Human rights and digitalization – one byte at a time

November 23, 2020

Photo credit: shutterstock

Dmytro, one of the eight participants of an online focus group organised by UNDP Ukraine to find out citizens’ needs when receiving electronic services, speaks up: “It might seem simple… but I find it hard to read small print placed against a white background cluttered with distracting visual elements – for my visual impairment, all I’m asking for is a high-contrast colour scheme. But that’s often hard to find.”

As the disruptive year of 2020 draws closer to its end, UNDP is conducting background research and preparations for a three-year joint project with the Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine (MDT) with support from the Swedish Government. Researchers are interviewing Ukrainians from diverse backgrounds, including ones from vulnerable groups, to make sure that the new initiative truly leaves no one behind and empowers the full realisation of human potential in the country, while drawing specific attention to non-discrimination and personal data protection issues.

During the Maidan protest movement, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians gathered on Kyiv’s Independence Square to claim their right to a more transparent and accountable government that would respect human rights. Great hopes were in the air in spring 2014, and then once more in 2019. Despite the political changes over the last six years, one policy direction has maintained a steady course – the move towards the digitalization of state services for citizens. The 2019 Presidential electoral promise of “Your State in Your Smartphone” and the upgrade of the State Agency for eGovernance to the ministerial level created the thrust for a rapid acceleration in e-services development. Early 2020 saw the emergence of Diia: a new national platform and accompanying app designed to power a fast-paced digital transformation. The fast tempo is no surprise, given the very ambitious government goal of bringing all services online by 2024.

At the same time, the digital transformation of services for citizens is not just about IT solutions, software or servers. It may sound counter-intuitive, but the foundations for successful service “re-engineering” (transformation of paper-based services into digital ones) are built on the painstaking processes of re-thinking the way that users go through their various life situations. One has to consider a multitude of possibilities of what challenges a person may face, and, more importantly, who this person is and what life circumstances surround them. The creation of user scenarios (so-called “user stories”) with numerous parameters for various citizen-clients, the design of regulations that support the user story tree, and, ideally, validation with different categories of citizens, arguably take more time and effort than writing the software to bring the services to life on a screen.

In many cases since 2014, state entities building their services for the digital world have successfully embraced the philosophy of transitioning from the old, Soviet model of service-rendering – where a citizen “owes something” to the state – to a client-oriented model. This transition is, undoubtedly, a welcome one, but is it enough? Is it enough, for instance, to digitalise a service for a particular social group without knowing whether the target audience has the skills to receive it, or without being sure that people will have the means to access this service if it requires the latest type of mobile phone? Or would it mean that the less well-off, people in remote areas, or those who lack digital skills are essentially left behind?

UNDP and MDT are weighing all of these considerations while designing their new joint project, which should not only help build comprehensive new services for Ukrainians, but also do it through the lens of a human-rights-based approach to the design, testing and validation of the services. This is an approach that expands and supersedes the “client” model, whereby people are considered not only as taxpayers who should receive help in dealing with their life situation (and not be treated as nuisances). An approach that, instead, talks of people as rights-holders, who have different legitimate needs and rights that the state, as the main duty-bearer, should cater for in line with mainstream human rights standards and norms.

Implicit in the “State in a Smartphone” concept is that citizens need to have a smartphone, access to the internet, and sufficient digital skills to be able to embark on this new digital path. However, the Ukrainian reality is that 53 percent of the population (aged 18 to 70) have poor digital skills (*). In some rural areas, there is no access to the internet. Given the significant disparities in revenue and lifestyle inside the country, many citizens do not possess a computer, or if they do, have obsolete operating systems or pirated software (as evidenced by focus group research that UNDP is currently finalising).

In addition to those vulnerabilities that are specific to e-governance, there are other, pre-existing vulnerabilities. Being within the intersection of multiple sets of disadvantages or inequalities may lead to many citizens being excluded from this new digital state. Ukraine has many population groups that could benefit from more considerate and nuanced policy-making, for which one digital size does not fit all. Ukraine’s social canvas is woven from internally displaced persons, retirees, persons with disabilities, people who lack identification documents or proper registration/ residency permits, women who face tremendous amounts of childcare tasks, coupled with work or running a business, persons with low income and those who have recently become unemployed, rural residents, veterans returning to civilian life and many, many others.

Thus, when designing and deploying those new technologies, as both UNDP and MDT realise, it is crucial to follow the human-rights-based approach, and buttress it with a gender assessment of each possible vulnerable group. Human-rights considerations need to be included at the early stage of designing and planning new technologies. MDT has already championed the launch of a Public Council for Accessibility, has set up a network of offline hubs across the country that could serve initial entry points for those lacking or wary of digital technology. Ukraine’s accession to the Biarritz Partnership and national activities supported by the First Lady, Olena Zelenska, are further testimony to changes that are beginning to take root.

During its preparatory stage for the larger thematic project with MDT, UNDP Ukraine has, amongst other things, been closely following the work that National Human Rights Institutions (NHRI) in other European countries have been doing with regards to the nexus between digital and human rights. An overview of these findings is the foundation of our new thought-paper: “Human Rights and eServices Innovation: An Unlikely Crossbreed or an Essential Need,” which strongly advocates for collaboration between NHRIs and state institutions in the realm of digital transformation. To make the next leap forward in digitalization, we need not only to transform services, but tailor them to human rights considerations, one byte at a time.


(*) According to the assessment methodology used by the European Commission: please see.