Delivering in Mongolia

An interview with Bolor-Erdene Battsengel

Why is sustainability in digital transformation important to you and Mongolia?

We’ve seen many international and local examples where policies, projects and services have failed relatively quickly after launch because not enough importance was placed on sustainability. 

I think it’s important that sustainability perspectives are considered at the planning stage—especially in developing countries. In Mongolia, the Communications and Information Technology Authority of Mongolia (CITA) and the Mongolian government, are continuing to work hard to put infrastructure in place that will support stability in the future. 

It’s also in the forefront of our minds that anything we design, build or implement must be accessible and suitable for our citizens who live in the countryside, as well as for the people who live in cities.

How does CITA practically incorporate sustainability considerations into its work?

When CITA was designing e-Mongolia (the government’s national site) we kept our users in nomadic communities in mind. Their way of life is the most sustainable way—they don’t even leave trash out because everything is recycled and reused in the countryside. For us, as policy makers and implementers of digital transformation, one of the most important factors has been inclusion. Visiting and researching with those communities is the best reminder that we’re trying to develop something inclusive and sustainable that a truly sustainable community can use.

What does the 4-year parliamentary term in Mongolia mean for sustainable digital transformation?

In the past 20 years, there has been a lot of political instability. Over the last 10, the average period of government was 1.6 years because even though a parliamentary term is 4 years, there’s big political reform every year and a half.

With this in mind, our approach to digital transformation has been to place a lot of importance on creating standards and delivering products and services in line with those standards. When a new government comes along or new people come into power, it’s very hard for them to fight against a set of standards if those standards work and are accepted by the public. 

Two million adults (out of our population of 2.2 million), both in the countryside and in cities have already experienced e-Mongolia. They’ve got used to ordering their passport online and having it delivered to them. We have successfully introduced standards for customer service and delivery tracking systems. 

So, if a new team comes in wanting to leave their own legacy and change what we’ve put in place, I think the only sensible thing they could do would be to build on and improve what’s there already. This is my way of dealing with political instability. I think setting a good example is a good start.

e-Mongolia is a success. How easy was it to get support in the beginning?

At the beginning, one of the things I realised and understood was that I am not doing something new, but I am fighting against the old system because when we tried to digitise these things, a lot of government agencies felt they were losing their power—they were against e-Mongolia for a long time. Fighting against a team I was supposed to be working with to get buy-in was a huge challenge. 

Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai came to our rescue because he announced that ministers who do not digitise their services and integrate them into the Mongolian platform will be considered to have a pro-corruption attitude because of the transparency that adopting digital brings. That really changed things.

Some of the digital services in Mongolia have been developed by private companies. Could that be a sustainability problem?

e-Mongolia’s core team oversees all the code but we also outsource parts too. We’ve learnt it is very important to have long-term contracts with good companies that can maintain the service. We’re delivering an essential national service which must be robust and safe so we’re currently creating a small team to look after the system. 

CITA is following Estonia’s X-road approach (a technological and organisational environment enabling secure internet-based data exchange between information systems).

What does digital inclusion mean to you?

Digital inclusion is one of our biggest challenges given that Mongolia is sparsely populated and also geographically sandwiched between 2 giant countries: Russia and China. We’re not impacted by their cultures—we want to combine Mongolian identities with technology. That’s why it’s very important for us to think about inclusion in Mongolia.

I think we have 4 layers of exclusion:

1. Location—some of our users are part of remote herder communities.

2. Education—relates directly to the level of tech literacy.

3. Income—relates to access to technology.

4. Age—older people are not digital natives.

The point of e-Mongolia is to improve inclusion—to make sure everyone has access to government services and up-to-date information. But those 4 layers mean that citizens are not starting at the same point. To help level things up, CITA organises training and trips to visit citizens in the countryside, and poorer districts. We also have a lot of online platforms that teach digital skills. We’ve seen evidence that e-Mongolia is making progress—for example, people living in the countryside with lower wealth are successfully using it to get their identity cards and passports. For people who do not have any level of digital literacy, it’s very hard for them to learn online, of course, so we use traditional teaching methods in these cases.

And what about people without smartphones or computers?

We have 110 e-Mongolia ‘kiosks’ which are machines located in convenience stores and government offices across the country, particularly in the least developed areas. You can prove your identity and then use the online services through them—they’re very popular and have actually been around since 2013, before e-Mongolia. Since then however, the number of smartphones in the country has overtaken the number of people so access is much better.

How can teams make sure they build inclusive services?

Around 95% of the IT professionals or software engineers in Mongolia are male and it is very important for us to have a better gender balance. Diversity in a team increases the chances of designing inclusive services. I launched a 3-month programme called Girls CODE which had 2,100 applications throughout the nation for 30 places. It’s not government organised or funded so I had to make up the team and we had to fundraise money and develop a curriculum from scratch.

Most of them were from poor families from the countryside, so we bought them computers, iPads and stuff like that. I got a lot of public criticism saying that I’m being sexist and should support girls and boys. Anyway, despite that I’m very happy I went ahead with the programme.

What are your priorities for the next few years?

Independent studies have found that the first phase of e-Mongolia has saved 46 billion tugriks (USD 16 million) over the past year. Now we’re focusing on the second phase: e-Mongolia 2.0. This version uses artificial intelligence to recommend services to citizens at certain points in their lives. We’ve also added a function that brings together all forms of identification such as passports, drivers’ licences as well as ID cards.

We’d like to help other countries design sustainable digital policies that help them tackle challenges, reduce poverty and solve social issues while ensuring inclusiveness. We want to change Mongolia but we want to help other countries too. That is my ambition. It’s a big one but that’s great.

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