Interview with Miquel Estapé by Priyankar Bhunia. Malaysian Government Public Sector CIO Congress.  OpenGov Asia (original source)

“What makes our organization possibly different from others, is that we provide digital government services to all the public administrations in the area, currently more than 2000 government organizations in Catalonia. This includes regional governments, provincial governments, local governments, universities and others,” he continued.

This is done in a very collaborative way. AOC also provides training and consultancy and works together with the public administrations on improving its services.

The government administrations in Catalonia are AOC’s clients but at the same time, they are also AOC’s stakeholders and are represented in AOC’s executive committee.

AOC is funded by the regional government and all public administrations in the region. The administrations pay for some services provided by AOC but that represents only 10% of the AOC’s budget.

Mr. Estapé has been working for 15 years with the government of Catalonia and for the last 3 years, he has occupied the position of the deputy director, managing operations in various areas of the organization.

Following a mandate from a new General Manager last year to increase investment in innovative services, Mr. Estapé has been working on innovative projects. He leads a team to foster innovation initiatives with potentially high impact on society.

Services provided by AOC to government administrations

The first area is related to digital identity. There are two main systems right now. One based on the use of digital certificates and the other using 2FA (two-factor authentication) via mobile SMS. The former is meant for use by the public sector and companies/ businesses.

Digital certificates are based on the logic of private and public keys. It comprises a piece of software which can be stored in a card and the user has a password to access the private key. Every time a user submits a form or accesses a public website, there is a process of encrypting and making sure that everything is safe. The user uses their private key to authenticate or sign documents. The governments have access to the public key of the user to verify the identity.

For ordinary users, who are not technical experts and do not have access to technical support, AOC focuses on using 2FA-based on mobile. It works well but Mr. Estapé said that the issue with the 2FA is that the codes are sent using SMS. There are some concerns about the security of the SMS technology. AOC is looking for solutions to this. A new technology is being explored, called mobile connect, which uses the SIM card of the phone as a token.

The second area of government-wide services AOC is responsible for ensuring interoperability. Different administrations need to exchange a lot of information. It was done on paper in the past, now it is mostly electronic.

Another area is the deployment of digital services in the cloud. AOC provides some of the services required to manage productivity, such as Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions used by the government administrations.

The final area is change management. Mr. Estapé explained, “It’s important to have very good digital services but if you don’t have a smart change management strategy, it’s difficult to achieve real digital transformation. We have many training courses, so that we can make sure people learn how to use these new services.”

Disruptive technologies

AOC is conducting doing proof of concepts and pilots in several emerging technology areas.

For instance, AOC is using chatbots to improve user support. This involves natural language processing to understand the users’ queries and provide the right answers.

AOC is also providing blockchain-as-a-service so that any public administration in Catalonia can do trials, tests and proof of concepts using the technology. Mr. Estapé explained that at the moment there is a lot of hype around the technology, but ideas need to be tested and business cases found which will provide real value.

Citizen-centric services

Another area being explored is forecasting citizens’ needs and providing anticipatory services. This is This is done using big data and data science techniques to analyse the needs of users, detect patterns and provide personalised services to citizens, especially to the socially and economically vulnerable.

This is part of AOC’s attempts to adopt citizen-centric approach to delivering government services. “The issue is that I don’t think governments are used to working with a citizen-centric approach. We are trying to change the culture now,” Mr. Estapé said.

AOC is developing a systematic way to collect consumer feedback and get new ideas from citizens. Every time a citizen conducts a transaction, at the end there is a survey, which asks the user if they have any idea to improve the service. Users can submit ideas, see all the ideas, vote. AOC also launches challenges to solve specific issues that the public administrations do not know how to solve. Ideas are sought from the community, including citizens, public employees, government officials and so.

AOC is also analysing user behaviour when browsing public services. Mr. Estapé said that sometimes it’s better to see what citizens really do, rather than asking them what they want. There are tools to analyse and record all the browsing and so on.

Sometimes for these citizen-centric services, cross-agency or cross-government collaboration is required between governments and government agencies at different levels. AOC was created to facilitate and enable regional co-operation.

“Cooperation is one of our core values and we have a committee made up of representatives of several public administrations. So, this is not a project managed by one government. Having said that, there are quite a few collaboration challenges within Catalonia and also with the Spanish Government because there are different agendas, different objectives and it’s not always easy to align to work together along the same path,” Mr. Estapé said.

That’s why AOC spends a lot of time and effort trying to get everybody in the same boat within Catalonia and with the Spanish Government. That’s one area always taken into consideration every time a new initiative is launched, or new services deployed.

What does Open Government mean?

When asked the question above, Mr. Estapé responded, “For me, it’s what creates trust, accountability and collaboration with citizens. The outcome of a good Open Government policy is that citizens trust the government, they have accountability about government actions and they are really keen on collaboration with the government, because they are engaged with the government. So basically, Open Government is fundamental for a democratic society.”

There is a new regulation in Spain requiring opening up a lot of public information. Mr. Estapé said that it was a big challenge about how to open up so much information to the public. AOC has a shared digital service where all the public administrations in Catalonia can open all the information, proceedings, processes and so on. All this information is opened in a very structured way standard way for ease of access of the citizens.

Through an open data platform, information from all the local public entities in Catalonia is consolidated. All this information is available and compliant with all the international standards about interoperability and so on. AOC is also providing some visualisations of big data and easy-to-understand reports so citizens can understand how institutions are spending their money etc.

Instead of the town halls publishing the information on their own website, they are using AOC’s shared service and 50% of the information is published automatically. An estimated 1.5 million euros are being saved every year.

AOC also applies the ‘once only’ principle. It means that all Catalonian public administrations have the duty to submit information to the regional and federal governments. This includes information on personnel, budgets, debts, subsidies and so on and it ensures that the same information is not collected multiple times at multiple points.

One of the big challenges has been managing all the negotiations with the central government and local government to open up all their databases. “We have much more power because we represent all the public administrations in Catalonia. Basically, the challenge is a change of culture. We call this the “Gollum barrier” – after the character from the Lord of the Rings, who just doesn’t want to let go of his precious ring.”

“We are the owners of government data – we have been spending all our lives preserving and protecting the government data, and now there is a new regulation saying all this data should be open. But then they suffer from some kind of paranoia when someone wants to have access to this data. The challenge is how to change the mindsets of public employees and managers to embrace the values of sharing information, open data and accountability.”