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Shaping Digital Government: Ukraine During the War

Image via Diia

Imagine accessing your driver’s license and passport, submitting a tax report, or signing a government petition in just a few clicks on your phone. That’s the reality for over 19 million Ukrainians who use the country’s e-governance tool, Diia—an astounding figure in a country of just over 40 million. Diia’s flexibility and adaptability allowed Ukraine to build stronger and more resilient institutions that have been key to the country’s successful war efforts throughout the two years of Russia’s full-scale invasion.

Diia has bolstered state registry services—one of the most historically corrupt areas of Ukrainian bureaucracy––by reducing citizen-to-bureaucrat interactions, which had previously provided the grounds for corruption. Through making services fully digital and transparent, the app has dramatically decreased instances of grassroots corruption. According to the calculations provided by the Ministry of Digital Transformation, which is responsible for the program’s launch and maintenance, the economic and anti-corruption effect of Diia’s online services amounted to UAH 16.37 billion (which converts to almost $500 million) from 2020–2021 alone. Though Ukraine must work to reduce corruption at higher levels of the country’s business and politics, Diia has helped to transform how the Ukrainian bureaucracy interacts with its citizenry. The United States Agency for International Development even declared the country “a world leader in e-government innovation.”

The Ministry of Digital Transformation launched Diia as a platform for digital passports in 2019. Soon after, it adapted to add features through which citizens could access their vaccination cards and track their Covid exposure during the pandemic. Likewise, persistent Russian aggression before the invasion resulted in Diia actively strengthening its code against potential hacking by adopting policies that ensure user protection (such as not storing any personal data on the interface itself). Prompted by a spate of Russian attacks on the Ukrainian cybersecurity grid in 2014, Diia invested in a “Bug Bounty Program” in 2020. The program enlisted ‘white-hat’ hackers throughout the world to find the app’s vulnerabilities by posting its open code, but no major cybersecurity breaches were found. 

The government’s experience during the pandemic and the years of Russian aggression before the invasion prepared it to quickly transform Diia from convenience to all-in-one utility belt. By adapting its features in response to ongoing crises, Diia solidified itself as an integral component of Ukraine’s governance strategy, becoming indispensable to both government and citizens. Even prior to the full-scale Russian invasion in 2022, Diia had already amassed 14.6 million users, each of whom could use the platform to access 25 government services and retrieve up to 15 government documents, including the world’s only digital passport (which holds the same legal validity as a paper one). 

Since the beginning of the war, Diia added another five million active users, demonstrating both the Ukrainian government’s resilience and its ability to expand and improve during a time of crisis. Indeed, even though Diia is a highly technical tool, it has remained operational every single day of the war. Even more, it has greatly extended its capabilities and reach through the adoption of features that enable citizen participation in the war effort. During the onset of the invasion, Ukrainians who had been forced to evacuate their homes were able to attain the Internally Displaced Person Certificate and qualify for government subsidies through a program called eAid, with one avenue from registration to payment occurring entirely within the app. 

Diia also became a digital support distribution hub for the support of citizens and businesses, who can submit claims of damaged property and military risks (such as mines and other unexploded artillery). The government uses the applications to track infrastructural losses and plan for reconstruction. According to the Ministry, there have been 160,000 damaged property claims filled—all of which go through extensive anti-fraud investigations. The fact that the process is digital eases the strain on people within the bureaucracy, many of whom are also displaced or mobilized. 

Through a Telegram chatbot called eVorog—‘eEnemy’ in English—people can inform the Ukrainian military about the movement of Russian forces and equipment or presumed collaborators’ activities. Only citizens can access the bot through Diia authorization, which makes it a credible, grassroots information-gathering apparatus for the Armed Forces of Ukraine. According to Diia, more than 500,000 Ukrainians have joined in these “civilian intelligence” efforts, creating streamlined communication between citizens across the country and the military. 

In a possibly controversial move, Diia’s newest update includes a video game in which citizens learn how to operate a combat drone by striking Russian tanks, thus increasing the scope of people who are ostensibly training to join the Armed Forces. So far, 100,000 players have joined the game. Some might say that it is inappropriate or even dangerous to gamify war as it desensitizes people to the violent nature of drone operations. However, Ukraine’s war efforts heavily rely on drones, so operating them is a key skill that the app has made available to people.Beyond its pragmatic benefits, Diia boosts morale for all Ukrainians. Its success shows that the government is efficient, improving, and actively supporting all its citizens: those at home, the internally displaced, and Ukranians who left the country. Seemingly trivial parts of social life, like broadcasting and voting for Eurovision candidates, have transitioned to the app, preserving and presenting a sense of normalcy that people need during war. In an interview with New York Magazine, Minister Fedorov said that Diia forced government agencies to reconsider and restructure their interactions with citizens to “resolve people’s needs as conveniently as possible,” in a drastic inversion of Ukraine’s bureaucratic culture. Learning and working with Big Tech, Fedorov and the Diia team treats Ukrainian citizens as clients who want access to the most efficient and up-to-date services in just a few clicks, streamlining President Zelenskyy’s vision of a “state in a smartphone.”