“We can overtake even Estonia in digitalisation”
My interview with Zdeněk Zajíček ran a little late. He is known to the public mainly as the father of “Czech Point”, a member of parliament and Deputy Interior Minister. A detailed overview of his career, however, can serve as an excursion into history and an illustrative example of how the transformation of the Czech Republic turned out. He claims himself that opportunity has always found him. I think in his case “Fortune favours the prepared” is a better description. See for yourself: over four years at the beginning of the 1990s, he gained experience at the city prosecutor’s office, the National Property Management Ministry, and the Land Fund. He also took his Law examinations, so during his career he smoothly transferred three times between work in politics, in the civil service and in the private sector. He was elected to the Czech Parliament’s Chamber of Deputies for the Civic Democratic Party (Občanská demokratická strana – ODS) in 1996. At the turn of the millennium, he moved to the City of Prague Council, where he began to create the foundations for Czech Point with his team. He was working in Prague Council during the flood and the period following it, which was exactly 15 years before our interview. Then from 2003 he worked for the Central Bohemian Region as a healthcare and hospital transformation advisor. Since 2006 he has successively held the roles of Deputy Interior Minister, Deputy Justice Minister, and Deputy Finance Minister.
In 2013, he left politics for the bar and to work in education. His wife owns and runs the private International and Public Relations Grammar School in Prague. Zdeněk Zajíček spoke of his wife with admiration and appreciation, and has helped her in running the school, and this personally lefta good impression on me. He didn’t stay away from public affairs for long, having headed ICT UNIE since 2016.I don’t know whether you believe in synchronicity, but before my interview with the main proponent of civil service computerisation, I had the opportunity to see how digitalisation and data sharing is getting on in the country. The day before the interview, I had forgotten to move my public transport season ticket from one handbag to the other. I was rather annoyed at having to submit the original to the transport company’s headquarters during its inconvenient opening hours, despite the factI have a year’s season ticket with a number issued to my name and the ticket inspector saw my ID. On the day of the interview, I went to the doctor where I had to show my health insurance card and state ID card. It might seema tri e. But why should I when the state already has all this information? Zdeněk Zajíček and his team have calculated that the public can hold up to 260 various ID cards issued by various institutions. It is unfortunate that although the Czech Republic has one of the best registries, it is unable to use it effectively. On the day of the interview, Estonia announced its plan to implement its own, state-sanctioned cryptocurrency, the Estcoin. Zdeněk Zajíček came to the interview with a 202020 badge on his lapel, and he proudly declared that as far as digitalisation is concerned, the Czech Republic has a number of projects running which could even overtake Estonia’s proverbial digitalisation.
Mr President, during your career you’ve been in politics, the civil service and the private sector. What moments in your career have influenced you most?
I graduated in Law in 1991, and I linked my career path with the state and its reform. My first position at the city prosecutor’s office where I learnt about criminal law influenced me a lot. I considered a career as a prosecutor then. I still have great respect for criminal law, especially its clarity, structure and intelligibility. As a fresh young legal graduate, I was then invited to the Ministry for Privatisation where I looked after agricultural privatisation, so I learnt not just about the transformation laws, but also the issue of restitution. This was shortly followed by a role within Land Fund management, where I was in charge of legal matters. After four years, I felt tired, left the civil service, did my bar examinations and became a professional lawyer from January 1996. I wanted to exploit my knowledge of criminal law and now transformation law at the bar. However, I got the offer of running for parliament’s Chamber of Deputies. From an unelectable 11th position, I was eventually voted in. The next focus and challenge in my career involved the opportunity to create legislation. I became a member of the Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee for the civil service and the environment. As such, I was building on my prior positions and I learnt about the creation and preparation of laws and how fundamentally their creation affects their application in practice. I endeavoured to promote my opinions, but I was just one voice in 200. I left in 1998 and returned to the bar. Following the snap election and the “Sarajevo Assassination”, the political situation was in turbulence. For me, it was a disappointment, I felt somewhat disillusioned and I went back to the bar. That lasted just under two years.
It wasn’t long before you got another offer. You worked for Prague Council from 1999, where you also experienced the flood, whose 15th anniversary we are now commemorating. Looking back, the fact that nobody lost their lives in a flood of such size in Prague seems little appreciated. How do you look back on that time?
I was born in Prague, so working for the council was a great challenge for me to take on. At that time, the council had almost 2000 employees, so in terms of size it was comparable to the largest ministries. Personally, I think my time at the council was one of the most enjoyable for me. I really enjoyed working with people. It was at that time that I had the opportunity to reconstruct the council, give it a different structure, and create clear barriers between political and official representatives. In local administration, you are much closer to the people; every decision made is seen by the people within just weeks or months. That’s a big difference compared to my previous legislative role, where the period between adoption of a law, its acceptance by the public and its actual impact is measured in years. The period of the flood was also almost the culmination of my work in the council. I was part of the crisis team and I was able to learn more about myself and test out my stamina, while also getting to know my colleagues better. I didn’t sleep for three days; we set out to protect first peoples’ lives and then property. For the general public, public servants may seem indecisive, operating within a certain civil service elite and using worn out methods. But this crisis period showed these people were absolutely exceptional, they took on responsibility, made risks and sacrificed their everyday need for sleep and food to protect the city. I realised how important it was not to cave in to first impressions when someone at a counter or office may appear unapproachable. Many of these people are of much greater value than we are capable of recognising.
You are known for claiming that the state can provide certain services online like private entities. It was during your time at the council that the foundations for Czech Point were being set up. What led you to implement it?
Our team was already working on computerisation, but you should take into account it was 1999 and the internet and its accessibility was nowhere near as widespread as it is today. I always looked at my projects from a user perspective. It seemed perverse that if I lived in Stodůlky and worked in Letňany then I would have to take a day off to arrange planning permission, applying at my place of residence. At that time, and still to this day, there are vehicles which travel between different authorities carrying internal post. So why couldn’t they take post to the public too? So the idea of a single point for submitting and receiving documents came at the council. The next project we implemented was the first register of contracts in electronic form, which allowed an overview of contracts the city had concluded to be viewed. Although this is something which crops up before every election, the option for such checks was already there in 2000.
Czech Point was implemented when you were Deputy Interior Minister. I was surprised that the whole project was launched in just seven months; in the civil service most projects take years, or even whole parliamentary terms.
It’s about the desire, the will, to change something and the energy invested in the project. Find allies and guarantee security. We managed to implement this ground-breaking idea and unique service, including system delivery, legislative changes and the training of public servants beginning 4 September 2006 when I took up the role until 28 March 2007, when the first document was issued on Teachers’ Day in Prague 13. Over subsequent years, the service has expanded not just to almost all authorities, but also to Czech Post and bank branches, and notarial and law offices. We managed to achieve something which had until then been unthinkable. Forget long queues, special forms and the stamps you needed to get the original Criminal Record Check in Pankrác, Prague. Now, you can also get Property Register extracts or the popular extract from a driver’s points register. It was fascinating to see how different authorities were afraid to share their previously exclusive powers, afraid of an abuse of the system which never occurred. And today we have moved from a physical Czech Point to a virtual Czech Point, and you can now apply for an extract using “Czech Point at home”, and it will arrive in your data mailbox.
Your next project was data mailboxes, although these have not achieved the same popularity as Czech Point did.
Unfortunately, this system was the subject of political dispute and initially had a bad name, and users were frightened off . The system doesn’t deserve that; it is one of the most accomplished systems for state- guaranteed delivery not just in Europe, but in the world. Many countries are jealous of us. Data mailboxes have great potential for an expanded use between companies, but there is no will to support the system. It is the same story for the Basic Registers system, based on the principle that the state provides its data just once and the institution shares it. The system is fully functional again, but it isn’t used. As such, the state and its institutions continue to annoy citizens unnecessarily. The state could share this data further with commercial institutions, naturally with the citizen’s consent.
In 2013, you left for the private sector and you abandoned continuing digitalisation. After an almost three-year break in the education system, you were again persuaded to return to the world of ICT at the head of ICT UNIE. Now you are working on a revolutionary project again.
It is to our own detriment when we look at IT negatively and we don’t exploit the opportunities this sector offers. Nine out of ten ICT projects have succeeded. In 2008, the Czech Republic was assessed as in 25th place in the world in e-government, but in 2016 we were in 50th place. Originally, our ambition was to be in the top five. Since joining ICT UNIE, I’ve come up with the 202020 in national colours project. My objective was to return to the top twenty. Not by evolution, but by revolution. Let’s forget about petty disputes, criminal complaints and political division. We’ve begun to bring various entities together under the 202020 brand. We’re endeavouring to provide positive information about e-government; we’ve had enough of critics and frustration. We’ve got support in the Chamber of Deputies and in the Senate, and we’ve even found it in the government. We’re also endeavouring to prepare new projects for the future government. ICT UNIE is a collective member of the Chamber of Commerce. My colleague Tomáš Vrbík, whom I know from my previous work, and I have put together the PES “Právní elektronický systém pro podnikatele” (Legal Electronic System for Entrepreneurs) project. I came to realise that today nobody really knows what their obligations are. Over the last 25 years, law has expanded hugely and not even lawyers, civil servants, judges or MPs have a comprehensive knowledge of it, never mind entrepreneurs themselves. That is perverse. Entrepreneurs should be doing business, not studying law in the evenings so they know what their obligations are in carrying out their business. We want to create an accessible overview of obligations on the internet, based either on individual laws or fields of business, according to your current situation in life. You could enter road transport and you’d get an overview of all laws and standards. And it’ll work the same way if you want to run a fast food stand. The appropriate law is ready now. And not even Estonia has this kind of law. We have the opportunity to be the first in the world.
By Linda Štucbartová
The Information Technology and Telecommunication Association (ICT UNIE – ICTU) is a professional association of companies in the information technology and electronic communication fields, as well as other business and educational entities whose objective is to increase the awareness of the importance of adopting and making use of modern information technology in our society, including creating the optimal conditions for developing public electronic communication networks in the Czech Republic as an essential condition for establishing an information society. ICTU has over 70 members. ICT UNIE’s mission is to be a respected professional organisation in the ICT industry which removes barriers which slow down the development of information and communication technologies in order to benefit consumers. We want to be a partner and opponent to the Czech Republic government in projects promoting a movement towards a European information society and a government and civil service working effectively for its citizens and the business sector.