Digital Revolution, a process transforming the citizen–state relationship

Prime Minister Edi Rama’s conference on economy, focusing on digital revolution: 

 

Prime Minister Edi Rama: Welcome to this weekly forum, the last during this term in office. To conclude this round of conferences on economy, we have chosen one of the most important aspects of the transformation the country has gone through over the past years, namely the digital revolution, which is gradually totally transforming the citizen-state relationship, and is laying the foundations of a secure anti-corruption system in delivering public services. The digital revolution is also bringing closer the perspective of Albania’s transition to a whole new level regarding the state’s internal functioning and the functioning of the most important reason of the state’s existence, the transparent, direct and effective relation with the citizens.

Let me recall you all that we wouldn’t have successfully coped with the two consecutive blows that hit the country, namely the devastating earthquake and the pandemic, should the digital revolution had not advanced to the today’s stage when these two major events hit Albania. Just imagine for a moment what would have happened if we were to be unable to deliver services to the people in need when they were obliged to abide by the stay at home order amid the total lockdown we were forced to impose last year.

Just imagine if these two serious events, tremendous disasters were to find us at the time when this state offered only one percent of its services online and only 50 000 people used these services. Today, as many as 1207 public services are delivered via the online system from only 14 services that were provided when we took office in 2013.

A total of 1.87 million people use now these services compared to only 50.000 in 2013.

As many as 7.7 million applications for online services are registered in 2021 compared to only 51.000 in 2013.

If only six electronic registers with a total of 680.000 transactions were carried out in 2013, today there are 55 databases exchanging real-time information with over 145 million transactions.

On the other hand, we have made some calculations and without the digital revolution Albanians would have consumed 472 years in queue waiting times. In other words, the queue waiting time has been reduced by 472 years.

As many as 1.2 individuals and businesses have been delivered public services during the lockdown time only, saving around 293 years in queue waiting times.

The online public service deliveries have saved citizens already four million euros they would have been spending in paying the minimum tariffs for various documents while waiting for hours on long queues, without taking into account the bribes they would have been paying in exchange of a public service. Digital revolution fully eradicates corruption and bribes in the public delivery system.

Around 95% of the public services are provided via the online system in Albania today. In other words, citizens are no longer forced to report in person at the state institutions, they don’t need to take even a single step from the place where they are, and instead they can just use their smart phones or the nearest computer to apply for the public services delivered by the state institutions.

We have already embarked on a very complex process in terms of the need to ensure transparency and efficiency, the COVID-19 vaccination process and while we make efforts and prepare to secure considerable shipments of vaccine doses, which would require a mass immunisation process, thanks to the digital revolution we now own a system that fully ensures transparency and effectiveness and we have created the digital vaccination passport, which may soon become a precondition for everyone wanting to travel abroad.

Please bear in mind the fact that the digital revolution is not a reality we are bragging about, but it is a fact for which Albania has been highly praised in the reports by leading international organizations, including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that considers Albania the only country in the region to complete e-government lists and statistics related to e-government; the US Department of State and the European Commission that commend Albania’s progress regarding the digital revolution agenda, underlining that this revolution consistently strengthens the fight against corruption; Last year,the United Nations ranked Albania 31st from 92nd place in the 2012 Report, putting the country on par with the highest-income countries in terms of performance in delivering online public services; RESPA even awarded Albania a prize for the e-government services, implementation of the practices, initiatives and online services, as well as the effective measures to cope with the coronavirus crisis.

I mentioned all these to highlight a known fact.

Through the transformation of digital services, the e-Albania platform has become a success story and today is a very effective tool in the hands of all the citizens who use it.

Since January 1 this year, we have launched implementation of the fiscalization law. This is a process that would help a lot in the efforts to reduce informal economy, reduce fiscal evasion, and boost income and equality of the entities before the law and in relation to the competition. We will build a system that would practically ensure real-time reading of all transactions that take place every second in all 28.000 square kilometres of Albania from a business to another, from a business to a consumer and, of course, from a business to the state. This way we will ultimately eliminate the horrible practices of physical inspections and the inspection actions will be based on computer intelligence, not on the will, desire or arbitrariness of a group of tax inspectors.

You know very well that the effort to force businesses to issue coupons has sometimes been an extremely impossible battle for a thousand and one reasons, while switching to this system will maximally and absolutely facilitate the documentation of all transactions throughout the chain of business sales.

Health system is being transformed in this aspect today, as there are a series of processes that until most recently were carried out with people staying on long queues, while today everything is done via online system, from registration with the family doctor to the recommendation for primary medical check-up and scheduling appointments and prescriptions that are all offered electronically.

I am sure you still remember the horror people had to go through just to obtain a copy of birth, family or marriage certificate at the civil registry offices. Such documents, bearing the due electronic stamp, are now issued at any moment and it can be printed by everyone without having to report at the civil registry office.

The students’ performance-level certificates, bearing electronic stamp, are now issued instantly via online system.

Though a lot remains to be done, some 38 various public services are delivered online to the Albanian citizens currently living and working abroad, who were previously forced to report in person at the consulates to obtain an official document, sparing them of significant costs, stress and time waste.

Foreign nationals who wish to visit or work in Albania today can obtain the visa online. Whole process takes place online.

I wouldn’t go over many other processes as it would take a lot of time. The State Police, the Ministry of Defence, the State Ministry for Reconstruction, the State Cadastre Agency, Open Data, deliver all online services.

I avail myself of this occasion to publicly appreciate the Director of the National Agency for Information Society for her leadership and incredible dedication and commitment along with her excellent team.  I would also like to note that it will still take much time for all the digital services under the digital revolution process and creation of a wholly digital state in all services. We are still in a process that should go on. Actually it will take some more years during our third term in office to complete entire cycle and take Albania to a whole new level regarding this vital relations by fully eliminating that part of corruption in the citizen-state relationship and putting an end for good to a long-time terrible perception of the public about the public administration, the unethical, non-efficient, corrupt public administration and turning whole administration into a behind the screen machinery that delivers public services and serves the citizens only, enabling them access to the public services via a smart phone or a personal computer. This is actually the reality in several countries and this will become the concrete tangible reality of Albania in the future, not after 30 years, but within next four years.

–Mr. Prime Minister, do you feel a sense of personal responsibility as Brussels presented an ultimatum regarding the candidate lists, saying the candidates should be individuals with moral integrity, and called for prosecution of the electoral crime? Did Commissioner Varhelyi voice concerns at your meeting in Brussels a day ago that the agreement on Durres Port with company Emaar violates the Stabilization and Association Agreement?

My second question is for the Head of the National Agency of the Information Society. You said that long queues have been now eliminated. We have earlier seen TV images of old people staying on queues to receive their pension payment. Is e-Albania a platform that ensures maximum security and personal data protection?

PM Edi Rama: Facts are not opinions and the concept of the alternative facts about the same facts is a concept that has been recently introduced into the human society as a result of the fake news and the propaganda via the fake news. I heard no ultimatums in Brussels. On the contrary, I heard absolutely positive assessments about Albania, just like every Albanian who don’t live in the parallel world of the alternative facts, heard. The reference you made is wrong regarding its object, as it is a widely-commented, discussed for a long time now. I haven’t heard any ultimatum and, on the other hand, I am extremely happy that time has shown, very quickly in fact, that I was right about the Electoral Reform and that the Electoral Reform has received maximum praise as it was based on the Venice Commission opinion, which actually was completely the opposite to the parallel world of the alternative facts.

If there was something that creaked in Brussels, just like an old door creaks open on the background when a concert is being played in a hall, was the intervention of your colleague, a completely inappropriate and useless intervention, if not a despicably contemptible intervention that brings disgrace to the journalists, to everyone of you and everyone of us, based on the alternative facts of the parallel world and in a shameful contrast to your colleague from North Macedonia, who spoke for her own country. She didn’t through mud on her own country with the speculations produced in the factories of the parallel facts of the alternate world.

As profoundly untrue as the absence of an ultimatum is what I just heard about the port of Durres. No words have been said, no discussions have taken place about this topic. Zero. It is really regrettable that this is invented here in Tirana, while that investment is shared to the benefit of everyone, the economy and your personal income. It is to the benefit of every one of you here, the personal income of everyone, as it is an investment with a significant impact on the Albanian economy and the country’s revenues.

I have heard so often the same old tune about foreign investments in Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia and for many years we have paid the cost of a scandalous inherited image, a scandalous inherited tradition and whenever we prepare to finalize huge investments with same perspective and impact the investments have had in Montenegro and the Montenegrin citizens, who receive the highest salaries in the region just because of such investments, slanders and speculations are made impertinently about something that is directly related to your personal and family interest and it is in the best interest of those who influence the public opinion, as the economic growth would impact the household economy of all of those who keep commenting. It is really weird. Let alone the total lack of the patriotic responsibility, as it could unfortunately be an abstract issue to many.

As to the question about the long queues of the retired people, it is a fact that the pension payments are not provided via the online systems. It is certainly the case that queues could be created as the pension payments are not delivered via the online systems. We have yet to develop systems so that pension payments are delivered via the online or the phone apps. We could succeed in doing that someday, but we have yet to deliver on that. Therefore, just like pensions are cannot be paid online, just like nurses cannot administer the vaccines online, just like other functions and services can be delivered and materialized physically or in person only, there is still a war to be fought and eliminate all the abuses in this respect. A significant part of issues have been tackled via the online systems and a significant share of these issues remain to be addressed and nobody will be offered the chance to ask for a bribe in exchange of a public service that is translated into a certain official document. Meanwhile, certain services translated into an action, like the placebo or serum injection are definitely related to another system rather than online systems.

-The issue of COVID-19 vaccines was also highlighted at the yesterday’s press conference in Brussels. Is there a date when Albania plans to kick off the mass immunisation programme?

PM Edi Rama: I don’t know whether you are really serious, or this is just for the sake of asking a question, since we are and I am talking about this issue on daily basis and I don’t really know what do you mean by “is there a date when the mass vaccination will begin,” as it would require securing sufficient vaccine doses that would allow us to launch the mass immunization campaign. As long as such a quantity of doses has yet to be delivered to Albania, asking whether there is a date for such campaign is like asking me to tell the fortune.

I am truly confident we will soon be able to breathe relieved and commence an intense vaccination campaign aimed at relaxing the situation significantly by the summer season in terms of the infection cases, but as far as a date for the mass immunisation campaign, I am sorry but there is something wrong with your question.

-Allow me to return to the issue of the moral integrity of the MP candidates. Will the party you head carefully screen the candidates so that they are not subject to direct legal problems, or will you be careful that a son-in-law other family members and relatives of a former MP, who has been removed from parliament under criminalization law, are not allowed to run in the upcoming elections, or so that the wife of someone with a troubled past is not included on the candidate lists?

PM Edi Rama: I believe my memory works just fine when I tell you that communist regime in Albania has died in 1990. Likewise, the witch-hunt as the state’s and society’s philosophy has also ended in 1990 and I find this sort of questions quite inappropriate, irrelevant and pointless. Really, what is very regrettable is that while I have seen and see many women and ladies with all the attributes to be highly respected in the Assembly of Albania, men who are quite okay when it comes to this issue. This theme has become an unbearable same old tune as it is designed to criminalize a whole group of people, and I don’t mean the Socialist Party MPs only, but all MPs from other political parties, including the Democratic Party.

Of course, we have been facing a problem with certain individuals and such problems have been already addressed. A law is into force to directly address this phenomenon and this is of course totally clear. It is in our interest to provide Albanians the opportunity to choose their best possible candidates, who wish to directly involve in politics and political activism. What are these questions? This has become a banal and vulgar story. I understand that our friends and partners call for it as part of an ongoing process, but the process is guaranteed. And I believe we shouldn’t fall prey to this mud-throwing campaign and the quagmire we sunk each other every day, as the persons who really draft and adopt the legislation in the Assembly of Albania have been extremely neglected. They are indeed honourable and respected people who really work.

Who did the justice reform? The criminals?! Who did all the reforms and who voted them in the Parliament? The criminals?! What does this mean? This is really an exaggeration. I am speechless.

-Which are the concrete results of your official visit to Brussels in terms of investments in economy and digitalization as part of the European Commission’s investment plan? Which are the main priority projects of the Albanian government on the digitalization?

PM Edi Rama: The investment package for the Western Balkans is really one of the most important acts adopted by the European Commission throughout history of this process and it is one of the most significant, if not the most significant, commitments for our region. However, the investment package is also a huge challenge for us as Europe makes its funds available, but it doesn’t allocates them if not well-designed, well-argued and absolutely guaranteed projects are presented. We are in the process. The investment plan is about the regional connectivity and it is closely connected with the regional Schengen vision.

The plan is related to the states’ capability to cooperate with one another and harmonize their requests. It is an incredibly huge operation to which we will place utmost attention and dedicate a major part of our third term in office. It is still too early to name concrete aspects, because the investment plan clearly focuses on three main areas, namely the infrastructure, highways, railways, ports and energy, the renewable energy in particular, hydropower plants, solar power and the wind power, and the digitalization. We are most interested in the third area, the digitalization, because, as you already heard the AKSH Director saying, we have not only a vision, but also a plan to deliver on this vision step by step and this financial opportunity comes at a right moment and we will make best use of it.

-Yesterday you said that 20 persons are under investigation for electoral crime allegations. However, no Socialist MP, former cabinet member of former mayor is among the names of individuals involved in the so-called 184 file. How credible are you, when you stand against the vote-buying phenomenon and, taking notice that you earlier said that the facts are not an opinion, then 184 is a fact. If they are true, then why did you withdraw the lawsuit you filed against the Bild journalist?

PM Edi Rama: I am really interested, really curious to understand whether you really think or simply recite the questions that the media owners provide you in a written form. I am very curious about it, though I know I will never properly find out, even though I have an opinion of my own on that. But it is really unbelievable that you play the role of the prosecutor and the supreme judge. You provide names and claim that they haven’t been investigated. How come that you know whether they have been investigated or not? How do you know that the names you mention are really involved in criminal actions? How could the media possibly play the role of the prosecution and the court? It is really weird. It is the Prosecution the one that conducts the investigation, the state’s prosecution and not the prosecution of the media, and it is the prosecution the one to decide who to indict and raise charges or not. It is not you to do so. I have always told you to conduct polls and not to comment the others’ polls. You should conduct your own polls and take a look at their findings, showing that it is completely impossible to overturn the results of the electoral process by buying. It is impossible. Even the money factory of the Socialist Movement for Integration is unable to overturn the national results, even though it has been a fully operational factory in certain cases. It is impossible.

As for my credibility, of course I can’t be credible for infected information sources. There is no way I can be trustworthy and credible. Fortunately, it is the Albanian people to decide how much credible or unreliable I and every one of us are. The Albanian people will hand out us all the test of credibility on April 25l. No problem. I do not expect to be trustworthy for some owners of the media you work for. There is no way for me to become credible for them and I make no efforts to be credible for them, because if I become credible for them,  I would then become unreliable for myself and for most Albanians.

-How would you comment the yesterday’s statement by the President of the Republic Ilir Meta, who said that if the Socialist Party wins 71 seats in Parliament in the upcoming elections, he would resign from the post of the President and will take over the opposition’s leadership? Do you think that the April 25 elections will be accepted, or the process will be marred by complaints?

PM Edi Rama: In some way, Ilir Meta should be praised for fully explaining and clarifying on the referendum’s equation, which is an incomplete equation with only one part of it, suggesting that the popular referendum on April 25 would undo the justice system reform. Now that Ilir Meta invites Albanians to take part in a referendum to choose between justice and Ilir Meta, the question is very simple. Will they choose the justice reform or Ilir Meta? There could be no clearer and more direct choice for Albanians on April 25 and therefore Ilir Meta should be praised for this. As for his plans to take over the opposition’s leadership, I believe this is quite clear to those who wish to see beyond the obvious, and it would suffice for them to look at the agreement signed yesterday and realize what the plan is. The plan is quite obvious. Why the agreement was signed yesterday? What for? How two political parties that will be running separate candidates’ lists in the elections can possible sign a pre-election deal? Have you seen this taking place anywhere around the world? There are parties that run separate candidates’ lists and could leave room for a coalition option. But is it normal for them to sign a notarial agreement? Why? What for? It is quite simple. This is all part of the plan to chain Lulzim with Monika’s chain to the benefit of Sali and Ilir and to seize then power and undo the justice reform or “decapitate” Lulzim. Could it be easier than that? And it is also quite clear why do they want to see Lulzim chained ahead of the parliamentary elections. It is pretty clear. However, Ilir Meta is not the problem. The problem is Lulzim Basha who is unable, is weak, lacks the character of a leader who should not hide even when he is told what he would go through in the future and when his big ally says he would grab the Americans by their ear. It is clear. However, we can’t ask him to react as he is not a leader, but merely the manager of a joint stock company with two partners, namely Ilir Meta and Sali Berisha, whereas Monika plays the role of the notary and the bailiff. So, I think I explained it clearly.

– Mr. Prime Minister, you repeatedly mentioned the justice reform, but how credible this reform could be when attempts are being made for a second time to change the laws that represent the core of what has been seen as the most important reform of the Albanian state. So, the ruling majority has filed with the Assembly several amendments to eight laws precisely concerning this reform. Why precisely now? Is it because you might think that not such a willing opposition will take the seats in Parliament after the April 25 elections so that it approves the majority-proposed bills? And the second question, you mentioned the vaccination digital passport, yet you failed to set a date when the mass immunisation campaign will begin or is this because it fits best to your agenda and the vaccines’ arrival? A day ago, the Ministry of Health announced that arrival of the next vaccine shipment was to be postponed for another day, yet the vaccines arrived upon your arrival at the Rinas airport. What happened?

PM Edi Rama: It happens what always happens with me and the English-speaking people. It simply happened and fortunately I am very happy I am not the only one as there two other people who accompany me and do the same thing, namely the Minister of State for Reconstruction, and the Minister of Health. It is quite simple. It is true I am the tallest beggar when it comes to meeting the needs of the people of this country, yet I am not the kind of beggar who would turn the other cheek when experiencing the slap of incorrectness and indifference from those who commit to doing something. It is a simple as that and not only it happened, but as a result of it we also secured the pledge for 30.000 more Pfizer vaccine doses to be delivered in April.

As for the first question, you shouldn’t make the mistake that Ilir Meta and those who have chained Lulzim make, because the justice reform and not every law or every article of the laws in the entire justice reform package is not just and only the will of the ruling majority, but it is the full will of the justice reform guarantors, namely our American and European friends and partners. There is not a single article of the reform that could be passed without being first discussed and jointly approved in advance and by the word jointly I mean that if one of the two parties – I mean the American and European partners –  say no, then that article is absolutely not adopted. There is full consensus among us so there is no reason for you to worry about. Don’t worry about that. The justice reform is as credible as the level of Ilir Vela’s insanity. If the justice reform was to be not credible, then Ilir Meta would have been calm and a kind person. Look at Ilir Meta to gauge credibility of the justice system reform. Take a look at Ilir Meta and you will realize that the justice reform has started to yield several significant signs, which are not a lot and not sufficient, but are clearly sufficient to make Ilir Meta and Sali Berisha feel tense. This is very clear and the justice reform package is absolutely harmonized with the partners and of course with another opposition that will return to parliament, and it will certainly be quite difficult if Lulzim won’t break the chain.

– Mr. Rama, you said that the vaccination passport is being prepared in accordance with the international standards, but has the government a plan about the way how individuals who have contracted COVID-19 will be voting in the April 25 polls? And, second question, in addition to the revolution you claim that your government has conducted in terms of the online public service delivery, how the registration process of the benefiting owners is working as many complaints have been filed by various entities?

PM Edi Rama: The latter is absolutely true and this is precisely the reason why we should keep going on working, because the Cadastre Agency provides instant online replies when it comes to all digitalized and registered properties. There are a number of properties still under the registration and digitalization process and application is filed via online system, and a manual verification process is carried out by the administration. Therefore, this is true and this will be addressed by making the system fully operational. In the meantime, as far as the first question is concerned, we will certainly do what other countries have done, meaning that individuals who have tested positive for the virus and haven’t recovered to test then negative for the virus should absolutely stay at home. We have seen this and it is really disturbing and this is what all other countries have done, because a series of elections have taken place and elections will be held in other countries during this pandemic time and this is the way how these countries have acted. Of course, it is people who should primarily assume responsibility for this, but it is encouraging that no disturbing post-election data have been reported in other countries in terms of the effects and impact on the people’s health. This is positive. In other words, no surge in new infection cases has been reported after the elections in other countries. Of course, we will try and everyone should try to respect the physical distance while waiting on queue to cast their ballots.

– Have you set a target on the percentage of the population that would be vaccinated by beginning of the summer tourist season?

PM Edi Rama: I can repeatedly and endlessly reiterate my answer, my ambition or madness to launch a mass vaccination campaign so that we can relief as much as possible the tourist season and promote Albania as a low-risk country in terms of the infections as a result of an intense campaign, which would break many links along the chain of infection transmission. Why do I say the ambition, the madness? I am saying so because we are actually betting big since we have to secure sufficient vaccine doses first and this is actually not the easiest thing to do so. It is actually the most difficult thing to do today. Yesterday we had a very long behind-closed door meeting with all of those who welcomed us at all levels to explore the vaccine supply issues and I would have been very happy if it was possible to for you to listen the talks we had and see up close really the tense situation prevailing in Europe and all countries that have been involved in the common channel of vaccine provision. However, I won’t give up my ambition and I would do everything so that we secure considerable vaccine quantities as soon as possible. I can’t provide more details and information as it would be useless to speak if not vaccine quantities are available as things and the situation changes every hour. You saw it for yourselves. It was yesterday morning when we were informed that they couldn’t deliver the next shipment of vaccine doses, yet they delivered it in the evening. This is because things change every hour and the manufacturing companies are under stress. Now, just imagine only this. There are five manufacturing companies with the eyes of whole world directed on them. Their number is actually very small. Consider the example of Germany, which is a super star state and superpower, yet it still complains about the insufficient number of vaccines according to its plan. The vaccination plans in all European countries have been reviewed and changed, since they haven’t secured sufficient vaccine doses. We don’t need tens of millions of vaccine doses; we only need a considerable number of doses so that we can break the infection chain. We have a very clear plan. As soon as we will secure significantly more vaccine quantities than the shipments we have been delivered to date, which anyway provide us the opportunity to go on with the vaccination campaign, because vaccination of doctors and nurses will complete within March and this is an important accomplishment, and COVAX has also affirmed that the initial 14.0000 AstraZeneca vaccines will be delivered within March and the vaccine rollout for teachers will begin immediately. There are other things on the very threshold, but we have yet to move to the point when this threshold is crossed and therefore we can’t provide more information.  This is all about the vaccine doses and not about dates or the percentage of the vaccinated people. As soon as the vaccines are delivered we will start the mass immunisation campaign. We have prepared an operation, which will include all vaccinators within the health system, health centres, student nurses, military doctors and nurses. The operation is underway and the training of all these nurses goes on, but all we need are more vaccine doses. This is actually the first thought to come to my mind as soon as I wake up and the last thing I think about before going to sleep. I assure you about this. This is a race against time; it is a race again so many forces and a dynamic that strangely enough changes from day to day.