Mongolia’s e-governance is a topic often overshadowed by the cyber activities of the country’s large neighbors — Russia and China. However, the coronavirus pandemic gave an advantage to the Mongolian government in implementing long-overdue digital governance practices. Mongolia’s implementation of e-governance services, known as “E-Mongolia,” will enhance public services, maximize efficiency, and most importantly, diminishing the deep-rooted bureaucracy and nepotism that have been impeding government services for some time.
In the last decade, Mongolia showed progress in e-governance. The United Nations E-Government Knowledgebase has tracked Mongolia’s E-governance Development Index (EGDI). The data shows that in 2003 Mongolia scored 0.343 and ranked 103 of 193 in comparison to the United States (0.9271, ranked 1), Singapore (0.7463, ranked 12), and South Korea (0.7441, ranked 13). By 2020, Mongolia showed significant improvement in the index, with its score moving up to 0.6497 and its rank to 92, whereas other previous e-governance world leaders have changed. Denmark has superseded the U.S. with a score of 0.9758, taking the top rank; South Korea, now ranked 2 with a score of 0.9560, has surpassed Singapore (0.9150, ranked 11).
These indicators show how both developed and developing nations have been adopting e-governance models. Mongolia did not miss the wave of change to e-governance. During President Elbegdorj Tsakhia’s tenure (2009-2017), he introduced “Transparent Accounts” for financial transparency for government spending. Although this approach helped government agencies monitor one another’s fiscal matters, it didn’t quite serve the public’s interest.
In adopting e-governance services, Mongolian policymakers looked to Estonia — a small-state with a population of just 1.3 million in 2020 ranked 3 in the U.N. EGDI — and Singapore — with 5.6 million people and, as noted, above a rank of 11 in 2020 — as possible models. While Mongolia’s e-governance has improved, it still lags behind top-ranked nations.
The chief information officer of Estonia, Siim Sikkut, told the author during the “State of Digital Conference” on September 11, “There are three main areas for small-states to adopt e-governance: connectivity, structures, and changing the business model of government.” Connectivity connects rural areas, reducing the digital divide, which Mongolia needs to consider. Government service structures should not overlap, and e-governance becomes inefficient when there are too many government agencies. And lastly, by changing the business model of the government, small states like Mongolia and Estonia can depend on innovation, investment, and procurement.
Mongolia’s push for e-governance services also stems from its highly metropolitan, globally-connected population of 3.3 million. As of 2020, two-thirds of Mongolia’s population are digitally connected via some form of social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and others. As evidence of the pervasive influence of social media, the 2017 presidential election was disrupted by a whistleblower who went live on Facebook to expose high-level corruption, known as the “60 million (MNT) case.” With such a digitally connected population, e-governance had to become a reality at some point.
In 2019, the government of Mongolia passed resolution No. 73, the “National Policy on E-Governance.” The main objective of the policy framework was to enhance the already-existing e-governance structure on a legislative and a practical level. The policy aims to utilize cyberspace, information technology, and innovation to expedite government services to reduce backlogs and eliminate government agency bureaucracy. The incumbent administration’s Government Action Plan for 2020-2024 includes the implementation of E-Mongolia services and will provide a soft-opening of 182 government services as of October 1, 2020.
The implementation of the e-governance services aims to eliminate front-desk and mid-level corruption which has drained public via bribery for decades.
The director of communications and information technology authority, Bolor-Erdene Battsengel, told the author, “In implementing E-Mongolia services, the transition period is crucial. Because of the existing digital divide, the service will allow some time for people to adapt and adjust to the variety of government e-services. Once the transition period ends, beginning in 2021, E-Mongolia is expected to provide 492 government services.” Moreover, “the public will have free access to uploading, submitting, and tracking documents—hence, expediting the government service without waiting in line, especially with an outbreak like COVID-19.”
Furthermore, Mongolia’s e-governance includes facial recognition technology (FRT) to improve public safety, particularly in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. By 2021, Ulaanbaatar is expected to install 6,822 facial recognition cameras.
Although E-Mongolia seeks to modernize and expedite government services, some experts have legal concerns. According to a cyber law expert, Galbaatar Lkhagvasuren, “while implementing FRTs are tech-savvy, there are legal concerns that need to be addressed, prepared, and implemented. The inefficiency of the currently developing FR technologies could turn into a human rights issue very quickly without legal justifications.”
Bolor Lkhaajav received a Master of Arts in Asia-Pacific Studies from the University of San Francisco. She is currently writing a book on Mongolia’s foreign policy.