21 January, 2021
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This Focus episode, Rene Schob (Head of Tax & Legal at KPMG Romania) and Bogdan Ivanel (CEO & Co-Founder at Code4Romania) discussed how to design, build and administer digital infrastructure in Romania, and how public and private entities should work together.
KPMG is one of the world’s leading international networks of service organisations in the fields of Audit, Tax and Advisory, with more than 219,000 outstanding professionals in 147 countries worldwide. Find out more about how KPMG Romania helps businesses here: http://www.kpmg.ro/.
Rene and Bogdan went behind the scenes and shared invaluable insights into Romania’s digitization prospects, opportunities and roadblocks. Here is a sneak peek into their discussion:
Watch the full discussion on our YouTube channel here.
Listen to the full discussion on Spotify and Apple Podcasts too.
3 takeaways from Rene and Bogdan’s discussion:
►” The first is having the government have capacity to first of all assess and understand its needs. Because it will never get tech solutions that respond to those needs before itself understand its own needs. And they cannot do this only by employing developers. They need to do this by employing business analysts, by employing software architects, by employing UX designers. And we have a big problem in Romania in that regard because these jobs are not very popular. These jobs are not being created by the higher education system right now.”, Bogdan, on the roadblocks the Romanian government is facing in building capacity.
►”But this needs also the whole vision, which is from time to time missing. Because, I’m just referring out of my world, where the Romanian tax authorities, for instance, in the middle of the pandemics, they said: ‘Look, guys, now we go digital, with our ‘Digital Ghiseu’.’ And what they actually allowed by this is that you can online book a meeting. But, in the lockdown, you could not have this meeting also virtual. So, you know, this is somehow not tying up at the end. Because there is no real programme behind, there is no real vision behind, and these offers tend to just have once a claim, but nothing which follows up. “, Rene, on the lack of systemic vision in building digital solutions.
►”And after we design those solutions, they can have two paths. One, they can go to our volunteers, or they can get a sponsorship, and they can be developed. And we will administer them, outside government, in civil society. And many solutions are to be developed in civil society. And the others should be taken on by the government and developed within government, or with private entities outside government. But what we offer the government is the design power that they don’t have right now and that they will not be able, if we’re fair in our assumptions, to build in the next few years. So hopefully, they will have it there in 2026, when we finish designing on this 37 objectives.”, Bogdan, on the issues of capacity and resource management in delivering full digital implemented solutions.
Are you more into Reading? The Full Transcript is below!
Rene: It’s a pleasure to have a chat today with you, and particularly in the environment of How to Web. I think us, as an NGO, ultimately, and How to Web who just gave a price of 225,000 euro to the best startup in this year’s Startup Spotlight – an obvious question: what would you do if you would get the 225,000 euro for your organisation?
Bogdan: I assume we will just accelerate the work we do. Because our work is very much funded on the effort of volunteers. Every year, we go through a whole stage of prototyping and designing solutions that are solving some of Romania’s deepest issues, and we rely mostly on our volunteers to develop those solutions, to make those solutions real. Any money that comes to Code for Romania goes into supporting that effort, supporting the framework in which these volunteers work. And our budget is somewhere around 500 K a year, to just have this organisation going forward and designing the solutions for the volunteers to work on and administering this infrastructure that we built. And all the rest of the money is going into accelerating the work by investing in other solutions that we design. Because we don’t want to rely only on the volunteer work, where we can get some funding, where we can get some some financial support, we will invest that financial support in other social solutions that we’ve designed.
Rene: Maybe for people who do not know what you guys actually are doing in in one minute. I mean, how do you approach the problems of the digital society, kind of, of Romania? Or maybe we can even call it non digital society of Romania? And what are you doing with it, how you direct this forward?
Bogdan: So it’s pretty easy, like any piece of infrastructure that was ever built, we have three stages of our work: the design phase, the construction phase and the administration phase. And first and foremost, every year, we take five topics, five topics that we look in depth at. One topic on in the health sector, one in the education sector, one in the environmental, one on vulnerable groups, and one on civic participation. So we have five important topics for Romania, five important objectives and challenges that Romania has. And we bring everybody around the table, all stakeholders. We talk with them, and we try to understand their problems, we try to understand what’s really happening in there and where do the problems stand and how can we come in with technology to help them work better, and to help that topic function better. And that is the first phase, that is the design and the prototyping phase, in which we sit down with stakeholders be it NGO, be it public institutions or expert. We design tech solutions and then the tech solutions are either funded by external actors, and we put them up and they’re free for everybody to use; they are open source and everything. Or, they go to our volunteers, and we build the whole system pro bono. And again, it’s free to use and we put it out there, and we administer it afterwards. The administration phase might be the less fancy of all of our work, but it’s becoming the most extensive work that we’re doing – just administering the critical infrastructure that we’ve already built in this five years.
Rene: You have now also brought up, in this corona sanitary crisis, several tools. So can you quickly just take one example maybe on how it worked. I mean, you mentioned stakeholders; can you be a bit more specific with one particular initiative you had, maybe in March, how this actually evolved and what the result is?
Bogdan: In fact, it’s pretty interesting, because in 2019, so before the crisis started, one of the five topics that we looked at in 2019, was building resilience and building response for the next earthquake that we expect in in the southeast part of Romania. So we designed all the solutions that would be really useful if an earthquake would come. And what do you know, an earthquake didn’t come, but the pandemic came, COVID-19 came. And, within days, we could reuse solutions that we designed in case of an earthquake, for the case of the pandemic. And we have ‘Stiri Oficiale’ or ‘Date la Zi’, the places where millions of Romanians, over 10 millions Romanians, found the specific information they need on this crisis data, on this crisis guidelines, on what to do and how to act. Those were all built by Code for Romania in March, and administered by us, for the Romanian government. They were the official, they are still the official, venues for informing the public.
Rene: In this case, I mean, it’s very impressive that 10 million have access to data. And I think I used it myself, particularly in certain moments, it was extremely important to really see what is fake news, what is real news, and so on. But how do these projects go on usually? I mean, you said you have a design phase, you take the stakeholders support, I guess also the authorities are there, then the board. And how can you really integrate this into this public system, or the public ecosystem, of Romania? Because at the end of the day, you can build the most beautiful car – if you do not have the proper salesman, right, the car is not on the market. How do you solve this kind of challenge?
Bogdan: So I think there are two parts to this. The answer to the first part is a design phase. So we when we speak of design, we don’t just speak of UI, we speak about going there, sitting down with with public institutions, with bureaucrats in those public institutions that use those solutions, and where those solutions need to integrate. We build them with their current infrastructure in mind, and with their current level of skills in mind – people to use what we build. So that is that is a very, very important part of the the design phase, meaning that it can be used starting the next day, in those places that need it, and by those people that will be there. And the second answer is having a good relationship, and a fair relationship, with all the stakeholders. To be able to have them down for this sort of conversation, have them down and have access to them when we’re in the design phase of our solutions. And this, this is something that didn’t happen overnight. So five years ago, we were just a bunch of young people that started this NGO, and maybe there was not a lot of trust or not a lot of people paid attention to us. But this trust – it was built year after year. And at this point, we mainly have public institutions and NGOs coming to us, and not us going and trying to explain them what we can do to help them. But in fact, right now, we have mostly all sorts of public institution and all sorts of NGOs coming to us and wanting to work to digitise their processes and trying to find digital solutions to some of their their most important problems. And this was an interesting exercise for us from the beginning. We said, even in 2016 when we started, we said – ‘you know what, we will never go and ask a public institution to work with us’. We’ll just wait for them to come and ask. And by that showing that they’re open to collaboration. And in fact, it happened. It happens, and you know, public institutions like the government, the Romanian government, or, you know, even the Romanian presidency, many large municipalities in Romania, all sorts of central institutions came to Code for Romania to help. Because they understood that we have the know how, and we offer all our work for free, at no cost for them. In the end, if you put all these three things together, why wouldn’t you open your door to talk to us?
Rene: This this sounds very interesting, particularly the change you could reach and also your approach, meaning to become so fast a very recognised organisation that even public institutions come to you. If I may be a bit straight in my question, I mean, if I can get something for free, I happily ask you to do something for free, right?
Bogdan: Yeah, yet we don’t take let’s say, we don’t take orders in that shape or form from public institutions. We set up the the objectives and the calendar in a certain way, by choosing those five topics that we look at every year.
Rene: But Bogdan, for instance, I mean, there is no free meal, let’s put it like this. And are you not afraid that by somebody asking you, and I don’t point at authority, anybody.. asking you to provide something for free, has not a real value in order to create something sustainable ultimately? You know, it’s very easy to drop it afterwards, because there is no depreciation on it anymore. There is no real buy in anymore. It’s easy to drop, you know. How do you achieve that this really lasts, that this is sustainable – what you create? Because I reckon this is for sure a challenge for you.
Bogdan: What we build is free in the in the sense that neither a public institution or an NGO needs to pay for our work. But our work is is not free, it doesn’t come from nowhere. Even the hours of volunteers that our community puts in – they’re not free hours, they’re taking taken from from their day of leisure, or from time spent with family. So they’re not free hours. We pay for anything in this world. Not always with money, but we pay for everything in this world. So we’re very clear, when we talk with an NGO, when we talk with a public institution as our beneficiary, to point out to the real value of the work that we put in, and the work that we give them. We put a budget on everything we work. Even when it’s volunteer work, we count the volunteer time, hours of our community, and we put a price on it. We say, you know, if you’d go and pay this on the market, this is the cost for it. And when we have sponsors, and when we have, you know, private entities coming and supporting our work, it’s pretty much clear because there’s a price tag on it, there’s the price tag that the solution costs. So it’s not free. We’re we’re making clear to everybody, to the general public and to the beneficiary, what is the value of the work that they’re being given access to, even if they’re being given access for free. And we have partnership agreements which state obligations for them to use the solutions that we can give to them, that setup KPIs in the use of those solutions, that set up administration and administration setup for it. But these are, these are some of our answers. And it worked so far. But it’s not easy. It’s an everyday work to to make sure that our solutions are being used, and that they are being used correctly. But I think the main argument for our solutions is that many times they solve some very important problems that even the bureaucrat there in an office in government, or the NGO that is being given use of our solution, understands the problem deeply and wants it’s solved. So many of our solutions really answer to deep frustration of those entities, and this is why they’re adopted so open heartedly. It will not be the case of all our solutions. But this is the case of most of our solutions so far – it helps them in their work.
Rene: And at the end of the day, if we look at it – I mean, you, you created already a vast amount of solutions, indeed. But of course, let’s say the public authorities, being central or local, they need much more. And to me, it’s like a bit more than drops in the Black Sea, of course. But at the end of the day, wouldn’t there be needed a much more concrete digitalization strategy for Romania, so that actually a lot of things could go hand in hand, and then also fit to each other? And not just having like little fire fights, here and there. And out of the work, in the last four or five years, of your team, with the public institutions, what is still missing in 2020, in order to really have a digitalization coming through here?
Bogdan: Even if you’re not ready to say it, all these solutions that we’re building, they are drops in the sea, if we don’t set the framework for a correct digitization of Romania, in which, you know, public actors, organisations like Code for Romania, and the private sector, can can build solutions that are not islands and integrate themselves into an ecosystem that in the end really solves the problems that that we have in Romania, and build the the infrastructure that we need, the digital infrastructure that we need. That is why the basis of our plan for the digitization of Romania is not only the mechanisms of Code for Romania, and the work that I’ve been describing so far. But we’ve always put forward seven public policies that we want adopted at the governmental level, especially to create a framework for this digitization to happen, and to not need this firefighting for Code for Romania. And, I would say, the main public policy that we’re requesting is a set of clear and comprehensive standards for public software in Romania. That would solve a lot in integrating these solutions that are coming to the to the public sector. Plus six other public policies.
Rene: Bogdan, if we look into the kind of public institutions framework. Of course, as we said, there are drops in the in the Black Sea. But what in general should be really somehow assumed as a strategy, or as a vision, in order for you to create value, and for the society, but also private firms to create value? And this goes all hand in hand somehow.
Bogdan: Yes, so as I’ve been saying, those seven public policies that we proposed, have one central proposal – that of having clear and comprehensive standards for public software in Romania. That would mean that we make sure that software built by Code for Romania, with software built by either a municipality somewhere in Romania with with a public sector company, would be able to integrate, would have the same standards of data, would have the same standards of accessibility, etc. And they wouldn’t become islands, but they would become ecosystems, and would be integrated between them. I don’t think there we can speak of a process of digitization before we have standards of digitization in Romania by law. Basic standards, basic but comprehensive standards. And then we need to look at what happened in other countries that managed successful digitization processes. And I would point out to two basic conditions. The first is having the government have capacity to first of all assess and understand its needs. Because it will never get tech solutions that respond to those needs before itself understand its own needs. And they cannot do this only by employing developers. They need to do this by employing business analysts, by employing software architects, by employing UX designers. And we have a big problem in Romania in that regard because these jobs are not very popular. These jobs are not being created by the higher education system right now. And these jobs don’t have a framework under which they would function in government now in Romania. So, one of the public policies that we put forward is creating mixed teams of one UX designer, one software architect and one business analyst. And this interdisciplinary teams to be sent to public institutions to analyse the current infrastructure, and to analyse the needs, and to integrate their findings into a real strategy for the digitization of Romania. And if we look at the American model, if you look at the Estonian model, if you look even closer to home at the Austrian or the Italian model, we always see the use of this kind of professionals in government in order to assess the needs and in order to assess the next steps that they need to make. So I think this is one of the basic prerequisites. And a second prerequisite deals with the scaling of the digitization effort of the government, or of any entity that is ready to help the government. Either pro bono like Code for Romania does, or on budget, like private entities do. And the answer for that is reuse. Building modular, and reusing code, and reusing solutions in order to scale them up through the country. Because if you build the solution for managing parking in Cluj, more or less the same solution is needed in Iasi, in other municipalities in Romania. There is no need to build it 17 times. You can build it once and you can replicate it in in other municipalities. But, for that, you need a legal basis, you need those standards that I was speaking before, and you need legislation on public code and open source use, at least within government.
Rene: If you look at this – I mean, basically, if you say the ecosystem is not there, at the end of the day, right? Yes, it’s just the the punctual kind of products in various entities, but the ecosystem is not there. But this needs also the whole vision, which is from time to time missing. Because, I’m just referring out of my world, where the Romanian tax authorities, for instance, in the middle of the pandemics, they said: ‘Look, guys, now we go digital, with our ‘digital ghiseu’.’ And what they actually allowed by this is that you can online book a meeting. But, in the lockdown, you could not have this meeting also virtual. So, you know, this is somehow not tying up at the end. Because there is no real programme behind, there is no real vision behind, and these offers tend to just have once a claim, but nothing which follows up. How could this be better done? Would this be a project or a programme, which may be advised by some international institutions? Or would this be a public-private partnership on coming up with this kind of programme for Romania? Who should be in? What is your view on that?
Bogdan: To answer this, I’ll go back to those three stages of building infrastructure, either physical infrastructure, or digital infrastructure: designing, building, and administering, at the end, that infrastructure. And what the Romanian state is doing – it says ‘Oh, look, we’re building it!’. The problem is with the design phase of this infrastructure, right now, in Romania. And your example, with the tax authorities in Romania, is a very good one. I was, a few weeks ago, in a call with ANAF as well, and they were saying that they digitised 95% of all processes within ANAF. And I bet it’s true, I bet they’re not lying about that number. The problem is not that they’re not digitised right now, the fact is that they’re digitised badly. And that is because we don’t have capacity within government. And it can only be within government. It can’t really be outside the government, to understand the needs and to design solutions based on those needs. And for that we need those professionals that I was saying earlier about: the UX designers, the BAs and the software architects. And we don’t even produce this kind of experts right now in Romania. They a few in the private sector, that are being educated by the companies that employ them. They don’t come with that education from the university or from their previous experience. And the government simply doesn’t have access to that kind of expertise. And that’s why Code for Romania came into a position where, many times, we’re the only ones giving that sort of expertise to the government. But this is not a model that would be sustainable or would work in the long term. Of course, us at Code for Romania will do our best to help. Because we can’t just sit on the sidelines and do nothing. Well, we see, you know, bad software being developed, or bad solutions being developed. But in the long run, the government needs to create its own its own capacity in that. And until it does, we will have all these solutions that are not really responding to the user needs, but will fall two steps to the right, or two steps to the to the left, of those of those needs.
Rene: So is it a matter of money?
Bogdan: I don’t think it’s a matter of money. It’s a matter of policy. So, just to look at the UX designers, right now. They don’t even exist under Romanian law. So at Code for Romania, when we employ a UX designer, we don’t have a code for UX designer in the labour law in Romania. So we employ them as project managers, because that’s the closest they come to. And then there’s, as I said, there’s no university teaching UX Design. If you look at the US, if you look at other other countries that are managing digitization processes successfully right now, you have this. Universities are building UX designers right now. And they’re building many UX designers right now. In Romania, we don’t have this. So even if the government would understand these needs, it would need to act right now, to have this kind of expertise in five or six years – by talking to the universities, by creating the legal framework around it. And then by employing these people and integrating them in government in a coherent manner, when they come out of university. I don’t think it’s a matter of money. It’s a matter of process. Nobody ever thought of it within the government. I know that when we went, in the last year and a half, to all governmental levels, and spoke about UX design and the needs of UX designers in government, many times they were hearing the word, the name, for the first time. Okay, what does this mean? And, they also need to be educated. And that’s part of the work of Code for Romania as well. Not only just building these solutions, here and there, that are solving deep problems within within Romania. But also to come and educate people in government in order to build this legal infrastructure around digitization.
Rene: I think that the one with UX and, I may take it also from our experience, we call it Customer Experience, at the end of the day, is the whole journey. And not only the user interface, because the whole journey matters. It was very interesting also – we have now at KPMG, for the second year in a row, this kind of customer experience rankings within within Romanian brands. It’s really clear that now, also during this pandemics, things are really changing. I mean, the ones who did not jump on the train fast, they are just left behind. Of course, if we are talking about the state, you cannot leave behind the state, at the end of the day. You have to deal with ANAF, you have to deal with a lot of other authorities. But nevertheless, I think this is – one of the biggest concerns is that we really cannot come up with a proper policy. Also maybe due to a lot of political changes and so on. Although this would be the most needed. Be it ANAF, be it – I just recognise myself again, I had to prolong my my residency permit – so I had to upload everything online, which I said ‘Wow, so everything will now go very digital!’. I got even allocated the time slot where I had to appear still, of course, physically. And then you still wait one and a half hour there, although they give time slot for 10 minutes, you know. So all these kind of, let’s call it customer experience, at the end of the day, taxpayer’s experience also, is really something which we have to embrace. Which leads me however also to another another kind of – still authorities, but different side of the coin – which is the whole university system, as you said. In other countries, we are used very often universities, or institutes who belong to universities, are used by the state to come up with innovation, to come up with innovative solutions. What do you guys do maybe in other countries these are spin offs of universities. And are somehow public funded. And by this let’s say that the issue of having not enough money is set aside. How is it in Romania? How do you perceive this? Because me, I do not perceive it on the level where it’s really feasible. And I think it should be much more pushed. We have the image in Romania to be a top notch nation with regards to digital brains, IT brains, young population, and also internet speed on the top. So we would have the infrastructure, the resources, but what misses is that it’s not properly gathered?
Bogdan: So that that lands on a soft spot for me because I’m not an IT guy. So, before I started Code for Romania I was a researcher. I lived 11 years abroad. And I was a researcher for large universities abroad be it Berkeley or Sciences Po. And what we have in Romania is a higher education system that creates professionals, but doesn’t do research at the level that it would be needed for the country. So the research role of universities isn’t really fulfilled in Romania, compared to other countries in Europe. Like I I did my education in the Netherlands, and it’s a totally different system there. The government and the parliament cooperates with universities, to build public policy, to research the effects of those public policies all through, and the universities are capable of doing that. We don’t have this capacity within universities right now. Secondly, we do have a problem with our IT universities, because they’ve largely aligned themselves with the IT industry as it is right now in Romania. And the IT industry, as it is right now in Romania is an outsourced industry largely that needed a lot of developer workforce. And this is what the university has provided – developer workforce, very good developers, to be able to do that work that the company is needed. Very few IT companies in Romania do the design phase of the products they build. And that is why the universities are not building those professionals. There was not, you know, a need from from the labour market. And that’s why they didn’t do it. And this is why we need the government, and we need the state, to to step up and say: ‘Okay, it might not be a need right now, in the in the labour market. But there is a need in government. And we want to change also the labour market in the long run if we want to be competitive in the IT industry, we need to become more creative.’. We started the discussion from the startup price that that was awarded. And, you know, if we look at companies, and if we look at startups, the innovation is not usually tech. No, it’s rarely a tech innovation that makes a company apart, or a startup apart. It’s how they integrate the customer’s needs that makes them apart. And that’s again, having very good analysts, and having very good customer experts.
Rene: You touched a very good point also with regards to the startups. What I recognised in the last, let’s say, five to seven years, is, however, that the ideas which come out of Romanian startups became much more sophisticated. And I think, however, if you say we do not have the design phase in Romania, they are working jointly with people from abroad and learn. And I think this is now more and more visible, and fittable also, in the whole startup ecosystem in Romania. But of course, at the end of the day, these startups, they want to become the next unicorn. I mean, this is their aim usually. And they do not particularly want to solve only problems for Romania. So, this is rather the commercial aspect of startups. But I truly think that the more social or society part, which has to be used by public authorities as well, can be best driven out of research institutes close to the University at the end of the day. And you are also breaching this somehow, by having a vast network of Romanians being abroad who work for your initiative. So, can you tell us a bit how this works, this collaboration? How you’re actually engaging with people in the US, maybe in Asia, in other countries in Europe?
Bogdan: I would do a disclaimer first, and then I’ll answer immediately. The disclaimer being that we do have good designers in Romania, is not that we don’t. That we don’t have enough for what we need right now.
Rene: It’s always true, right? It’s not that we don’t have it’s, it’s just a critical mass that we do not recognise it properly.
Bogdan: And yeah, in fact, Code for Romania was first designed as a means for the Romanians in the diaspora, for the Romanians abroad, to to get involved and to help shape things in Romania. When we founded Code for Romania, we were four friends that were living in the Netherlands at that point. And if you would have asked us five years ago, when we started Code for Romania, if we would ever move back home, we would set have said no. That’s why we designed Code for Romania the way we designed it, because we thought, you know, lines of code and designing this kind of solutions, and building this kind of solutions – we can do it from anywhere. We don’t need to be physically in in Romania. And the story is that, out of the four that started Code for Romania, two of us are back in Romania, the other two are still contributing from abroad. And Code for Romania has over 15%, almost 20% of its volunteer base from abroad. We have 12 timezones worth of volunteers that are contributing from Australia to San Francisco, Oslo, London, etc. And they’re some of the most hardworking contributors we have. And many times we also learn a lot from their experience in their home countries, in the countries that they live right now. We have a very big contributor from Oslo, from Norway, and he works in Norway, in helping the government there design products. So he comes with with the experience that he has there. And we have people in universities all around the world doing the work that you were mentioning before – advising government or designing solutions for for social use. And I think that’s a strong power of Code for Romania. But more importantly, Code for Romania is the first NGO in Romania that offers people in the diaspora a path to contributing back home, more than giving a vote every few years and sending money back home.
Rene: I mean, it’s a different kind of impact you can create right? Because at the end of the day, however, this bridge, I think, it was is really needed. If you are only abroad, you come across like you just comment, you know, because you don’t feel it really. But likely it was like this – when you then really were back home, you really felt what was really needed and how it was needed, and particularly how you can implement it. Because this is then the next kind of challenge. What is an idea which somebody from abroad brought in, and which was immediately embraced in Romania, and you could introduce it? What was the last one?
Bogdan: So I would say that we have this – we are looking at ideas from abroad, as a stage of our design process. So we have a stage in our design process, which is called tech research. And what we do in tech research is look at how the problem was solved in other places around the world. And of course, our community abroad is helping us, but also our network of civic technologists and civic tech NGOs from around the world. We talk with people at Code for America, we talk with people that Codeando Mexico, we talk at people from Colombia to Japan, to look at the solutions that were designed in their country to answer to the same questions. And I would say that, especially if we look at the ecosystem that we designed now for COVID, and which is based on the ecosystem that we designed to respond to the earthquake that is going to happen at some point in the Southeast part of Romania, that was co-designed with colleagues that Codeando Mexico, which had a very clear understanding, and a more immediate understanding, of what a major earthquake in the 21st century means. Our last big earthquake happened in 77. There was no mass communication to the scale of what we have today, there was no internet, there was no fake news being distributed the same way. So what we learned from them is what is happening with fake news, and that’s why we designed a solution, like ‘Stiri Oficiale’. And also, we learned from them, what is happening in the 21st century when we have a disaster with donations going into the wrong hands. And that’s why we we built RoHelp, which manages aid delivery to to the NGOs that are really helping on the ground. So yeah, my short answer is that we have this really – a big chunk of our design phase is looking at how problems were solved in other places, and we are in constant contact with civic tech organisations from around the world. We have our network of volunteers, and we also have relationships with governments from around the world through our civic tech network.
Rene: Where do you see the limit to grow? Because this also means more administration, less efficiency, and so on? And ultimately, I think we have to be fair to say that the state cannot live from NGOs only. I think there are serious and reasonable budgets within the Romanian state, plus coming from European Union, rolled back, and so on. So there is money. And how do you see there the limits of this kind of living from NGOs, like you are? But also private entities who do this, of course, from a, let’s call it professional, I do not say you are not professional, but for a living, you know? And where does it start and where are the limits? How do you see this?
Bogdan: Yeah, we’re also doing it as a living right now. Like, we have 12 people fully employed, doing the work, of Code for Romania now, besides the 2000 volunteers.
Rene: Price tag, this is what I wanted to say. I mean, everything has a price tag, as we already said before.
Bogdan: Yeah. We are already the second largest civic tech organisation in the world, almost the largest, which is an amazing thing too, if you put it in the context of Romania. So we’re not in the UK, we’re not in Brazil, we’re not in Mexico. We’re in Romania, a country of 20 million. And we’re the second largest civic tech organisation, the largest outside the United States of America.
Rene: How many are living in Romania and how many are in the diaspora? Do you know?
Bogdan: So from the 2000, almost 300 to 400 are in the diaspora. But looking at the mechanism of Code for Romania, and we just put out a plan – our plan for the next five years, and how we want to contribute to Romania’s digitization until 2026. So we put out a plan, we have 37 objectives on five important pillars for Romania: health education, environment, vulnerable groups and civic participation. And, I think, the major contribution that Code for Romania can bring in the next five years is in the design phase. So our promise is that on those 37 objectives, we will sit down with government, we will sit down with NGOs, we will sit down with experts in universities or the private sector, and we will be designing the solutions that need to be implemented on those 37 objectives. And after we design those solutions, they can have two paths. One, they can go to our volunteers, or they can get a sponsorship, and they can be developed. And we will administer them, outside government, in civil society. And many solutions are to be developed in civil society. And the others should be taken on by the government and developed within government, or with private entities outside government. But what we offer the government is the design power that they don’t have right now and that they will not be able, if we’re fair in our assumptions, to build in the next few years. So hopefully, they will have it there in 2026, when we finish designing on this 37 objectives. But until 2026, we’ll be putting this design power and assistant power to help in support of creating this critical infrastructure that Romania needs.
Rene: So you refer to your kind of future strategies and focus areas. Let’s pick on them a bit. In health – so what is in the next, let’s say 12 to 18 months, if you can consider this also sufficient as a development cycle, one of the top things from a digital standpoint, which should be introduced in Romania?
Bogdan: So, right now, we already designed solutions for mother and child healthcare. So we have already a number of solutions on mother and child healthcare, which is a very important topic. Three of them are already live. Three of the solutions. And the other are waiting for development. And right now we’re designing solutions for access to medicare, access to healthcare, which is very important, especially in the setup that we have right now with the COVID crisis. And there are many, many.. it’s very hard to pick one of the solutions and say ‘This is the solution that needs to be implemented tomorrow’, because the needs of the medical system are so broad. So we designed a solution to help people recover, after, you know, an accident or a trauma. And those are very important for people with with those conditions. And they needed them yesterday. So we cannot be fast enough in providing that kind of infrastructure for them. We also design solutions for gathering better data on healthcare in Romania. We don’t have knowledge of what is really happening like in many other, on many other topics. And thirdly, we have a lot of solutions on direct intervention in hospitals, and in responding to accidents or to really important diseases. We have solutions that connect doctors and give second opinion. We have solutions that connect patients with doctors better, we have a lot of solutions on offering help before they get to a critical phase of their disease. So there are a lot, there are a lot of solutions. And I would, you know, advise everybody that wants to look at the solutions that we already built, and the ones that we did design, to go on our website at code4.ro/putem, and there they can see all the solutions. They can see the design, they can see the tech specs, they can see everything. And hopefully we’ll have many of them live as soon as possible.
Rene: You know, what I was actually expecting is something with regards to real digitization of all the paperwork, which you did not mention. I mean, I understand you provide the solutions for various areas which are extremely important, I fully agree. But isn’t the biggest burden still in Romania that you have to run for papers in order to be treated? And this takes you, as a sick person already, a lot of days and hours? And maybe you have to drive throughout the country, and, at the end, a stamp is missing. You know? Do you see this actually, totally in the hands of the government? I mean, it’s the authorities who have to solve it, and you cannot help because this is a big backbone project maybe? Or where do you see your influence there?
Bogdan: I don’t think there’s one magic solution to cut the paperwork. So all the solutions that I was mentioning, or that I was hinting to, have an impact of reducing paperwork. Only then, by working together, and by them having been integrated, can we have an answer to the bigger problem of bureaucracy, and paperwork, and red state in the health sector. Just to give an example, when I said we need to collect data better – I mean, we need to have registers, we need to have a better cancer registry, we need to have a better hepatitis registry, which we don’t. That would also cut on the red tape, if the medical doctors would have access to this kind of registries. Secondly, many of the solutions that we’re designing right now are answering to problems of general practitioners – ‘medicina de familie’, like it’s known in Romania. That is where a lot of red tape exists right now in Romania. We also have a one of the 37 objectives. It’s called ‘functional hospitals’. And we have it scheduled for two years from now. So we can’t do all 37 objectives from the beginning. We have them timed. So every year we look at at five of these objectives. But we’ll be looking at functional hospitals in two years time. And that’s where a lot of cutting this red tape would happen.
Rene: If we are talking big projects, I mean like this, from from paper to digital. Can you actually see your role in bringing this forward to the Ministry of Health for instance? And to give them support in in thinking about it, and maybe some opinions from other countries? Or do you say ‘Look, this is a too big kind of programme, which we actually do not want to be in. We’re still, we are very strong in solving smaller problems fast then going into that.’
Bogdan: No, no, that that’s what exactly what we’re doing. We have a partnership with the Ministry of Health. It’s on paper. We work closely with them on on all our objectives on health. We design solutions, including this large scale solutions. We will not be able to develop this large scale solutions with our volunteers, but we do half of the work – the design process. And then they can take what we’ve built, and go and build it; go and build it in the private sector, and go and build it through the processes of government. But we’re working with them closely on on this large scale solutions as well. I’m just going to point out to one of the solutions that we’ve been designing this year, as you were asking earlier, if I would choose one of them. We have in the healthcare sector, this thing that is called ‘Actiuni Prioritare’, priority actions. They’re this kind of medical situation where you need to act fast, you can’t plan for it. Because this kind of medical situation not only happens fast, but develops very fast, and you need to have an immediate answer. The red tape there is crazy. And not only that the red tape is crazy, but there’s no watchdog over what’s happening there. There might be a lot of money that is being misspent, because you need to act very fast. And because it’s not digitised, you don’t have an overview of what is happening. So one of the systems that we designed this year, is the system through which money allocation on priority actions is going to happen in the Ministry of Health. A system through which the patients having these kinds of issues will be monitoring at the level of hospitals. The data will be going to the Ministry of Health, to INSP, and to the place where the checks are being written, to be sure that that only the money that are needed to be spent for that are being spent, and the fact that we can audit this at the end of the process.
Rene: I think one of the other burning problems is, of course, education. And let’s focus in our last five minutes a bit on education as well. I would say that pandemics brought us also in an education crisis because, first of all, people could not, or kids could not go to school. They did not have the means to connect. But also when they then had the means to connect, of course, on the other side of the camera, people did not know how to teach kids actually in the virtual environment. Which is not something perfectly normal, but nevertheless, it also points to a lot of problems which we have. Then it’s coming, of course further with the education that a lot of kids are raised still with grandparents, and so on. So do you do something in that area?
Bogdan: So one of the topics that we already designed on is Teachers Training. Teachers Training is the topic and the objective that we started with in education. Because before looking at, at students, we wanted to look at teachers, because by having a better teacher you influence thousands of students from the get go. So we have a number of six solutions that are designed there, and two of them are already live. Solutions that are helping schools monitor and manage the human resources and the the skills acquisitions of their teachers, to solutions for training teachers, to solutions to mentor teachers. A big problem for teachers that enter the system is that they don’t have any support or mentoring in becoming better at their job. Even if there is on paper and it is in law that they have a mentor, this system doesn’t really work. To solutions on providing teachers to students in hospitals, because this is another big problem that that we found out about. So we have six key solutions to the problem of better training for teachers. Two of them are already live. Four of them are designed and are waiting for development. Again, they can be checked on our website. And this year, we’re looking at skills acquisition in students. So we’re looking at things like financial education, legal education, civic education, environment education, health education in students. Things that Romanian education doesn’t really provide right now, and for which we’re trying to come up with solutions that might help students acquire these kind of skills that they need in their life. A big part of it being digital education as well. And we’re not only looking at young people, and at young people acquiring this kind of skills, but we’re looking at the whole spectrum. Also people over 40 acquiring this kind of skills. So we already, we’ve designed a few solutions for digital education in adults.
Rene: It is very impressive what you said! We have one minute left, and I have one question for you. What could we do as a kind of a joint action or a call for action, where we look into the private enterprises, NGOs, together with the government? What should be done as a next step in order to really digitise Romania as fast as possible? Would it be an organisation, would it be money? What would be your call?
Bogdan: So our expectation as Code for Romania from the private sector is the following: support us in convincing the government to create this framework, the legal framework for digitising Romania. Those seven public policies that we put forward, of course, you know, we might need to add to those, we might need to look better at some of those. But I think we’re all on the same line in needing that kind of legal framework for for digitising Romania. Secondly, Code for Romania is right now designing dozens of solutions per year. Last year we have designed 65 solutions, key solutions that are needed in Romania to solve some of its deeper problems. We will not be able to develop all those solutions with volunteers. Our capacity is to develop six solutions at the same time with volunteers. It will take us decades to develop all the solutions that we can design with volunteers. So we do need money from the private sector, we do need support from the private sector to build these solutions and to make them available for the general public in Romania. So each of our solutions that is not yet live is looking for a private entity to adopt it and to support its birth, either through financial contribution or through pro bono work also. We have already to IT companies that are putting their own employees at work to develop the solutions that we’ve designed. And we’re looking for other contributions like that.
Rene: Thank you very much Bogdan! This was a very nice chat. And I hope really can embrace these changes and we can push them further. Also out of the private environment. As always, I think the responsibility of the state should not be neglected as well. It cannot be everything for free. And I think public private partnership would really be one of the best approaches with regards to both speed as well, knowhow, and of course also, I think, innovation and design, at the end of the day. And, I hope, if we meet again in one year that we will see some changes and we can of course share them again as success stories which helped Romania digitize. Thanks a lot!
Bogdan: Thanks Rene!9
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