorities and society is very high: from Yamal to Murmansk Oblast.

“It is not centralisation, it is a reverse process that will intensify,” Poletayev is sure.

“We build digitalisation from the top and then pull society along”

The expert also warned about “digitalisation for the sake of digitalisation” considering that Russian society isn’t really ready for it, while digital literacy still leaves a lot to be desired. Therefore Multi-Functional Centres cannot be yet closed, and state services cannot switch to the bot model.

For Russia, the digitalisation issue is also an issue of trust, privacy of correspondence, privacy. Our country joined the top 5 sceptic countries in 2020, as one-fourth of Russians use, for instance, an anonymous proxy, they distrust the state. What is more, the people historically remember Stalinism and other authoritarian regimes, the expert game the audience to understand.

President of the Russian Association of Political Consultants Alexey Kurtov partly agreed with him and compared the low digitalisation rate of state services in the EU with a very high one in Russia, which in fact doesn’t mean a positive occurrence.

“At Sorbonne, the biggest popularity isn’t for programmers but interface specialists. Here in Russia, we have a trend, we build digitalisation from the top and then pull society along. As for decision-making, Russia is just amazing: we seem to up and fly to space with the whole country now. But in reality, people live differently. We are global leaders in state services and digital certificate issue. But there is another path, let’s say, in the USA where the federal government creates conditions, it doesn’t pull people along like here and stays far from the population,” the expert claimed.

“The granny should understand we try to make it more convenient for her”

The situation is similar in Europe that is in the “Stone Age” compared to the digitalisation of state services in Russia, people there don’t sometimes know what digital certificates or banking services are, however, “these people are happy.” Kurtov supposes that in the EU there is no gap between the state and the population, the state makes progress only after people are ready to change and switch to digitalisation, “slowly and calmly.”

In Germany, after the trajectory changes at the crossroads, despite the cameras, nobody is imposed a fine for a month while there is a police worker explaining the changes to every driver. While in Moscow, despite everything, thanks to the same cameras, fines are imposed right away, automatically.

Kurtov paid attention to the fact that the interfaces of state websites are different, and it is difficult even for advanced users to understand them, let alone “grannies with push-button phones.” The State Services website has one interface, the mayor’s is different, the Federal Tax Service has another one. While the ecosystem must be one.

“The granny should understand we try to make the websites more convenient for her, not the government.”

Director General of Bars Group Timur Akhmerov also warned of “heads spinning from success” and noted that nowadays a pompously announced digital state service is just an electronic way of sending data to a functionary, while then the process of solving a problem will turn out as long and bureaucratic as before the digitalisation. He put an example of the health care system where “the digital referral” of the patient has been prioritised recently, during the pandemic. But Russia still doesn’t have a patient-oriented system, it is episode-oriented, he believes.

“Once I went to the hospital, received a service and went home. And doctors don’t know what happened to me later, and they aren’t interested. The same happens to the control and supervisory activity. If all these approval processes are digitalised, this won’t improve our lives,” Timur Akhmerov quipped.

The USSR lacked 5-7 years to become “second China”

Tattelecom’s head Ayrat Nurutdinov perhaps turned out to be the only expert who believed that digitalisation anyway plays into the hands of hierarchical systems (China, the USSR) making them more effective. According to him, what the influence of information technologies led to is that the number of hierarchical systems proportionally increased than democratic. In the early and mid-20th century, authoritarian and centralised administration systems became ineffective when the cost of administrative impulses transmitted from the top in reply to a request from the bottom was big, while the time given to implement the decision lasted for long.

Nurutdinov is convinced that the USSR lacked 5-7 years to become a “second China” because a revolution of information and communication systems took place during those years. The speed of information delivery in the end became the shortest precisely in hierarchical countries. Becoming a very advanced country in network technologies and investing a huge amount of money in developing communication systems, China turned out to be economically more successful, the head of Tattelecom thinks. At the same time, Ayrat Nurutdinov expressed scepticism, he doubted that digitalisation would certainly lead to some positive big changes in society, including in Russia:

“Ray Bradbury was asked later in life that he had said humans would travel in space, go to Mars, why this didn’t happen. Bradbury replied that humans had such an opportunity but they changed it for a pint of beer. Ordinary citizens’ attention is now mostly paid to receiving simply information and enjoying simple content.”
Sergey Afanasyev

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