How Romania is using digital government to engage its diaspora communities

By on 05/02/2023 | Updated on 06/02/2023
Photo by Czapp Árpád via Pexels

With millions of Romanians living and working abroad, the country plans to use digital government both to support expatriates and to engage them in policy development back home. And it is looking to other countries for inspiration

The days leading up to Christmas are always the busiest for Romanian border officials, with thousands returning from their work and studies across Europe to spend the holiday season with their families. It is a time of celebration, but one that highlights the reality of a country where outward migrants accounted for more than 75% of the population decline between 2000 and 2018, when the number of Romanians living in the country fell from 22.5 million to 19.5 million (OECD). As a result, problems of ‘brain drain’ abound, not helped by the rising cost of living, and the fact that two-thirds of Romanians do not trust their government.

These are not challenges to be taken lightly. In these contexts, Romania’s national Recovery and Resilience Plan (RRP), released in October 2022, is an ambitious one. Boasting goals from digitising government to developing zero-emission railways, it promises an agenda focused on unlocking the country’s innovation potential demonstrated in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

Almost concurrent was the release of the draft National Strategy for Romanians Abroad 2023-2026, which aims to support Romanians outside of the country’s borders with community building and new digital services. In many ways, achieving this is easier than ever before. Social media channels have allowed for the formation of online expat communities and for global news channels to proliferate. Diaspora communities can now be instantly connected with home, and in turn are able to both share their experiences abroad and learn about life back in their country of origin.

Digital government tools present Bucharest with a largely untapped two-pronged opportunity to interact with their diaspora communities in novel ways through a strategy of ‘serve and engage’. In the first instance, the government can offer diaspora digital services remotely, supporting them with settling into their new countries or helping those planning to return home with repatriation. But they can also use the power of digital to help expats – who represent some of the most educated Romanians – help them with difficult policy decisions.

Supporting diaspora communities with digital government services

The Romanian government laid out a range of measures to support diaspora communities in the draft 2023-2026 strategy. Of principal relevance to digital government are objectives 5 and 7, which promise to facilitate the process of repatriation for Romanians living abroad and to provide access to information and programmes run by the state to those outside the borders respectively.

Examples of governments working towards the latter objective in their own countries exist already. The Republic of Moldova – which has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Romania to create a common digital space to exchange knowledge, technologies and expertise on digital transformation – has a similar demography to Romania, with 28.7% of Moldovans living outside of its borders (ETF Europe). Besides organising ‘Diaspora Days’ each year, the Moldovan government recently introduced a government payment portal, passport issuance services and criminal background checks for citizens living abroad. Similarly, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Republic of Ireland allowed Irish citizens living and vaccinated abroad to apply for EU Digital COVID Certificates from the government in Dublin.

At the time, the digital COVID certificate was framed by Ireland’s minister for overseas development aid and diaspora, Colm Brophy, as “part of the government’s commitment to the diaspora to address and remove barriers to them returning home”. Indeed, Ireland might also provide the digital inspiration for Romania’s attempt to achieve objective 5. The Irish government is currently developing a life event approach to digital services, one that considers all the services that a person needs during a certain life event (birth or marriage, for example), and attempts to coordinate a digital response across government in these moments.

Read more: From mini-state to digital giant: Siim Sikkut on Estonia’s remarkable journey

The life events approach is most commonly associated with birth or death, as with the UK’s ‘Tell Us Once’ service. The service ensures that, after a government department is notified of a death, information is shared across all the relevant departments that might need to know (for example, the tax authority, the local council, and the Passport Office). But the Irish government is seeking to instill the same approach in repatriation services, lowering the levels of bureaucracy when it comes to a citizen returning from abroad. Rather than having to notify every government department, a ‘tell us once’ principle will automatically ensure that a repatriated citizen will have access to the services they need.

Such a solution is a long way off for Romania, but the country has already shown its ability to rapidly facilitate the settlement of many people in the country. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some 2.4 million Ukranians have fled the country into Romania, and around 100,000 are currently staying there (UNICEF).

Engaging diaspora in policymaking

Providing government services to those abroad may foster a sense of community and a ‘feel-good factor’ in terms of expats’ relationship with their homeland, but ensuring that diaspora communities can contribute to national conversations is also crucial.

At last year’s UN General Assembly, Romanian president Klaus-Werner Iohannis addressed his fellow leaders, reminding them that “common action is the only way forward” when dealing with severe global challenges ranging from climate change and rising energy prices to social inequities. At a national level, Romania’s citizens are no strangers to policy co-creation: the National Agency of Fiscal Administration (ANAF) has set up mechanisms for stakeholders to comment on draft legislation through its website, and social media was used in co-creation activities related to the Recovery and Resilience Plan.

There are also tools that map the expertise of the Romanian population around the globe, notably The online community – with more than 50,000 users – provides records of the country’s “researchers, innovators, technicians and entrepreneurs”, and promises to “connect your expertise to Romania, for your voice to matter”. To cultivate expats’ knowledge in policy debates, the government might develop and platforms like it into fully developed participatory democracy platforms.

There is a useful precedent for this. To take just one example, UK Parliament select committees’ Evidence Checks (sometimes called Fact Checks) allow British citizens to scrutinize the evidence submitted to MPs on a particular topic via a government website. They can establish the veracity of certain claims and highlight where gaps in a discussion might exist. If carefully managed, including by limiting the number of contributors to prevent a ‘flood’ of information, such programmes can be effective. Two contributions from the Fact Checks on the Women’s and Equalities Committee even led to a change in government policy. might be leveraged in a similar way as a tool to approach expatriate specialists on certain topics, allowing them to contribute to policy debates.

A further innovation would be to use digital platforms to put these experts in conversation with each other, building a community of Romanians collaborating digitally on policy issues from across the globe. In recent years, a variety of ‘CivTech’ platforms have sprung up to allow citizens to engage in policy debates and build collaborative legislation, work on participatory budgeting and even vote. One such tool, Consul Democracy, has been used by over 100 organisations (including the UN Development Programme and EU) to support open-source digital consultations. Not only do these debates contribute to policy conversations, but they also allow participants to build a digital community through aiming towards a common goal.

To ‘serve and engage’ diaspora communities, Bucharest needs not start from scratch. The key is recognising patterns from other countries, and from its own work in the past. The innovations of Moldova, Ireland, the UK, and Consul Democracy – these are but a few examples – might provide the technical inspiration for greater engagement. But the country’s own innovations and adaptations in recent years, from pan-governmental responses to the COVID-19 pandemic to its rapid support for the influx of Ukrainian refugees last spring, have laid the foundational processes to match.

Luke Cavanaugh has worked on GovStack for the UN’s International Telecommunication Union, and has prior experience researching digital government in industry and academia. Recent work of his has been published by GovInsider, the China Project, and China Talk – and he runs his own Substack.

Cristina Pogorevici was born and raised in Bucharest, Romania, and is currently working at Bain & Company with a background in economics from the Wharton School and global affairs from Tsinghua University. She has published writing on Romania in several academic journals, including most recently in Crisis Response.

Read more: The wisdom of crowds: an interview with Taiwan’s unorthodox digital minister

Global Government Forum is now on Apple News! Subscribe to our channel to get all GGF’s latest news and insight on your device.

About Luke Cavanaugh and Cristina Pogorevici

Luke Cavanaugh has worked on GovStack for the UN’s ITU, and has experience researching GovTech and digital government in industry and academia. He has been recently published by GovInsider, the China Project, and China Talk - as well as running his own Substack. Cristina Pogorevici was born and raised in Bucharest, Romania, and is currently working at Bain & Company with a background in economics from the Wharton School and global affairs from Tsinghua University. She has published writing on Romania in several academic journals, including most recently in Crisis Response.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *