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18 March, 2020  ▪  Спілкувався: Yuriy Lapayev

Marek Zagórski: «Digitalisation solutions should not be implemented to make people’s lives harder – they need to provide tangible benefits»

During the XIII Europe – Ukraine Forum, The Ukrainian Week met with Marek Zagórski, Minister of Digital Affairs (Poland), and discussed Warsaw’s approaches to the implementation of modern electronic services, the economic benefits and risks of digitalisation

Can you describe Polish government’s approach to digitalisation?

– We are doing our best to be active, respond to the current trends and take advantage of the opportunities offered by the development of modern technologies. We live in an age of step change in technology taking place right in front of our eyes; therefore, we are doing our best to take advantage of that fact and treating it as an investment in the future. 

Today, there is virtually no area that is not permeated by ICT solutions. This is an enormous opportunity for the economy and for businesses. At least two of the projects we are carrying out as a government are quite highly regarded internationally and even arouse a kind of jealousy. These projects include the plan to eliminate the so-called blank spots on the map – places with no broadband internet access. Due to its scale, the project can be considered unique across the whole of Europe, and it will provide more than two million Polish households with access to a high-speed broadband internet. This project mainly focuses on small towns, even villages and tiny hamlets. These days, such areas often do not have access to the Internet at all, because investing in them is not profitable to operators. With state support, it will finally be possible to ensure access to broadband internet in these areas.

Why am I bringing this up? Because access to the Internet is the foundation of modern economy. We can talk a lot about different activities aimed at digitalisation and carry out numerous projects, but in the end, it only makes sense if there is right infrastructure in place. What does it matter that we can have excellent services if citizens and businesses do not have access to the internet and won’t be able to take advantage of them? Access to high-speed broadband internet is as natural today as access to running water or electricity. You can have the best investment areas, but if there is no adequate telecommunications infrastructure, no self-respecting investor will decide to take you up on your offer. Hence, infrastructure is the first foundation.

What is the second one?

– The second foundation, which serves as the basis for our measures and activities aimed at digitalising the country, encompasses broadly understood skills and competencies. This ranges from issues such as training for the elderly and digitally excluded people, to programming classes for children, as well as measures aimed at supporting the development of more advanced digital skills and competencies. To date, we have launched Young Programmer Clubs in 16 medium-sized cities, one in each voivodeship, where children and their guardians can take advantage of free programming workshops. The interest in these activities is enormous. This shows us how much interest modern technologies arouse in society. We are trying to take note of this fact and meet the demand. We treat activities such as Young Programmer Clubs or the development of the National Educational Network as an investment in the young generation. Of course, it is not about turning everybody into computer scientists; however, we know that logical thinking and problem-solving skills will soon be needed by everyone, just like the ability to use the solutions provided by digitalisation. In other words, the competencies and skills acquired by children during their programming classes and activities will surely be useful in the long term, and if they make some of them decide to continue their education in this direction – that would be great! We know that we will need more and more IT specialists.

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Recently, Poland has introduced a number of modern solutions.

– Poland is a large European country and as such, we are ambitious to become creators and trendsetters, rather than just consumers of modern technologies. If I were to summarise our approach to digitalisation in a nutshell, I guess that would be the shortest way. Over the last four years, we have witnessed the increased dynamics of these processes. We are doing our best to become a European leader. Sure, we might be a few paces behind the most advanced countries, but we are quickly catching up. In addition to this, there are some sectors where we definitely do not have anything to worry about, such as e-banking. Even the smallest shops in Poland accept contactless payments, even payments by phone. Business helps us a lot in this regard.

Which services should be digitalised, and which should stick to paper? 

– These days, almost everything is being digitalised, and it is a process that goes on regardless of what the administration does. Why? Because it is driven by business, which responds to people’s needs. Please remember that due to their nature, administrative institutions will always be one step behind enterprise. Why this is the case? Because the administration is always a little more cautious and reserved than businesses, which can afford more risks. However, we need to keep in mind that these risks very often result in concrete benefits such as savings or optimisation of various processes. In other words, the barrier is not so much technical – it is based more on our mentality and awareness, but you can believe me that the administration looks at business and quickly implements solutions that turned out to be successful. 

Are there any processes that should stick to paper? I am one of those people who think it would not be appropriated to digitalise the act of voting itself, not only because many countries are moving away from this concept, but also for many other reasons. Please note, however, that by this I mean the very act of voting. This is not about processing, transferring or analysing data, because that’s something that’s already happening. 

What are the benefits of digitalisation?

– That’s the most important aspect. Considering digitalisation processes in administration, one needs keep its benefits in mind. In many cases, these are tangible financial benefits. In recent years, Poland has managed to significantly reduce the so-called VAT gap, with vastly improved collection of this tax. Expert analyses by economists show that the VAT gap decreased from 13.7% in 2017 to 9.5% in 2018. In actual figures, this amounts to more than 24.5 billion PLN, or about 5.8 billion EUR, which allows us, for example, to finance the 500+ programme. It is no secret that such a significant reduction of the VAT gap was possible thanks to the digitalisation of tax returns processes, among other things. By analysing the data, audits carried out by tax authorities can simply be much more effective, which means that it is easier for them to actually catch people who commit tax fraud. The same goes for many other things. You need to keep in mind that data and its analysis is a great opportunity for the economy. It can be its fuel, but only if you are able to use it properly.

What should be possible using a smartphone and why?

– A smartphone is becoming a basic tool we use on a daily basis, something that is particularly evident in young people, who can hardly imagine life without one. 94% of Polish teenagers use smartphones. Nearly every teenager in Poland is online every day. Surveys and studies clearly show that this is what the world looks like these days and this is how people function on the Internet. A smartphone, which is simply indispensable for young people, replaces radio, television, telephones and desktop computers. This increasingly applies not only to youth, but also to older people. These days, our smartphone is no longer used simply for calling, taking pictures or browsing the web. It has become our everyday source of information, learning, entertainment... We are using them to browse websites, shop, pay for things. There is no reason why all these functions should not include various activities related to administration. Hence our mobile first approach to the creation of digital services, which is in line with the current trends, and which is particularly important, given that we all have our smartphones with us all the time. This led us to the idea – unique in Europe – of developing the mObywatel [mCitizen] application for Poles – a digital wallet of sorts for all kinds of documents – identity card, school and student IDs, car registration and driving licence, as well as electronic prescriptions. Thanks to this solution, Poles can already confirm their identity with a smartphone in virtually all everyday situations. They can have their car registration data with them on their phones, and they don’t have to have their paper document with them, thanks to efficient state registers. Thanks to the application, Poles can also use ePrescriptions. The application is already used by a million people and we plan to develop it further and gradually add more documents to its list of features. The increasing popularity of smartphones is an irreversible phenomenon.

What risks or threats are apparent, concerning the development of the e-state?

– There are a number of risks. People need to be aware of the fact that the internet is not only about convenience, saving time and a whole bunch of benefits and conveniences, but that it also brings certain dangers. Although, to be honest, the virtual world is hardly different from the real world in this respect. The most significant risks and threats seem to be related to cybersecurity – something that we did not see several years ago, or at least not with such intensity. Here, I am talking about manipulation or deliberate disinformation in order to influence our behaviour. There are also attempts at destabilising state systems. You don’t have to be a futurologist to imagine the consequences of a successful attack on such systems, and we also take this into account. Various things that happened in many countries have shown how dangerous this may get. We also need to remember that Poland is currently starting the development of its 5G networks, which will open up a whole range of new opportunities and will certainly give the economy a strong boost for further growth. However, we are also well-aware of the fact that if we forgo security right now, at the very outset of this project, this may open up a whole can of security worms. That is also why we are so concerned about cybersecurity right now; however, proper education and raising citizens’ digital literacy is also extremely important in this regard. We all need to be aware of the dangers, risks and threats brought about by the internet. We must also know how to protect ourselves. 

What do Poles think about digitalisation?

– Poles show that they are more and more willing to take advantage of the opportunities offered by digitalisation, and the last few years were a true breakthrough in this respect. A few years ago, Poles were far more reluctant to use such services; however, it looks like we finally managed to break this vicious circle. Our data indicate that 40% of citizens use e-services. Of course, we would like to see even more people taking advantage of such opportunities, but as of now, we are seeing a 5% growth year on year. A few days ago, we surpassed 5 million Trusted Profile users. A Trusted Profile is a free tool that allows Poles to confirm their identity and authenticate online – it serves as a kind of a key to various state systems, and at the same time a free electronic signature, which allows its users to handle various official matters online. Again, we would like to see more users – there are about 28 million adult Poles. However, we need to keep in mind that four years ago, only 400,000 people set up a Trusted Profile, and last year alone Poles set up more than 2 million of them. All Poles are already using e-Medical Certificates and e-Prescriptions, and implementing these services went much faster than in many other countries. Modelled after the British GOV.UK website, our GOV.PL – a gateway to websites of the most important offices and authorities, as well as all electronic services – has 18 million hits every month, and the most popular Polish service, which enables users to check vehicle history online, was used as many as 120 million times last year. We are also in the middle of last year’s tax returns process. For many years, most Poles have been doing it online, but every year brings more records. Out of 20 million Polish taxpayers, as many as 16 million of them filed their tax returns online last year. This is probably the best way to show what ordinary Poles think about digitalisation. Their lives are revolving around the Internet more and more.

What advice do you have for the Ukrainian government to make digitalisation processes more effective and avoid mistakes?

– Avoid mistakes? Only people who don’t do anything never make mistakes. What is important, however, is to use these mistakes to draw the right conclusions, instead of making the same mistakes over and over. It is also worthwhile to look at proven solutions from other countries and develop them in various creative ways. Keep in mind that digitalisation in Poland saw a period riddled with serious errors, failures and unsuccessful projects. Thankfully, that’s already behind us. How did we manage to change this situation, so that these days we can proudly claim that when it comes to digitalisation, we are not far from other European countries, and in many aspects, we even surpass them? I think the key to this success lies in listening to people and responding to their needs. Digitalisation solutions should not be implemented to make people’s lives harder – they need to provide tangible benefits. And that’s the key thing to remember!

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Marek Zagórski was born on 6 August 1967 in Kamień Pomorski. He graduated from the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Szczecin (Master of Education, 1993) and postgraduate studies in banking and finance at the Warsaw University of Life Sciences (2001). He managed the editorial office of the Szczecin cable television TV Gryfnet (1993-95) and was President of the board of the Pomeranian Radio Station (1995-98). In 1999 he worked as Deputy Director in the Agency for Restructuring and Modernisation of Agriculture. Between 1999 and 2001 he was Head of the Political Cabinet in the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. In the years 2005-2006 and 2009-2015 he was President of the board of the European Fund for Polish Rural Development. Between 2006 and 2007, he was Secretary of State in the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, between 2015 and 2016 he was Secretary of State in the Ministry of Treasury, and from 2016, he was Secretary of State in the Ministry of Digital Affairs. 

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