This case study on the Croatian digital solution ePass (e-Propusnica) has been written following the insights provided by Mr Igor Ljubi from the Central State office for the Development of the Digital Society in Croatia.
Impact of the COVID-19 crisis on public services delivery in Croatia
The delivery of public services in Croatia during the COVID-19 crisis has been hindered by stringent lockdown measures coming into force in March 2020. The traditional way of delivering public services, with citizens going to public administrations’ offices and having face-to-face interactions with public servants, was no longer possible as citizens across the country were asked to remain at home. These measures made the use of digital public services essential to ensure continuity in their delivery.
Therefore, Croatian public administrations incentivised the use of ICT tools to mitigate the disruption of their services, for instance, by giving the possibility to citizens and businesses to submit their requests to public administrations via email and setting up teleworking schemes for civil servants.
ePass inception to enable the general access to public services
In March 2020, the Croatian government imposed a national lockdown, preventing Croatian citizens from leaving their municipality of residence. Such a scheme required granting exceptions for special needs, for instance for essential workers and citizens who had to access face-to-face public services in another municipality. In order to manage this process, the Croatian Civil Protection Office drew a list of valid exceptions for citizens across the country to exit their municipality. It is worth noting that this list has been adapted throughout the crisis to meet evolving needs; however, accessing public services that requested physical presence has been included as a valid reason since the beginning of the lockdown measures. This authorisation was delivered via passes that were given to citizens who were deemed as having a valid reason to freely leave their municipality. The delivery of the passes was originally managed manually by civil servants checking the validity of the requests and either accepting or denying them. Due to the very high volume of requests, however, an automated solution appeared to be essential to manage this process. This issue pushed the Croatian government to develop an IT solution to automate the delivery of passes: ePass.
Development of ePass within the Croatian administration
The development of ePass was launched as a response to the Croatian Civil Protection Office’s need to automatise the delivery of passes during the COVID-19 lockdown across the country. Due to the very high volume of requests, the Ministry of Justice and Administration, then in charge of developing digital public services prior to the transfer of responsibilities to the Central State Office for the Development of the Digital Society, tasked a team of 30 people to quickly develop a digital solution to automate the delivery of the passes and alleviate the burden on civil servants.
Additionally, the team included advisors to the Minister in charge of ensuring direct contact to government officials as well as ICT experts (e.g. IT architects and developers). Some of the experts involved in the development of ePass were consultants from a private consulting company specialised in software development and contributing pro bono to the development of the solution. This cross-organisational team first focused on identifying the correct data sources in base registries across public administrations’ IT systems. To expedite the development of ePass, the team reused components to save development time. For example, the eCitizens system, which unifies Croatia's citizens' access to eGovernment services has been leveraged along with the country’s Shared Service Centre, which contains an enormous quantity of government data.
The development of ePass spanned over the course of three weeks and was launched on 1 April 2020. This was the first time the Croatian public administrations developed a digital solution targeting the entire Croatian population in such a short timeframe.
Following the launch, the team split in two: one half of the team was put in charge of user support (i.e. help desk) to follow up with any requests or claims and the other half continued to further upgrade the solution (i.e. development of new features and bug fixing).
Features and uses of ePass
ePass is a digital solution, available via an online browser, enabling Croatian citizens to request authorisation forms to move outside their municipality to reach a specific place. ePass became the central solution for requesting and obtaining this electronic pass as the requests were checked by the system and automatically denied or accepted. Acceptance of the circulation request by the ePass system allowed citizens to download their electronic pass (containing a QR code) in PDF format and print it. Alternatively, they could download the pass in an electronic format and save the document on their mobile phones, although no specific mobile application for ePass was available. To ensure the accessibility of the solution to all Croatian citizens, people with a limited access to digital means could still obtain the electronic pass by physically going to the Civil Protection Office of their municipality and making a request. The Civil Protection Officer would then use the ePass system to submit a request on behalf of the citizens and print the pass for them.
Police forces could also leverage ePass using a dedicated mobile application, which allowed them to scan citizens’ passes and check their validity to ensure they were travelling in compliance with the pass they were granted.
Key takeaways from Croatia on the rapid digital response to COVID-19
The development and implementation of ePass in Croatia was very quick, with the first version of the solution available in three weeks. The main takeaway from this implementation is that public administrations can implement complex digital solutions in a short timeframe by leveraging existing reusable and interoperable components in order to quickly respond to emergency situations.
The team behind ePass pinpoints the quick development to already available data from interconnection of base registries following the Once Only Principle and close collaboration with the hierarchy, made possible by cabinet members being part of the team, as key elements in the success of ePass. Indeed, the involvement of cabinet members was a strong asset allowing developers to quickly escalate issues and solve them in less than 24 hours. Additionally, good knowledge of the government’s IT architecture proved valuable to quickly leverage existing data and tools to respond to the emergency state imposed by the COVID-19 crisis.
Quick development and implementation of complex digital solutions within the public administration is possible thanks to the reuse of existing components and interoperable systems.
 The Shared Service Centre is the Croatian governmental cloud IT infrastructure which can combine a large quantity of data to facilitate data management across public administrations.