E-Albania “fails” in rural areas! “Thrives” in the chancellery shops, 15 businesses are fined for illegal services

E-Albania “fails” in rural areas, where the population has limited to no access to the Internet. The elderly and the Roma community report discrimination and that employees from the local government address them to the chancellery shops to receive services from the government portal, in conflict of interest. The State Inspectorate of Market Supervision fines 15 entities that offer this service, for violating industrial property rights.

Author: Arlis Alikaj

As of May 1, 2022 when government services to citizens went virtual and every action is done online, much concerns and confusion was reported from marginalized groups as the elderly, communities in rural areas as well as those with learning difficulties, and especially the Roma community to receiving these services.

In the photo: The closure of in-person services, the announcement placed on the closed doors of the institutions

The elderly feel excluded from the digital revolution

 “I don’t know how to access the online services offered by the Albanian government, and I don’t even have a smartphone. Even when I open the phone when a message comes in, I can barely read it. I have never used E-Albania. The action for the renewal of the pension, I did it through the physical office in the municipality, now that the office is closed, I don’t know where to go. My husband went to Tirana with our daughter to get some documents. He even stays there for a long time when he does periodic checks, while I wait once a month when the son comes from Germany,” says Violeta Mehmetllari, a pensioner from Librazhd.

Violeta Mehmetllari, a pensioner in Librazhd showing her simple phone

Civil registry employees admit that citizens encounter difficulties, but they must turn to the chancellery shops to receive these services, even though it is not permissible for these businesses. This app was designed to avoid bribery. Citizens also show cases where employees direct citizens to specific shops.

ACQJ’s observations showed that the E-Albania service is offered at the local chancellery shops for a fee of 100-300 ALL. However, in Elbasan and Prrenjas there are also those solicitor’s and notery offices which, for opening the application and applying for a document on property services, such as the Land Registry, they request 2000 ALL.

In the notary offices, it is accepted that this service is performed, but it is punishable by law. E-Albania is a brand which is registered by the National Agency of Information Society and also the portal where public services are provided free of cost. ISHMT announced in May of this year that the service of receiving the document from e-Albania in entities that have turned it into a business using this logo is punishable by a fine of up to 500,000 ALL.

Card of a private subject providing E-Albania services. | Photo: Arlis Alikaj

Three months after this announcement, the ACQJ addressed this institution with the question of what are the measures taken against the private providers that have turned this service into business. The State Inspectorate of Market Supervision said that it has imposed penalties on 15 subjects, but without specifying the amount of the fine.

In the response to ACQJ, ISHMT says that “assessing the importance of the “e-Albania” portal for the public interest, it immediately began monitoring the market to identify entities that used the “e-Albania” trademark for commercial purposes, violating the rights of protected industrial property where the focus has been on the cities where it is located and the largest concentration of economic activities such as Tirana, Durrës, Fier, Korçë, Shkodër, but not only. From the above, 15 (fifteen) entities have been identified, which had posted and advertised the “e-Albania” brand in the place of commercial activity. For these entities, ISHMT has imposed administrative measures with a fine, for the violation of legal requirements referred to Law No. 9947 dated 07.07.2008 “On Industrial Property” (amended) as well as the task of removing the “e-Albania” brand from use”.

However, an observation conducted by the ACQJ shows that few businesses that perform this online service have it set up as an advertisement. To avoid the penalties potentially levied against them, instead of the logo, they present themselves as service chancellery shops. Yet, some of them are not afraid of the law, and have not removed the e-Albania logos from their premises.

Xhane Kaca, who does not have an identity card as her previous one has expired, only has a passport, she does not have an account in e-Albania. Recently, in August 2022, she turned to private offices in the city of Librazhd, to open a personal profile because, as she says, for most of the actions and obligations she has, they require her to have an account on the government portal. “I don’t have anyone to open an address for me, the girls are far away, I’m going to a private business to open them, they ask me 200 ALL to open it. But how can I be sure what he can do tomorrow with my personal data? What about someone who has no one to assist him? At the time when 100 ALL can buy a loaf of bread, 200 ALL is the cost to open a personal profile”, concludes the indignant Xhane.

In the photo, Xhane Kaca from Librazhd opening an account in E-Albania near a private office.

Flutura is a pensioner from Prrenjas who could not withdraw the Rama government bonus. The Social Resistance Package that was presented by the government a few months ago so that groups in need can cope with the “time of war”, included a bonus of 3000 ALL.

She says she didn’t get the bonus and doesn’t know where to complain since they don’t provide her with a direct answer, but always direct her to E-Albania. According to her, the same scheme happened with all those who have not withdrawn the money. ”They toyed with me, they told me to file a complaint to upload the scanned social security documents on E-Albania, but I did not know. I had to go myself at the Social Security offices in Elbasan”, she says.

Also, Kastriot, a person with disabilities of the first group, was asked to download all the statements from E-Albania and upload the documents in PDF to the system for the renewal of the pension and the benefit of the electricity compensation. He couldn’t find anyone in Librazhd to assist and to this day, he doesn’t get the electricity reimbursement just because of this. “This initiative was not well thought out, but was accelerated for media appearances and loans from the government to foreigners to promote Albania as a state that has evolved. This is not digital Albania”, says Kastriot.

Low level of education, the Roma community cannot receive services on E-Albania

Rudina Brahja, from the village of Babje i Librazhdi, is unemployed. “I don’t know how to read and write well, I don’t know how to apply for assistance. I don’t understand why they took away the guy who was helping us with the applications. Now, month after month, for my mother’s pension, the Internet [café] requests 2,000 (old) ALL”, says Rudina.

In the photo: Rudina Brahja

Also, Hasbije and her two daughters do not know how to read or write. “For the financial assistance of my disabled son, I go down the mountain, go to the Internet café and the boy (of the private office) does the services for me. The municipality closed that office”, she says.

Even Xhelal, an elderly and visually impaired member of the Roma community, says that he has no idea about e-Albania. “I don’t know anything about the codes. I don’t know of the internet. I’m begging any young person who happens to help me when I have something to do…”, says Xhelal.

How does the local government provide services to vulnerable groups without access to the Internet?

Based on the results of the 2021 Information Technology (ICT) Use Survey by INSTAT, 15.7% of the population was able to send through the e-government platform completed forms from the Internet, while individuals in the age group of 65 – 74 years, who have declared that they have never used the Internet, account for 51.1%.

Rexhep Shaka, responsible for Social Services in the Librazhd Municipality and at the same time a member of the Egyptian community, head of the “Equality and Integration” association, feels hopeless for training in these categories as according to him they are old and have problems with understanding. He calls a special office or help from close people and their children the only solution. “We haven’t had any cases of complaints, but like everyone else and these special communities like the third age, those Roma and Egyptians will turn to the Internet cafés and now when you go to Internet offices, you find people who issue certificates and receive services. It’s a new process and people will get used to it,” says Rexhep for the ACQJ.

According to official figures, Librazhd has 250 Roma families, and Shaka appeals for the creation of voluntary initiatives to assist them.

In the photo, Rexhep Shaka, head of the State Social Service, Librazhd. | Photo: Arlis Alikaj

But how will the access to E-Albania continue for citizens of the Roma community, the elderly or those with learning difficulties?

We asked about this the Prime Minister’s office, through a request for information, if the government has a plan to offer assistance to municipalities for these services with the territorial reform. But the Prime Minister ‘s office refused to comment.

Screenshot from the response of the Coordinator for Public Notice and Consultation

While Adelina Farrici, executive director of the Association of Local Autonomy of Albania, says that while there are municipalities that offer some online services aiming at educating and raising awareness of the community about this service, there are problems, also because of the wide territory covered by the municipalities.

“I think that not all society has the education, information and logistics for it to use online services, but the future is towards these services. Municipalities have their plans to help the community for a transitional period, mainly for the groups that have difficulties in accessing online services and need assistance. In addition to the online service in the administrative centers, there will be service offices for the community to help and provide the right information in terms of using the online service platform. However, problems have been identified. Municipalities have extended territories and in many rural areas internet access is lacking. The community is used to the traditional method with direct services at the offices in the territory. Different groups such as the elderly, Roma or Egyptian communities do not have the proper knowledge and skills to use digital systems,” Ms. Farrici told ACQJ.

One Stop Shop, or Opening One-Stop Offices is a European Union project aimed at improving the way administrative services are delivered by local governments. With the transfer of services to E-Albania, some of these offices are not functional. We requested information from the Delegation of the European Union in Albania, what has been the commitment of the EU in financial terms and support with the increase of capacities in terms of the digitization process and E-Albania,

In its response, the Delegation Office clarified that the EU has not provided financial support for the development of e-Albania. In terms of local government One Stop Shop services, the EU has provided financial support to these structures through the “Support for Territorial and Administrative Reform” program, implemented by UNDP, which aims to strengthen local government and public administration.

Furthermore, the response emphasizes that access to public services is facing difficulties.

“In terms of access to online public services by the Roma and Egyptian communities, they are facing many difficulties due to various factors, including financial inability to own a digital device, lack of internet, illiteracy, lack of information and digital skills, as well as the lack of means of identification. To address this issue at the local level, the EU is funding a project in the city of Fier, implemented by UNDP and the Institute of Roma Culture in Albania – IRCA, which contributes to the integration of Roma/Egyptian returnees (from asylum and migration) and their families, through a series of activities designed to raise the level of digital information and digital skills. The project also provides direct assistance to at least 100 individuals to access online services related to urgent matters, including applying for identification documents, legalizing residence, enrolling in school and benefiting from social protection schemes (pensions, economic aid, disability benefits, etc.),” says the European Union Delegation in Tirana.

Security in E-Albania

Although E-Albania did not work due to hacking and only a short time ago, all services came back online, many citizens report difficulties of use and fear that data could be stolen. But how is our data protected?

Eni Shtini, an expert in blockchain technology, told ACQJ that in order to avoid information leaks from such attacks, it would be very good if the government implemented distributed database technology (blockchain), which increases data security. Blockchain security is a comprehensive risk management system, which by integrating and cyber security, reduces risks against attacks, fraud and theft information in such cases.

“Personally, I think that the government reacted late to this attack, since online data shows that the coordinated cyber-attack started on July 16 in the afternoon and around 11 o’clock at night AKSHI made it possible to disconnect the Internet. Such attacks are almost impossible to avoid. Such an attack is almost eliminated by blockchain technology, which works in a similarly decentralized manner, where users in the whole world protects the system and would make a similar attack very expensive to be carried out successfully” explains the expert.