Over 17,000 residents in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine will have access to some 170 administrative and social services thanks to the rehabilitated centre. Photo: Artem Getman / UNDP Ukraine
One-stop shop staff in Kazakhstan trains volunteers to work with citizens and assist them with receiving public services in digital format during the lockdown. Photo: Mahmut Daniyar / UNDP Kazakhstan

“in the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.” Albert Einstein

Coronavirus pandemic has affected each and every one of us. It has completely changed our daily routines, social interaction norms, working habits and even our sense of time and space.

No surprise that the pandemic is also transforming the ways in which governments work and deliver services to their citizens. Whether it’s public procurement of medical supplies, access to vital government-held information, delivery of essential public services, or prevention of gender-based violence, all state functions have been equally challenged.

Coronavirus pandemic may have started as a public healthcare crisis­, but it has also become a governance crisis. With over 33 million people having already tested positive for Covid-19, it is estimated that the pandemic will cause the first ever increase in global poverty since 1998 as millions of people are losing their jobs.

The pandemic has weakened the governments’ core functions in two ways:

1. Proper functioning of the state machinery and the delivery of public services: It has become more difficult to communicate between various departments due to “stay-at-home” orders and low level of preparedness for remote/digital connectivity; new human resources policies for working remotely; disbursement of salaries to the public servants vis-a-vis the decrease in overall economic growth and prioritization of social protection measures; and most importantly, limited space and capacity for the delivery of public services during lockdowns and curfew regimes.

Although the pandemic has accelerated the digitalization process - 2 years worth of digital transformation took place in just 2 months – it has also made clear just how much governments need to invest in e-governance going forward.

At UNDP, we have been assisting governments to strengthen their public services delivery capacity. For example, in Georgia, we supported the development of an AI-powered civil servant - C Bot - Rustavi Chatbot for Municipal Services, which provides 24/7 online access to the information related to municipal services.  In Montenegro,  we worked with the Ministry of Interior to develop the mobile app “Be Safe“, which enables victims of violence to reach help with just one click. A message with the phone number and geolocation is received by the National SOS Helpline to provide immediate support to victims of domestic violence. And in Ukraine, UNDP delivered 4 mobile administrative service centers to target communities, which enables easier access to public services by the people living in the most rural areas and/or people with disabilities.

Accountability and openness are more important than ever, with many state operations going remote or digital.  In North Macedonia, we assisted 13 municipalities to work closer with the citizens by installing livestreaming equipment, which enables citizens to follow and participate in regular council sessions through Facebook and YouTube without public health risks associated with in-person participation. And in Serbia, UNDP helped the government to launch open data sets regarding the daily statistics related to COVID-19.

Click on the picture for the full infographic on good practices across the region.

 

2. Increased vulnerability to corruption: Similar to human-made crises such as wars and natural disasters, Coronavirus has created a “perfect storm” for corruption as lockdowns and the absence of business contingency plans weakened states’ financial monitoring and investigation role. Areas most vulnerable to Covid-19-related corruption are emergency public procurement of healthcare products (face-masks, gloves, PPEs and other medical equipment); distribution on economic stimulus packages to private sector companies; granting driving and other types of permits during curfews and lockdowns; accessing vital public services; and most importantly, receiving adequate medical services in the hospitals.

Reporting and investigating corruption cases have become of paramount importance during this time. In Kosovo*, we developed an online platform to track any discrepancies between declared income and expenditures made by Kosovo’s citizens and generate red flags for amounts above 30,000 EUR for movable property and 60,000 EUR for immovable property. This tool was only introduced two months ago, and it has already identified hundreds of cases of immense discrepancies in declared wealth and ownership of high value assets. In Moldova, we supported the Ombudsperson’s Office in setting up an online system for the protection of whistleblowers. And in Uzbekistan, we are supporting the government to conduct corruption risk assessment in the health sector to mitigate integrity risks during and post-pandemic.

Click on the picture for the full infographic on good practices across the region.

 

The Europe and Central Asia region traditionally has a high e-governance development record. But even in this region, operations have not gone unaffected, and many communities face the risk of struggling with long-term impacts of increased corruption. That’s why we have been supporting governments since the outset of the pandemic to strengthen their core functions in order to respond to the negative consequences of the crisis.

What are the lessons that we learned so far? Firstly, the current pandemic is clearly also a governance crisis, which undermines core functions of public administration systems and their ability to deliver vital public services. Secondly, the coronavirus crisis has increased corruption levels due to emergency public procurements and weakening of state’s financial control and investigation mechanisms; Thirdly, the pandemic has demonstrated (once again) that digitalization of public services, as well as, broader governance system, is the only way forward and governments need to invest more in this. Finally, governments alone can’t win the battle over the crisis. We must support and empower civil society so they can perform their watchdog functions over governments’ actions.

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Editor’s Note: For more detailed information about UNDP’s support to national governments in Europe and Central Asia, click to see the full infographic here.

If you found this article useful, you can also watch our webinar on the topics discussed above, which features speakers from the World Bank, Open Government Partnership, as well as representatives of the Governments of Georgia, Montenegro and Ukraine. The recording of the webinar can be accessed from here.

 

*References to Kosovo shall be understood to be in the context of Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999).

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