Originally published in Interfax-Ukraine on May 18, 2021.
Last year, in just a few months, the COVID-19 crisis brought about years of change in the way governments, organizations and companies in all sectors and regions do business. Numerous lockdown restrictions triggered the shift of demand towards online public services, making them the new normal. According to a McKinsey Global Survey, many companies catapulted the digital transformation of their external and internal operations by three to four years in 2020. During the same period, the share of digital or digitally-enabled products in their portfolios accelerated by an amazing seven years. In Ukraine, UNDP also managed to shift most of its operations to online programming and management in just six days when the pandemic hit.
Much of the success in this rapid process of digital evolution during the crisis depended on how well governments or organizations had developed their digital launching pads before the pandemic. The Government of Ukraine was, fortunately, one of the better-prepared ones. In 2019, the country established its Ministry of Digital Transformation and set up an ambitious agenda for a comprehensive digital transformation in the public sector to make more government services available online. In 2020, a year of global pandemic, the Ministry acted boldly and ambitiously, launching numerous online services and enhancing existing tools to accelerate access to public services for Ukrainians during the lockdown.
However, while paving the way for new digital highways, the coronavirus also exposed the digital gaps between and within societies. It has highlighted inequalities and revealed how many men and women, boys and girls are being left behind due to low incomes, lack of digital literacy, age, disability, and many other social, economic and systemic hurdles.
UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner has stressed numerous times that digital technologies can address the multidimensional impacts of the pandemic, but we must ensure everyone has access. “The pandemic has highlighted the cost of digital inequality,” Steiner wrote in a recent blog. “As we deploy digital solutions, we need to remember the unequal state of digital access and digital literacy between and within countries.”
The critical barriers to entry include the cost of the technologies, user disabilities, and the lack of digital skills. Thus, every online service or digital solution should be reviewed not only for its efficiency or utility. We should also assess how effectively the service can be accessed, including by the most disadvantaged. Such digital barriers were highlighted during the development of the National Strategy on a Barrier-Free Environment in Ukraine, which was adopted in April 2021. The strategy focuses on six spheres – absence of physical, information, digital, social, educational, and economic barriers – recognizing digital accessibility as one of the cornerstones for building greater inclusiveness in Ukraine.
While these are good steps in the right direction, the concept of barrier-free digital transformation should not be limited to web accessibility and compliance with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and other standards. Building a digitally inclusive society means creating opportunities for everyone to access and use online resources, services, and tools.
Promoting inclusive digital transformation
UNDP is taking a human-centered comprehensive approach in Ukraine and is consolidating the efforts of different stakeholders to minimize digital inequalities in the country. We are doing this by promoting a whole-of-society vision within a whole-of-government digital transformation. For example, UNDP has committed to supporting the Ministry of Digital Transformation to advance the Sustainable Development Goals based on principles of digital transformation equitable to all. This partnership, sealed in a Memorandum of Understanding, intends to propel Ukraine’s economic and social development through expanded access to non-discriminatory and transparent state services.
As part of our support to Ukraine’s digitalization, we also conceptualized and launched the Digital, Inclusive, Accessible: Support to Digitalization of State Services in Ukraine (DIA Support) Project. The DIA Support Project is designed to strengthen Ukraine’s abilities to craft digitalized services to be used by the country’s vulnerable populations, taking due account of the inclusive Human Rights-Based Approach to policymaking. The Project, supported by the Government of Sweden, aims to bridge the digital divide between generations and within different social groups in Ukraine, specifically seniors and retirees, persons with disabilities, people living below the poverty line, people living in rural areas, young people living in conflict-affected areas, ethnic minorities (especially the Roma population), the internally displaced (IDPs), and veterans returning to civilian life.
With regards to expanding access to public government services in Ukraine, accessibility remains a significant issue. The recent UNDP survey “Electronic services: experiences, trust, accessibility” shows that almost half of Ukrainians obtained at least one e-service over the past year. Among those who did not, one in four complained about the lack of digital skills and competencies. One in five of the non-users noted they had no internet-enabled device to access the services.
To address these constraints, the Government of Ukraine in 2019 resolved that all state-sponsored digital tools shall meet at least the WCAG 2.0 (level AA) requirements. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) were developed globally to provide a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organizations, and governments. To meet the minimum criteria of WCAG 2.0 Level AA, a website must be usable and understandable by most people without hindrances.
According to UNDP in-house research (soon to be published), most online resources and services in Ukraine remain partially or fully inaccessible. None of the 82 online public portals or resources we tested were fully compliant with WCAG criteria. Only 5 percent of electronic service portals surveyed enabled the users to quickly locate page contents when using screen-reader assistive software.
Further developments down the digital highway
The Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine on 14 April 2021 adopted the National Strategy for a Barrier-Free Environment in Ukraine, which was initiated by First Lady Olena Zelenska and under the Presidential Decree "On Barrier-Free Environment in Ukraine". The National Strategy takes a comprehensive approach to building a barrier-free environment for everyone, taking into consideration the interests of all social groups, including young people, the parents of children under the age of six, children and adults with disabilities, and the elderly. It specifically focuses on building educational, economic, digital, civil, and physical inclusiveness. UNDP supports these efforts and assists the government of Ukraine to foster digital transformation based on principles of equality and universality and in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Specifically, UNDP plans to promote adoption of the latest version of the European standard EN 301 549 which is based on WCAG 2.1. Along with this, the best world practices regarding digital accessibility requirements for state-funded mobile applications will be analyzed. These two steps will help develop and adopt updated accessibility requirements for relevant state resources, both web and mobile.
UNDP will also support various training activities for the representatives of line Ministries and state-owned enterprises on a diverse spectrum of issues, specifically on how to evaluate compliance of state web resources with the requirements and embed accessibility requirements into the software.
In parallel, UNDP is testing the “Diia” ecosystem, including the core web portal, the mobile application, and related portals such as “Diia.Business”, “Diia.Education”, and other resources to help the Ministry of Digital Transformation enhance the accessibility of their resources and be a showcase for other state institutions.
Effectively harnessing the new digital technologies means expanding opportunities for low and middle-income countries to diversify their economies, create new jobs, transform agriculture, and improve health and education. We at UNDP in Ukraine are well aware that digital technologies can also entrench exclusion and disrupt peoples' livelihoods. Ae are thus committed to working closely with the Ministry of Digital Transformation to ensure that no one is left behind, as new digital pathways are explored.