Digital technology and the data revolution offer countries significant potential to increase public service efficiency and delivery, and to boost transparency and citizen trust. This has become all the more critical as countries continue to reel from the year-long impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and strive to achieve a resilient recovery. The crisis has also highlighted the economic and social costs associated with delaying digitalization and GovTech – the application of technology to improving government.
Governments worldwide have an enormous opportunity to harness digital tools, data and GovTech to optimize management, service delivery, and overall state capacity, which can lead to universally accessible and citizen-centric public services.
Better government also means better development outcomes, which is especially relevant for the emerging and developing economies of Europe and Central Asia, many of which are still transitioning to market-based economies.
In Europe and Central Asia, the public sector employs 86 million people overall, or 25 percent of total employment. This is considerably higher than the global average of 16 percent, although there is much variance across the region: in Belarus, for example, the public sector employs almost 40 percent of the labor force, while in Romania it’s just 13 percent.
The public sector offers workers a relatively high standard of living and therefore often attracts some of the best educated workers in the region. In lower income countries, especially, government workers are considerably more educated than the average person. In the countries of the South Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Western Balkans, for example, the share of individuals with tertiary education employed in the public sector is more than double that among the average population.
The role of government in the economies of Europe and Central Asia is not only large by comparison to other regions, but will likely also increase in the coming years. As much as one-third of the population in the region’s high-income countries, and about 45 percent of citizens in the transition countries, support expansion of the public sector. This is partly because aging populations require increased public services such as health care, disability services, and long-term care.
Globalization and technological change have led to reduced incomes and job security for many workers, especially the most vulnerable. The resulting rise in inequality has led to increased demand for income redistribution. Over the past year, the COVID-19 crisis has reinforced people’s desire for the state to play a more important role in public health systems, education, and social protection.
Because governments play such an important role in the lives of people across the region, good governance is critical to ensuring effective public service delivery. Over the past two decades, some parts of the region have made little headway in improving governance, but overall there has been much improvement, especially among countries that were originally underperforming. For example, countries in the South Caucasus, the Western Balkans and some parts of Central Asia have seen major increases in the quality of governance over the past 25 years, albeit with some deterioration in recent years, particularly in the Western Balkans.
Improving the productivity of the public sector can have a profound impact on boosting the economies of Europe and Central Asia, where state capacity in many countries is still weak and there is continued mistrust of government among many citizens. Digital technology and the data revolution offer an opportunity for governments to address these issues.
But change needs to start within governments themselves. As such, they must encourage the adoption and development of robust data systems within the civil service. This will require recruitment and capacity building of staff to improve the use of data for evidence-based decision making. Enhancing digitalization of public services and improving coordination of decentralized data systems across institutions are also necessary.
Greater availability and use of data and digitalization offer an opportunity to strengthen trust among citizens, including by fostering effective collaboration between governments and civil society. One of the most promising ways to do so is through Open Government Data, which reduces the transaction costs of gathering, analyzing, and disseminating public sector data, and allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the quality of governance as a whole.
Equally important are transparency and accountability. Citizens must have access to tools and platforms to hold governments accountable over how they collect and use data. Many countries in the region do not yet have centralized web portals where individuals can provide feedback or share their concerns. Improving broadband internet coverage and use, particularly in Central Asia, must also be a priority for meaningful digital connectivity. Open Government Data commitments need to be taken seriously and implemented transparently.
Although much has been accomplished across Europe and Central Asia in recent years, much more needs to be done. Most countries in Eastern Europe, the Western Balkans, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia do not have high-level coordination for data governance and management. Even more lack a GovTech institution to support efficient collaboration and interconnectivity between government agencies.
As the global momentum behind open government continues to build, the World Bank Group is helping client countries become more open in order to achieve more inclusive and sustainable development outcomes. In Europe and Central Asia, as around the world, governments that are more open and transparent can act more effectively and efficiently, and are thereby better equipped to foster private sector growth and respond to the needs of all citizens.
- Spring 2021 Regional Economic Update – Data, Digitalization and Governance
- World Development Report 2021: Data for Better Lives
- Enabling Digital Development: The Data Revolution
- From Theory to Practice: Open Government Data, Accountability, and Service Delivery
- GovTech – Putting People First
- Office of the Chief Economist, Europe and Central Asia