A view of the main square in Cluj-Napoca, Source: Depositphotos

Online public services as efficient as TikTok: Cluj-Napoca’s Digital Transformation

Online public services as efficient as TikTok: Cluj-Napoca’s Digital Transformation

A talk with Nicolae Urs, one of the key figures behind the city's new data platforms and online services strategy

Picture this: Rolling green hills as far as the eye can see. Small villages doting the landscape with characteristic tall roofs and pointy bales of hay, stacked like anthills. Narrow asphalt roads intermingle with gravel and dirt alleys, featuring deep muddy puddles.

People are off to work. Some drive a car and some take the bus to nearby big cities. Others cruise the country roads by horse-drawn carts - makeshift wooden contraptions with car tires and an incredible amount of things piled on in their interiors. Yet others go on foot, supported by a trusty stick and rubber boots to brave the mud.


A view of a Transylvanian village, Source: Michael Michelovski / Unsplash

Then the hills part and reveal Cluj-Napoca – Romania’s second biggest city. Through a clever combination of public policies, it has managed to defeat the odds and develop a booming IT sector amid the pastoral reality of the region. It boasts two recognised IT clusters, despite a population of just under 350,000 (as of 2011).

This is a very broad picture of Transylvania in Romania’s northwest, a place where time contradicts itself. On the one hand, there are villages where time has stood still since the turn of the 20th century and on the other – a beacon of opportunity and innovation in the form of this city.

And it wants to go a step further. Enter Cluj-Napoca’s Digital Transformation Strategy, developed by Nicolae Urs, Vice-Dean in the College of Political, Administrative and Communication Sciences (FSPAC) at Babeş-Bolyai University. The strategy aims to introduce digital government practices that change the relationship between authorities and the public.

In an interview for TheMayor.EU, he explained the biggest obstacles lying ahead – resistance to change, inflexible public authorities and skipping even one beat on innovation. He also expanded on the main ideas to tackle them – creating a Digital Transformation Office to tend to other public authorities and make sure that the seven-year strategy stays up to date and on track and creating an ergonomic digital platform that people would use the same way they use popular apps like TikTok.

nicolae ursNicolae Urs, Vice-Dean in the College of Political, Administrative
and Communication Sciences (FSPAC) at Babeş-Bolyai University

Embedding technology into a community

One very important feature of Cluj-Napoca’s Digital Transformation Strategy is the philosophy behind its implementation – a careful and targeted approach to every project, with care to garner support from the administration workers on the ground.

While Cluj-Napoca is a prosperous city, especially considering its geographic location, it is still not a very wealthy city, at least compared to its western and central European counterparts. This means that every investment in digital tools will take out a much bigger chunk of the local budget, comparatively.

Consequently, City Hall needs to find ways to guarantee that the tools and services they build will be used and useful for public authorities, private companies, citizens, NGOs and etc. As Nicolae Urs put it, it is easy to buy technology, get the platforms and the machines, servers and so on, but public authorities still have to integrate them effectively.

The main pillars of the strategy

The strategy has four main pillars, otherwise known as core projects. As Vice-Dean Urs put it, they are structured in a progressive order, with each one deepening the integration of digital technology. The first one is fairly simple – doing a digital audit of the city.

According to Urs, local authorities and the team behind the strategy do not have a concrete idea about the type of data Cluj-Napoca would actually collect, what form it takes and how useful could it be. For example, there is a lot of GPS data from the public transport system or CCTV data.

This would lead to the second core project, which is creating an urban data platform that integrates all the data into one stream, one database, with different stakeholders using it. For example, by bundling up the information from the bike-sharing system, taxis, and public transport, a potential user of the database can get a very rich picture of the state of mobility in the city.

This would then enable the creation of a sort of digital ID for citizens. As Vice-Dean Urs put it, the different public institutions currently collect different types of digital data, so each citizen is not a single entity to them. On the other hand, for citizens, the digital government is not a single entity with a variety of cards and codes to interact with the different institutions. He continued:

But if you want to provide complex digital services to citizens and companies, you have to have a way to identify participants. Ideally, for the public sector as a whole, the citizen should be one individual with one identity.”

The fourth core project is to support the local IT infrastructure, NGOs and different stakeholders with the unified data platform.

The question of digital surveillance and the ethics of selling public data

One question that immediately comes up in our discussion is the ethics of selling data from public institutions to private companies – sure to raise a lot of eyebrows. Do public institutions even have a right to sell the data citizens produce and who owns the data in the end?

Luckily, Vice-Dean Urs has already thought of that issue and as far as he and the strategy are concerned the data is the property of the citizens. At the same time, however, both public, private and non-governmental entities can make tremendous use of it and improve the overall quality of life.

This is why the data-collection platform should feature anonymized information, publicly available for free. As he put it:

“(I'm) not interested specifically which citizen did this, or took the bus. I'm interested in (the data that) one citizen took the bus, or ten, or a hundred.”

Getting public institutions and on-the-ground workers on the side of technology

Ultimately, the endgame for the Digital Transformation Strategy is to blend it with public institutions and urban life so it becomes completely unnoticeable. Citizens would just get the benefits from technology, easier tools and faster services, while the ‘magic’ happens behind closed doors.

However, to make that idea work, Nicolae Urs explains that things need to change from within the institutions and how institutions interact with stakeholders. The first point of change has to be to increase people’s trust in technology.

This means explaining to citizens and government or private employees what technology can do for them.

“Because otherwise, you would get barriers, walls and resistance to change.”

He continued: “The digital transformation will come whether they like it or not. So society will transform. We must choose if we are at the forefront or we are left behind.” Mr Urs gave an example by imagining the introduction of a digital tool in the back office of an institution. “Who do you think will get promoted? People who know how to use it or people who don’t want to use it because they are threatened by it?”

Digital transformation office

To develop the Digital Transformation Strategy for Cluj-Napoca, Nicolae Urs and his team started off by looking at different European examples like Barcelona, Hamburg or Milan. One thing they figured out is that it is much easier for the strategy to stay on course and continue to produce good results way past its adoption if it has an institutional vehicle.

He pointed out that long-term strategies in the European Union usually last for about seven years, due to the nature of funding. However, in the world of technology that is an awfully long time – for instance, technology and its potential uses have changed drastically in the last seven years.

He continued: “Many of our operation plans will not be feasible in five years. We needed somebody whose job is to look at the strategy daily and see what works and what doesn’t work and how can it be adapted and changed if necessary.”

Vice-Dean Urs explained that creating the Digital Transformation Office was a hassle in administrative terms and it is still not complete because it is not fully staffed.

“It is not that easy to find the rules that allow you to create a new department inside the city hall and to give them power over other departments so you have authority to change stuff.”

Making public services as sexy as Tik-Tok

Around 80% of Romanians use the internet. Of course, in cities that percentage is higher but in rural areas, the majority of people are also connected, as Mr Urs pointed out. Most of this Internet usage is for checking info, messaging or playing games.

Nicolae Urs exclaimed:

“So if somebody in Churila, a village near Cluj-Napoca, uses a smartphone to access Tik-Tok, that is a digital service. Why couldn’t we make our digital public services, if not as easy, at least as ergonomic as Tik-Tok.”

“We should have started 20 years ago, but if we haven’t, then we should start as soon as possible to educate people to use digital services. It’s a big project, and there will be ups and downs, but I don’t think we can allow ourselves not to try to do this. And if we talk about communities around Cluj-Napoca, why should we build ten platforms paid for by City Hall? Why can’t we get together and create something that can be used by all of them.”



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