The ‘E’ is Missing from North Macedonia’s ‘E-Services’

North Macedonia’s public services have gone digital. Only they haven’t.
Digitalisation has become a buzz word in North Macedonia, where for two decades politicians have rolled out digital reforms, opened so-called ‘One-Stop Shops’ and promoted ‘E-services’.

Yet public registries remain unconnected, procedures are complicated – bordering on absurd – and the E-services that do exist often only make matters worse.

Why?

Because in parallel to the digitalisation aimed at simplifying the state administration, North Macedonia has been undergoing at least two other incompatible processes.

One is decentralisation, which, rather than bringing services closer to the end users, has in fact served only to enhance the power of local political chiefs.

The other is political hiring by which public institutions have become staffed by unqualified recruits based on political affiliation. Such institutions find themselves having to compete with one another, or even duplicate responsibilities, simply to justify their headcounts. The more staff they have, the less productive they become.

This has created a quiet aversion to digitalisation among public sector employees, who thrive on having more, not less, paperwork, on having complicated, not simplified, procedures. That way, they all get to wield a stamp.

One wedding, two funerals and a baby
Let’s start with few first-hand examples. As anecdotal as they may seem, when observed together they provide a telling insight into how things work in reality.

The first came in early 2023, when I was trying to schedule a wedding date.

To submit an online request on the website of the Registry Office, you need an E-account. This proved impossible, and the support line wasn’t picking up, so my fiancée and I decided to go in person.

At the Registry Office in central Skopje, a banner hung above a dozen or so counters declaring the location a ‘One-Stop Shop’. It was there that the absurdities began.

First, we were told to apply for valid birth certificates, by the very institution that holds all birth records. A week later, we received an SMS saying the certificates had been issued, but when we rushed back to the Registry Office we were told the message was “sent by mistake”. Please wait another four days. Nothing came, so we returned, again, and after a half-hour search the clerk found the papers we needed.

Birth certificates in hand, we moved to the adjacent counter and handed them over. Same institution, different clerk. “I know, but that’s the procedure,” came the reply.

Marriage done, next came a baby. In February, I headed to the municipal office of the municipality where we live, one of 10 that make up the greater Skopje area, to register our newborn son.

There, a clerk informed me that the documents would first go to the Interior Ministry. They came back in four days, when I was sent to the Registry Office, again, to get a birth certificate. I arrived at 1 pm on a Friday, two hours before the counter closed. Three private security guards blocked my entry, saying the machine that issued queue tickets was out of service.

It was me and 20 other people, including a woman with a newborn child, in a cold antechamber. Every so often, someone else would enter and, with a nod to the guards, skip the queue and enter the empty hall where only a few counters were working.

They have “other” business, the guards told us. Nonsense, I said loudly, and eventually demanded to see someone in charge. “We could have let you all wait outside and then you’d have really frozen,” a female guard replied.

Finally, someone senior appeared and whispered to me that he could help register me for a slot on Monday, when I could complete my business “like a boss”.

It was too late. The crowd was growing restless and before long the barrier broke and we were allowed inside. Only it turned out I didn’t have a photocopy of my ID. I ran to the nearest photocopier, returned, and finally got my son’s birth certificate. The victory felt bitter-sweet.

Three months later, my mother died of lung cancer. Through a year of treatment, at no time could a doctor’s appointment be booked online. It was first come, first serve, forcing people from all over the country to travel in the early hours of the morning to the capital and wait in narrow corridors, sometimes without anywhere to sit, just to see a doctor.

The only ‘E’ part about it was the computer on the doctor’s desk, on which he would slowly type out the diagnosis and print it off on an old dot matrix printer so I could pass it to the front desk and receive the full medical history folder for wherever we were directed next.

After the funeral came the death certificate. Another problem. My mother’s documents had her down as married when in fact she was divorced. I had to go to court to obtain the divorce papers, which took roughly a week.

Why all the paperwork? I asked the clerk in the municipal office. Isn’t it easier just to properly digitalise?

Digitalisation is a scam, he replied. A waste of time designed to attract EU funds. “Everything will go to ruin someday,” he said. “Only paper will remain.”

At least when my father died suddenly a month after my mother, I had the divorce papers to hand.

Half-baked services
Reality check:

North Macedonia still doesn’t have a single database that public bodies can tap in order to effectively offer digital services. So no one can tell for sure how many services are actually available electronically and how many still require a person to by physically present.

The National Portal for Electronic Services – “uslugi.gov.mk” – does allow people to pay some fees, administrative taxes, check the status of certain procedures… To do this, a person must first create an electronic account.

At the moment, this portal contains just shy of 900 different types of service offered by almost 1,300 public institutions. The problem, however, is that most of these services are not fully electronic. For these services, an individual can only get information about what documents they require before going in person to the institution in question. For other services, the only ‘E’ thing is the appointment.

Perhaps this is why that out of 1.8 million people in North Macedonia, fewer than 90,000 are registered users of the E-Services portal. The rest are still queuing at counters.

The problem lies not in the digital realm, but in the human resistance to change.

Booking a doctor’s appointment online only means something if there are sufficient numbers of doctors. In my mother’s case, just two lung cancer specialists service the entire country.

Nor will it matter if public institutions are properly digitally connected if central and local institutions are not incentivised to simplify their procedures, cut red tape, and cede some of the responsibilities they hoard, regardless of whether this incurs job losses or, God forbid, forces employees to raise their game.

With over 120,000 employees, the public sector is the biggest single employer in the country. No wonder successive governments have shied away from trimming it back, lest they lose votes.

Those of us on the other side are condemned to stand in line, or seek strings to pull. In a system that is upside down, it’s the people who serve the institutions, not vice versa.

No amount of servers, computers, terminals, IT experts or ‘One-Stop Shop’ signs can fix the human factor.

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