Among Ukraine’s efforts to defend against Russian aggression, the success of its government in using modern communication channels – from Twitter to Telegram – has stood out. But Ukraine’s government is no newcomer to digital technology. Before the invasion, the country was rapidly modernising its public services, with digital government at the heart of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s vision. Now, this vision is bearing fruit in supporting Ukraine’s impressive resistance.
“The State as a Service, Not a Bogeyman”
The government’s flagship digital effort is Diia (Ukrainian for “action” and short for derzhava i ia – “the state and I”). Diia is a modern app and platform that acts as a one-stop shop for public services and a wallet for digital versions of official documents. In a world first, digital passports and driving licenses have the same legal status as paper originals.
The platform’s motto is “the state as a service, not a bogeyman”. It hosts more than seventy services: for example, Ukrainians can use the app to change their registered address without appearing in person at the old place of residence – a boon for the third of Ukrainians who live away from their formal address.
Uptake has been rapid: at the end of 2021, Diia was used by 13 million people (a third of the country’s 44 million inhabitants and a fivefold increase in one year). Adoption was partly driven by its use as a Covid certificate platform and the introduction of ePidtrimka (“eSupport”) – a one-off payment of 1,000 UAH (approx. £25) for fully vaccinated Ukrainians linked to a digital bank card. In two months, the government issued 9.7 million ePidtrimka cards. At the end of last year, a review of Diia’s progress in Ukrainian media suggested that despite teething technical issues, it was becoming an indispensable daily tool.
Ukraine’s Rapid Digitisation
Diia is just the latest phase of a determined effort to build a digital-first government. Since 2014, Ukraine has risen 18 places in the United Nations E-Government Development Index, ranking third among lower middle income countries. Zelenskyy in particular has embraced this agenda, establishing a Ministry of Digital Transformation (MDT) and setting a target of bringing one hundred per cent of public services online by 2024. Ukraine has been steadily putting in place the key components of 21st-century government:
Purposeful governance: in addition to MDT, named deputies coordinate digitisation within every ministry and regional administration. In line with the EU’s “once-only principle”, government agencies are barred from requesting paper copies of documents if digital ones exist.
Enabling infrastructure: underpinning Diia’s operation and the work of local officials, Trembita (Ukrainian for “alpine horn”) is a data exchange layer that connects over 80 different organisations and supports more than 200 different processes. Funded by the EU and modelled on Estonia’s X-Road, in 2021 Trembita carried out 860 million operations (ten times more than in 2020).
Responsive institutions: the new legal framework and digital infrastructure have created opportunities to transform public services. A notable early success is eMaliatko (“eChild”), a digital one-stop shop for birth registrations, which automates nine services and is estimated to save citizens up to ten days.
Digital Government at War
In the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, these digital government initiatives were proving useful even before full-scale war erupted. The eMaliatko service, for example, was available to residents of breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk regions so that they could register children born in the conflict zone as Ukrainian citizens. As Russia’s invasion unfolded, Ukraine’s digital competence came to the fore.
Ukraine’s early advantage on the information front was driven by effective use of digital communication channels. Ukrainian officials at all levels, from President Zelenskyy down, are regularly providing updates on Telegram, with the head of the Mykolaiv region Vitaliy Kim’s upbeat video messages garnering particular praise. The government also set up Telegram bots for a range of purposes, from crowdsourcing reports of Russian troop movements to connecting internal refugees with local administration officials for information and support.
Another front in the information war is a relentless campaign of pressure on Western tech companies to support Ukraine and boycott Russia. Spearheaded by the minister for digital transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, it led to the exit of many large tech companies, from Microsoft and Oracle to Cisco and Apple, from Russia. An appeal on Twitter helped Ukraine secure a supply of Starlink receivers from Elon Musk, who Fedorov had previously tried and failed to engage.
Most importantly, digital tools like Diia allow the government to stay in touch with Ukrainians and rapidly introduce new forms of support. The MDT teams are reportedly working 18 hours a day, 7 days a week. The Diia app now includes live streams of Ukrainian TV and radio stations, which might otherwise be unavailable in areas under attack, and a way to donate funds to the Ukrainian armed forces. The government also announced that ePidtrimka cards would be used to give employees and the self-employed in regions affected by the war an extra payment of 6,500 UAH (£165), the equivalent of the monthly minimum wage. Because Diia already holds payroll, business registration and residence records, users can verify eligibility and apply for support directly in the app. In the first week since the announcement, over 2.7 million applications were made.
MDT also introduced a simplified war-time digital ID, available to all Diia users and recognised by local law enforcement, and secured agreements with Moldova and Poland border guards to accept this digital ID and the Ukrainian digital passport in lieu of paper documents – an invaluable use case for refugees who might have lost their documents during evacuation.
The pace at which these changes have been introduced – itself a testament to Ukraine’s robust digital infrastructure – suggests we can expect to see more innovative uses soon. It seems that Ukraine’s investment in digital government and its intent to transform its public services may have laid the foundations of a new relationship with its citizens – one that is helping it resist Russia’s aggression today.