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Our View: Not much room for optimism when it comes to e-government

Labour Minister Zeta Emilianidou

The government has made many lofty promises over the years to make the lives of its citizens easier, among them the e-government project, which seems to be a bit hit and miss.

The labour minister admitted as much during a House committee meeting some days ago where MPs, who have been pressing the issue for five years now, heard that in many instances, such as for sickness or unemployment benefits, it takes anywhere from four to eight months for applicants to receive any money. With pensions, it can take more than a year.

Imagine heading for retirement and expecting a pension, to be told you will have to survive another year before you get to see a penny.

Minister Zeta Emilianidou acknowledged the slow pace at which benefits applications get processed, pointing out that social insurance services receive some 240,000 benefits applications a year. She sounded confident about the transition to automated processing and payments by the end of this year but a quick glance at the issues involved, does not leave that much room for optimism.

Our current tech systems are outdated, dating back to the 1990s and even the 1980s, the MPs heard.

This was laid out in the Recovery and Resilience Plan (RRP) we sent to the EU, which also cited a number of obstacles including “substantial delays in application processing and updating of records, inadequate response to citizens’ requests for information, lack of specialised skills among existing personnel, limited quality control mechanisms, high administrative cost, duplication of effort and significant error and fraud risk”.

Even if they manage to sort all that out on their end, e-government is not just a matter of getting a system in place. It also involves a population knowing how to use it.

On Monday a new EU survey found that almost one in two adults in Cyprus has limited digital skills, placing Cyprus in the fourth worst position of the European countries in this field. Some 45 per cent of adults aged 25 to 64 have limited digital skills, one per cent do not have any digital skills at all, while 10 per cent had not used the internet in the last three months before the survey.

Deputy Minister for Research, Innovation and Digital Policy Kyriacos Kokkinos, who called the labour and welfare department his ministry’s “biggest client”, told MPs the government’s e-reform project would take at least two years but even the RRP was not that optimistic, saying full roll-out of the new integrated social security system would be in 2026.

Yet, Cyprus managed to roll out its lockdown text message system, the vaccine portal and the SafePass and FlightPass platforms pretty quickly, but still can’t seem to get its act together enough to pay social welfare benefits on time.

There is probably an old adage about governments being efficient when the public is required to pay their dues to the state, but it doesn’t seem to work so well in reverse.

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