Portugal’s Journey Towards Digital Progress
The digital transformation operated in Portugal in the past two decades has been extraordinary. It has set in motion important changes in mind-sets and the traditional culture of Portuguese administration, putting citizens at the centre. It demonstrates that countries can leapfrog digital transformation. The experience of Portugal provides many valuable insights and lessons for digital reformers seeking to accelerate their digital transition.
The coronavirus crisis has accelerated the urgency of the digital transformation of governments around the world to meet the rising expectations of digital citizens in the provision of public services. What was important before, has become essential. The crisis has revealed the importance of digital resilience as a critical dimension of public governance to manage and overcome the consequences of the health emergency and “rebuild back better”. Countries that have made greater progress in their digital transformation have been better able to weather the storm and are now better positioned for the digitally-propelled recovery. The transformation of government that digital solutions now permit is designed, ultimately, to get better government, improve public policies and deliver better services.
In this context, the experience of Portugal provides many valuable insights and lessons for digital reformers seeking to accelerate their digital transition. Reflecting on journeys towards progress, political economist Albert O. Hirschman remarked that “creativity always comes a surprise to us; therefore, we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened.” In that sense, the digital transformation operated in Portugal in the past two decades has been extraordinary. It has set in motion important changes in mind-sets and the traditional culture of Portuguese administration, putting citizens at the centre. It demonstrates that countries can leapfrog digital transformation.
While the driver of the digital reforms a decade ago was aimed at improving efficiency and cutting costs, it gradually shifted towards improving people’s quality of life, and making the public administration more efficient and as seamless as possible. Interestingly, digital government in Portugal has always been considered an integral part of its administrative modernisation efforts, not distinct from it. The Portuguese experience shows how important it is to institutionalise a politically-empowered governance structure in the centre of government driving the reforms and unblocking resistance to change.
In a relatively short period of time, Portugal has risen to the top league of digitally-advanced countries, joining the select group of the Digital Nations in 2018. This recognition reflects its impressive progress and remarkable achievements achieved by successive governments in leveraging new technologies and data insights to make government work better for everyone. Portugal has indeed been recognized as one of the global leaders in digital government according to the United Nations and the OECD digital government indices, having invested continuous and consistent efforts in the last 15 years.
Portugal digital transformation strategy has triggered profound transformations in the way the public administration operates and in the design of public services. Its vision is to provide better public services to citizens and businesses focusing on the digital transformation of public administrations and using digital innovations as a catalyst of public sector modernization. In a way, the process has emphasized transformation over digitalization.
This transformation has been driven by the centre of government by political leaders, especially women leaders, with a clear vision and consistency of purpose, backed by strong political will as a state priority across governments and sustained over time. It has been supported by politically-empowered governance structure setting “the tone from the top” to drive and, at times, force whole-of-government reforms, complemented by a committed central digital agency with a strong mandate and implementation capabilities.
This combination of efforts, political and technical, has been instrumental in these achievements. Portugal has significantly invested in its digital infrastructure early on to build the necessary foundations for its government digital services. It has combined investments in cross-government digital enablers – such as digital identity and the interoperability platform, with strategic initiatives delivering quick wins to build political support for sustaining the reforms. Such strategic initiatives include the flagship program for administrative simplification, SIMPLEX, an initiative launched in 2006 that has been sustained since then. The digital strategy has also focused its efforts on critical public services such as health and justice to simplify lives and demonstrate public value.
The Portuguese public administration has launched some pioneering digital solutions that are inspiring examples of a citizen-driven approach. Interestingly, it has always sought to combine digitalization with simplification to create seamless public services, that it, rethinking service delivery processes rather than digitalising obsolete or redundant processes. In doing so, it has avoided the pitfall that many countries haven’t, that is transforming bureaucracies into e-bureaucracies. Currently, Portugal is working to increase interoperability within the public sector to overcome data silos and interconnect public entities. It is also seeking to apply the European-wide “once-only” principle so that citizens have only to provide a specific information to administrations only once.
These efforts have put citizens first, centering public services around people’s life events and tailored to local realities, so that public services genuinely become services to the public. They include concrete initiatives that have improve people’s lives in tangible ways, such citizen cards, medical e-prescriptions, and a single portal to access all government services, e-Portugal. One of the distinguished features this platform launched in 2019 is that services to citizens are organized based on life events, not based on the prerogatives of each public administration.
A recent review of Portugal’s digital journey includes many insights for digital reformers wishing to emulate its example. It also provides evidence on the results and impact of digital reforms, including in terms of efficiency gains and fiscal savings to the public purse. This sort of value-for-money evidence is especially important in times of crisis where budget constraints are particularly acute. It also helps make a better case for the return on investment of going digital, despite high upfront costs. Measures of impact are impressive and illustrate the benefits of digital transformation. For example, SIMPLEX+ 2017 contributed to save annually 8,142 million hours to citizens, 6,3 million hours to companies, and 560.000 hours to the public administration. The benefits produced by these 40 initiatives of the SIMPLEX+ 2017 Program account for 0,12% of GDP. As such, digital reforms are an investment, rather than a cost.
There are many lessons from the Portuguese experience. The most important one is that modernizing government is not only about technology. It is about transforming government and altering traditional relations between citizens and bureaucracies, putting people front and center. It is about rethinking bureaucracies in a way that they serve citizens better, instead of citizens having to serve cumbersome bureaucracies based on paper. At its heart, it is a change of culture in public administrations to restore the very concept of public service. It is about changing minds and improving lives and, ultimately, strengthening trust in government. Portugal’s digital journey shows that, citing the famous French artist Henri Matisse, “creativity takes courage.”