Yesterday, I had the fortune to moderate a salon at IREX’s office in Chisinau on the theme of libraries and open government. As we are getting ready to start the Global Libraries program in Moldova, we hosted the informal gathering in order to start a discussion about where libraries fit as more of Moldova’s government services and information goes online. We were joined by colleagues from civil society, USAID, Moldova’s e-government center and the library community.
There’s considerable momentum behind e-government in the country now, and the e-government center is getting ready to roll out nearly two hundred new online services. The challenge is ensuring demand for these services so that they become institutionalized – streamlining government and making it more transparent and responsive, while strengthening the sustainability and viability of e-government as an approach for Moldova. While there was discussion of hiccups with past efforts, the group was optimistic about the viability of libraries as a delivery mechanism. Much of the focus in the past has been on supply – the creation of services – and there is recognition that it’s equally important at this point to consider the demand side of the equation.
There was discussion around ideas on the types of services that would serve as ‘easy wins’ on both sides – both easy to create and sustain from the e-government side, but also easy to explain and use from the user side. There was acknowledgement that such early services must be carefully considered to fill a gap in information and deliver a tangible benefit. Paul-Andre Baran, the director of the Biblionet program in Romania, shared the example of libraries’ cooperation with the Ministry of Agriculture in his country, which is connecting farmers to online subsidy applications through libraries. Whereas this application process used to take up at least two days of a farmer’s time in travel to the local government office to get information and then return with a completed application, the online version completed at libraries saved Romanian farmers more than 34,000 days in 2011. More than 20,000 farmers collected more than €15m in subsidies by visiting their libraries.
Participants in the salon related to this example as illustrative of the efforts that need to be made in Moldova and thought agriculture might be a good place to start. The Ministry of Agriculture has a wide-reaching extension service as well as a payments agency similar to the one in Romania, but access to information for farmers is still a challenge. With agriculture making up a significant part of the Moldovan economy, services that can improve farmers’ lives are high on the agenda when considering public support and uptake. Other services prioritized by the group included online access to documentation and registration, broader tax filing services (limited online tax filing is already available), communication with local government and education information. One point made was that the most important services are the ones currently most captured by corruption. With Moldova currently in 112th place on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, this is a salient issue.
A representative from the Moldovan Library Association expressed that Moldova’s libraries are ready to step up to the challenge. Previous projects have brought computers and new services to libraries based on the initiative of librarians, though in many cases, equipment has languished due to lack of local government support. In the upcoming program, she believed that government support was the key to sustainability – an aspect that’s baked into the Global Libraries approach.
There is clearly a long way to go in making open government and e-government a reality for Moldova. Discussions like these, where stakeholders and implementers with resources gather to exchange opinions and learn from each other are essential to ensuring the effort succeeds for the benefit of all Moldovans.