Bellagio Conversations/

Luukas Ilves, Gulsanna Mamediieva, and David Eaves, with Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine Mykhailo Fedorov

Gulsanna (Sana) Mamediieva is the Director General of the European Integration Directorate in the Ukrainian Ministry of Digital Transformation. Luukas Ilves is the Undersecretary for Digital Transformation at the Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications. David Eaves is an Associate Professor in Digital Government at the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose. In June 2022, Gulsanna, Luukas and others met at the Bellagio Center for a convening, hosted by David, titled “Laying the Foundation for a Joint Statement on Digital Era Government.” During this meeting, Gulsanna and Luukas discussed Diia, the Ukrainian government’s app that provides Ukrainian citizens with access to more than 50 government services. This led to Estonia adopting this technology, with Ukraine’s help, to meet its long-standing goal of using digital technologies to govern more effectively.

Editorial note: Through Gulsanna, The Rockefeller Foundation had the opportunity to correspond with the Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine, Mykhailo Fedorov, who shared a statement. The full transcript is available at the bottom of the page.

“I believe that we should start to think of a collective digital future in terms of working together on a joint cyber agenda. Ukraine is quite a young country and this lets us develop and implement the newest creative solutions. The war that Ukraine is fighting requires making quick decisions, which is possible with breakthrough technology and the most innovative solutions. Artificial intelligence has helped us during this war, proving once more that a digital state is the most resilient one. Not least because it ensures the operation of public services and the economy. It’s the 21st century, so now’s the time for AI, UAVs, neural networks, Starlinks, and the swift exchange of valuable information. We are convinced that the future is digital, and it belongs to governments that operate like IT companies – quick, efficient, and agile. Digital governance simplifies the communication between a person and the state, makes services convenient and clear, and destroys any possibility of corruption. Digital democracy will let us include more citizens in the process. We have to build digitally resilient countries. Together we can do it even better.”

– Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov

Luukas: Governments, in general, are not very good at doing digital. They haven’t caught up with a lot of the changes in how the private sector does things. In comparison, we Estonians have got a bit of a reputation for being good at digital governance. The reality is that we’re good when compared to other governments, but that doesn’t make us perfect. To be successful, you need to have an international focus, and we’ve leaned into this paradigm. Governments need to build more products and services together; they need to share their code and their data. We’ve always been looking for ways to drive that. This was the underlying idea in our discussions at Bellagio.

David: The magic of convenings is they create a safe place where people can be candid. The Bellagio convening was really about pulling governments together to figure out what the next 10 years look like.

David: If we think that there’s a new change in the global order that’s about to happen, we’ll need to gather diplomats, economists, and some technologists to think about what we want that new order to look like in terms of what our institutions will become.

Sana: Ukraine wants to share what it’s building in the digital sphere with other states. We aim to integrate Ukraine into the newly developing European digital single market. We’re taking the lessons we’ve learned and sharing them with our European colleagues and NATO centers.

Luukas: At the convening, we devised a digital solution during a coffee break! It was the fourth day and we’d been talking about how governments should share code with each other. We were sitting under the awning outside, and I said to Sana, “you have Diia, this amazing government app, and we’re working on one in Estonia. Why don’t we just copy your code? Like, why should we build this ourselves?” A good chunk of what Ukraine has done in digitization has some Estonian DNA in it. So, the systems are related to each other and the architecture already has similarities. Anyway, we followed up and, by the end of summer, we had a very concrete plan. Now, we’ve got the software, it’s been security tested and we’re about to start testing it with users – we have a couple of thousand people signed up to test it.

  • By summer, 12 months from when we first had the idea during a coffee break at Bellagio, we’ll have launched an important next step for Estonia’s digital government.
    Luukas Ilves
    Undersecretary for Digital Transformation at the Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications

Sana: Yes, the Diia platform is now being shared out from Ukraine to others. The first case was with Estonia. Over the years, Estonia has shared many technical citizen projects with Ukraine and it was incredible that we were learning all this time. And I would add that Estonia has made a really brave, confident decision, not only to share but to show that they were ready to learn and explore what’s possible to do together. This is my favorite aspect of this experience, the mutual progress all the time. And this case has shown us that we built something that is possible to export. Of course, it’s not straightforward because different countries have different levels of digitalization – it’s not like copying and pasting! It needs to be adapted. There’s much work to be done to export the application and the ecosystem in general, but it’s definitely possible to do. And there is interest from many countries. We also gained support from USAID [the United States Agency for International Development]; we built about 80% of our projects with technical support. So, they’re also ready to invest in exploring how it’s possible to scale these solutions and share them with other countries.

David: To both your points, the digital aspect connects governments in new ways, offering opportunities for harmonization, and trade, and for original ways to deliver policies. That’s going to be a live subject.

Sana: What’s interesting is that public and private partnerships run into the same kinds of problems. Firstly, it’s human nature to underestimate ourselves, our capabilities, and what we can do in partnerships. We overestimate obstacles and stop trying. This may vary from country to country, especially where heavy bureaucracy is involved. For example, the U.S. is a country with great technology and innovation. Still, they might have similar problems to us when it comes to the digitalization of governance, such as resistance to change, or general organizational problems, because digital transformation is not just technical.

David: We had a few goals during that convening. There are some amazing things happening in emerging markets that mature markets are naive about. Mature markets have no idea of the scale and impact of what’s going on. So, one goal was to bring people from places where things are happening – like in Ukraine, Bangladesh, and India – together with people from mature markets. The second goal was to make sure that that conversation was happening from a peer-to-peer perspective. This signified that learning was happening both ways. Thirdly, we wanted to think of a model for how digital governments are going to operate so there is more sharing of technological practices and data. This would mean increasing government capacity to help us think about what the governance of that system would look like in the future. How are we going to ensure democratic values and liberty in a world where government capacity is going to change significantly? The convening was about gathering the people who are at the forefront of thinking about that capacity to discuss how we should be governing ourselves.

Luukas: I think what David said about speaking to our weaknesses is super important. One of the big issues that we discussed throughout the convening is the challenge that governments have in adopting technological practices that were developed elsewhere. What emerged – and was reinforced over the course of our conversations – was everyone’s commitment to reconsider how we do things with other governments. I would call that moving from cooperation to collaboration. Moreover, some people tend to speak more to their strengths, especially when on an international stage – and that includes Estonia. So, speaking in this way opened the door for many interesting conversations.

David: Digital governance is necessary because the positive repercussions already outweigh those of the old bureaucratic ways. For starters, there are raised expectations on the part of citizens around how they’re receiving services in other sectors. People can push a button and get something delivered to their door the next day. So, why does it take three months for them to get a passport? There’s an expectation gap, and that’s going to be increasingly difficult to reconcile. We need a different model for reaching that capacity. Technology offers an alternative model that might offer new and better public value and, perhaps, be cheaper to operate.

Sana: I absolutely agree with that, David. As we go through the war, we’re seeing how digital technology is helping Ukraine to be more resilient. It’s allowing us to be creative by engaging the whole nation in this resistance. For example, everyone in Ukraine can use a chatbot to report to military forces and we take polls to get a quick understanding of public opinion on different matters. Moreover, Ukrainians who’ve lost their jobs, or those who need support for their businesses, can apply for any number of cash assistance programs. We did the same with businesses in occupied territories or in places that have host facilities. And it’s easy to register and submit information about damaged properties and keep records of the damage in general. These are all examples of the impact of direct democracy.

  • We are empowering people to influence decisions that will affect them. Despite the crisis we’re facing, we are able to operate quickly and serve their needs. People are not standing in line, waiting. In terms of democracy and equality, digitalization brings opportunities for citizens to use the instruments more quickly. It’s made us more resilient.
    Gulsanna (Sana) Mamediieva
    Director General of the European Integration Directorate in the Ukrainian Ministry of Digital Transformation

Luukas: ​Behind what Sana is describing is not just technology, it’s also the fact that Ukraine is a vibrant, functioning, participatory democracy. The Ukrainian story is proof that not only can democracies do just as well as autocracies, but they can do much better. Getting the technology right and being able to deliver it is a really important part of that. Let’s generalize a bit: there’s been this discussion for the last couple of years about whether democracies or autocracies are actually better at being up to the challenge of providing services at work, delivering economic growth, stability, good governance, etc. One of the symptomatic challenges in democracies is that they haven’t been very good at marginal technology. The challenge that Estonia and a lot of other developed countries have is we’ve been good at that at some point in the past. So how do we get back to that? When an institution is still scrappy and poor, it has to innovate in the ways it builds itself and delivers services. As it gets wealthier, the risk it falls into is it accumulates all of the institutional habits that come along with that success.

  • The Bellagio convening provided time to reflect on how things can slow down when an institution gets comfortable. That complacency is dangerous for all democracies in this very unclear 21st century.
    Luukas Ilves
    Undersecretary for Digital Transformation at the Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications

David: Ukraine offers a window into a collective future about how we might face the coming crises. Ukraine happens to be facing an existential crisis created by an illegal war committed by its neighbor, but all countries are facing climate change crises, financial crises, and possible future pandemics. So, a country’s responsive capacity – Sana talked about her government’s resilience – to those things is going to be core to determining trust in government. If we want democracies to survive, they have to perform well. We need digital-era governments to respond to 21st-century problems. That means having the flexibility and the capacity to be able to do that. That’s what the Estonians have and it’s what the Ukrainians are showing us: how digital fits into that capacity building. For me, a big takeaway from the convening was how much climate change is going to drive this need. If there are going to be 10 million internationally displaced people in 50 countries around the world over the next 20 years, we’re going to need some capacity to serve those people when they lose their houses and are roaming around your country. The only way a country is going to be able to do that is if it has a digital solution.

Luukas: We hope these stories are inspiring for people interested in digital public infrastructures. Many countries in the world tend to be very pessimistic about the public sector’s capacity to do these things. That becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The most important thing is, whatever your position, be demanding of your government. Because there’s no inherent law that says the government has to be bad at technology. The more positive pressure there is from the people to do better, the greater the country’s chances of success.

Sana: I’d encourage people to find energy and inspiration in democracy. Citizens should have higher expectations from the government for the services that they receive. Especially in terms of convenience and user experience. But for those people who work specifically in this sphere, it requires a lot of energy, persistence, and flexibility to overcome obstacles. What I took from the convening was that everyone, on every level, has to deal with some form of resistance. It’s the nature of what we’re doing in reforms and transformation, that the system in place will resist our efforts. That’s why it’s good to have peers from other countries. As you share information, you understand that you are not alone in this. Never underestimate the impact of persistence.

*Read the transcript of Vice Prime Minister Fedorov’s full statement.

This has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How should we shape our collective digital future? The Bellagio convening, attended by Sana and others, created space to discuss real-world implications for digital government as influenced by these ideas. 

I believe that we should start to think of a collective digital future in terms of working together on a joint cyber agenda. Ukraine now has a unique experience of surviving a cyber war – reeling from thousands of cyberattacks – while keeping the state running. Since February 24th, 2022, everything has been working well: the tax system, banking, government agencies, and critical infrastructure. There was not a single day that something stopped. We have to build digitally resilient countries. Together we can do it even better.

Vice Prime Minister Fedorov, in your conversation with the Atlantic Council in December 2022, you described Ukraine as a young country, central to Europe, with the energy to implement quick changes. Could you elaborate on the ways Ukraine is uniquely positioned as a country to fight for democracy?

Ukraine has been fighting for its freedom for almost a year in a full-scale war with a cruel Russian aggressor. It’s the biggest war since World War II and the most technological at the same time. We have a significant technological advantage. The key weapons of modern warfare are not 1960s tanks or artillery as Russia thinks, but data and technology. While Russia is losing hundreds of thousands of people on the battlefield, Ukraine is looking for revolutionary ideas to fight back efficiently and in life-saving mode.

Ukraine is quite a young country and this lets us develop and implement the newest creative solutions. The war requires taking quick decisions with the help of breakthrough, innovative technology. And this is exactly what we are doing now. For three years now, the Ministry for Digital Transformation has been changing the entire state and implementing business approaches in government. That’s why we are so efficient. I can say that our Ministry works as a startup: fast, efficient, and ambitious.

It’s the 21st century, and it’s the time of AI, UAVs, neural networks, Starlinks, and swift information exchange. Artificial intelligence helps us to identify Russian soldiers. Chatbots make it possible to inform the armed forces in real time about the movement of enemy troops and hardware. Starlinks instantly restore communication in liberated territories. UAVs became the eyes of the military, providing complete information awareness on the battlefield, an understanding of where the enemy is, its numbers, combat capability, etc.

After all, our team has a big vision for turning Ukraine into a top-tech country. Strong security and military solutions could become our main export and expertise.

Why is digitization the solution?

This war proved that the digital state is the most resilient one. The digital state ensures the operation of public services and the economy. Ukraine has been quite a digitized country since before the war. Since 2019, with the establishment of the Ministry of Digital Transformation, we’ve managed to build a strong digital infrastructure. We were preparing to become a Digital Tiger, but it turned out we’ve built a digital war machine, which can operate even under conditions of a full-scale invasion. Reforming and securing the state registries system, improving cybersecurity and digital skills for citizens, ensuring easy access to high-speed internet, and launching Diia (our one-stop shop for public services): all of these things made it possible for us to stand through the first months of the war. And for the digital to become an essential part of Ukraine’s resistance.

When I say that Ukraine is a digitized country, I mean that we are a country with convenient online services, digital documents, a high level of cyber security. A country with a mobile-first approach. A country where services are designed for online access first and offline as an option. Now, by using the Diia app, every citizen can: open a business in a few minutes; register a newborn; report on the movement of Russian tanks & troops; apply for social benefits of unemployment assistance; sign documents; even watch TV news or listen to the radio. In 2022, during the full-scale invasion, we launched 39 new services and products for citizens.

The Ukrainian experience shows that in order to stay resilient in the 21st century and to deal with the most unexpected circumstances, it’s important for all countries to go digital, and invest in digital infrastructure and cybersecurity. A strong and diversified internet connection is a must. As well as strong databases and state registers. The digital economy is the most resilient one, as it can’t be easily destroyed by cruise missiles.

How do the benefits of digital democracy, of digital governance, outweigh the positive repercussions of the old order?

We are convinced that the future is digital, and it belongs to governments that operate like IT companies. Which are quick, efficient, and agile. Digital democracy will let us include more citizens in the process. Meanwhile, digital governance simplifies the communication between a person and the state, making the services convenient and clear, destroying any possibility of corruption.

Explore More

You can read more about the work explored during this Bellagio convening in David Eaves’s “The Narrow Corridor and the Future of Digital Government,” shared in advance of the convening, and “Shaping our Collective Digital Future Convening: Why Digital Government Matters Now,” a post-event reflection. Learn how Diia is helping Ukraine during the war.