Time traveller: Israeli IT chief Shahar Bracha on digital’s leap into the future

By on 12/04/2021 | Updated on 12/04/2021
New necessities: the need for businesses and individuals to shift activities online during the pandemic helped sweep away resistance to digital transformation, says Shahar Bracha.

The pandemic has supercharged progress on Israel’s digital services, says the head of its Government ICT Authority – and cleared the path ahead for radical reforms to create corporate IDs and dismantle legislative obstacles. Matt Ross interviews Shahar Bracha 

“We moved four or five years into the future due to this pandemic,” says Shahar Bracha, the acting chief executive of Israel’s Government ICT Authority. Ever since lockdown and social distancing rules closed offices and prevented face-to-face service delivery, digital technologies have kept the public sector in operation – enabling staff to meet the huge volume of need generated by COVID-19. And the pandemic has driven rapid growth in the uptake of online services, accelerating the public migration that lies at the heart of many digital strategies.

Meanwhile, says Bracha, the need for businesses and individuals to shift activities online has helped sweep away resistance to digital transformation. Civil service legal professionals, for example, used to worry about ditching the requirement for many documents to be signed in the presence of a lawyer – replacing it with digital ID verification. “They said: ‘Are we sure we want to do it? Is it safe? The lawyers say they’re not sure’,” he recalls. But when the pandemic arrived, law firms had two options: either manage transactions virtually, or lose the business: “So they said: ‘Okay, it’s safe. Run with it – thank you very much!” Digital services give people solutions to the problems created by the pandemic, says Bracha; and as a consequence, Israel’s IT professionals have been able to “go ahead very fast with things that were under discussion”.

When COVID arrived, Israel – ranked eighth in the OECD’s latest Digital Government Index – already had firm ICT foundations. “This pandemic showed us the strength and the importance of solid IT infrastructure, because this was the basis of everything that was done,” Bracha comments. The first task was to shift Israel’s civil service to remote working; the second, to deal with the “massive traffic increase to government websites” as people sought information, financial assistance and access to support services. Rock-solid service continuity was crucial here: “If a government website was down, even for 10 minutes, it would [make] news and be a massive hit to the government’s credit in managing this pandemic,” he notes.

Third, Israel’s digital teams pushed forward on their transformation agenda, accelerating existing projects that would help to pandemic-proof Israel’s society, economy and public service provision. Some of these – including personal digital ID, a service user dashboard and regrouping services around ‘life events’ – reflect parallel moves in many other countries around the world. Others – notably Israel’s emerging company ID system – are at the global cutting edge.

Into government

The pandemic presented a vast challenge for the head of Israel’s central ICT team: “Never before in this digital age did we come across this sort of crisis – a crisis of this magnitude, this long timeframe,” he comments. But Bracha had been in training for a long time – beginning his ICT career at “the age of six, when I was a child and fell in love with BASIC programming language.” He went to university to study computer science, but part-time work in web and software development soon led to greater things; he eventually quit the course to build a career in the tech sector.

Shahar Bracha, the acting chief executive of Israel’s Government ICT Authority

In 2009 – having returned to university for a BA in business management – Bracha left his software consultancy management job to join the Israeli Ministry of Justice as director of software solutions. He wanted to “make an influence”, he says: “What can I do for my country?” Successfully transitioning from the business world, he stayed there for eight years before joining the Israel ICT Authority as vice president of the Strategy and Planning Division; two years on, he became acting chief executive.

Originally set up in the Ministry of Finance in 1997, last year the ICT Authority became part of a newly-established Digital Affairs Ministry – and gained a dedicated cabinet minister: David Amsalem, who also serves as the government’s liaison with Israel’s legislature, the Knesset. Promoting cross-government progress on digital issues “is much easier when you have a minister with such political strength within the cabinet,” comments Bracha. “Say a director in a different ministry doesn’t want to play along: you have a minister whose job is to bring in support, to bring partnerships with rogue ministries.”

The new minister complements the Authority’s existing set of levers, which include: setting guidelines for government bodies; commenting on ministries’ digital strategies and budgets; operating an oversight committee to guide major projects; and making recommendations on planned procurements exceeding 5m Shekels (US$1.5m). These tools provide influence, rather than direct control: the Authority’s comment on procurements, for example, is “just a recommendation,” notes Bracha. “But it’s very difficult to procure something without it.”

Life events and personal areas

Last July, the government strengthened its digital governance framework with Resolution 260. Among other things, this requires ministries to bring together all the services built around “nine life events which we mapped – birth, death, changing work, changing place of living, opening a business, and a couple more” – in citizens’ “personal areas” (their online public service dashboards). “The timeframe is not very government-oriented,” he notes. “In 90 days, the first needs to be online and working, and the longest is 240 days. Before the pandemic, it would look more like: ‘Let’s start a committee, we’ll find out what the committee says we need, and a year from that we’ll see the first solution online.”

These ‘personal areas’ – like the ability to sign legal documents remotely – are made possible by Israel’s digital ID system, GovID. This is now in use by about 30 ministries and 2m Israelis, plus non-civil service bodies such as the Central Bank of Israel and the courts services; Resolution 260 also makes it available to local authorities. In time, explains Bracha, private companies will be invited on board: “We’re starting work with banks… and from that, we’ll move onto insurance, then maybe start-up companies and small and medium retailers,” he says. Ultimately, he’d like to see GovID made compatible with other systems around the world, “meaning that if someone from the EU would like to do business in Israel, they’ll be able to use their own identification – and, hopefully, vice versa.”

Importantly, Israel has also found a way to provide a digital ID system for businesses, overcoming the complexities around providing employees with the right access and permissions. For example, how do you give each staff member control of the functions involved in their work, while barring them from other data and services? “We struggled for a year or so about providing a solution to that,” comments Bracha – but again, GovID makes it possible.

The ‘start-up nation’: ‘Our willingness to fail, our willingness to try and try again, is something that should be more commonly used abroad,’ says Bracha. Credit: Shai Pal/Unsplash

Having identified the chief executive, the system asks them to delegate authorities to other GovID users: the designated company lawyer can then sign certain documents, for example, and the pollution compliance officer can submit reports to the Ministry of Environment. “As we add more and more services to this personal business area, we’ll see more and more delegations of different types,” Bracha explains. “We see it as a breakthrough. At the end of the day, if you know how to identify the person behind the keyboard, then you can identify the role that they have in the business.”

Re-interpreting law for a digital age

And there’s another crucial strand to Israel’s digital plans: that of sweeping away regulatory and legal barriers – like the now-expunged requirement for legal documents to be signed in the presence of a lawyer – that unnecessarily prevent services from shifting into the online world. Many laws, Bracha explains, have historically been interpreted in ways that demand face-to-face interactions – requiring service users to present themselves at government offices, for example. “But if the purpose is just to identify you, the identification system answers that,” he notes.

Rather than individually changing each law – with all the delays and legislative wrangling that would entail – the government is asking each ministry to first consider “how you can, in this day and age, translate the purpose of the law”, then to amend regulations and procedures as required. The attorney general, based in the Ministry of Justice, “is the regulator of all of the legal departments in each and every ministry,” Bracha explains. “He states how government ministries need to interpret aspects of the law” – and those interpretations will, in future, have to permit the use of suitable digital technologies.

As a result, he says, “we are seeing very rapid change to digital services.” Until recently, for example, to transfer the ownership of a vehicle, both the buyer and seller would have to show up at the post office; now, it can be done online in five minutes. With more than 100 services digitised, “you can register a firearm… you can even name your child online,” Bracha reports. Dovetailing the interests of pandemic-proofing society and promoting public sector digitalisation, Israel is making remarkable progress on both fronts.

Cooperation, not conflict

Asked how best to promote reform in the civil service, though, Bracha advocates evolution rather than revolution. People joining government from the private sector, he says, sometimes make the mistake of trying to “fight the system – saying: ‘I’ll fight for my team. I’ll change the system, not work within the process. I’ll make them see that they don’t need a tender committee or tender documents this long’.”

But this rarely generates a result; instead, he argues, incoming professionals should work within “the rules of the game”, while gradually building a consensus about how to improve them. “Once you’re talking to the procurement officer or the lawyers from the regulatory department about the risk they’re managing, they start to trust you,” he says. “And when people trust you and you trust them, then you can start a discussion about how to do things better.”

It’s important to avoid IT jargon and acronyms in these conversations: one characteristic that “has enabled me to advance in my career is the ability to translate IT into everyday Hebrew,” says Bracha – focusing on business goals rather than the technical aspects of delivery. And he’s careful “not to fall in love with technologies,” he adds: “One of the questions that I get asked is: ‘Why don’t you use blockchains more often?’ And I say: ‘Why? What is the business case for using this technology?’ Other, simpler technologies may be less sexy, but less risky at this point in time.”

For Bracha, the trick to winning civil servants’ support is to understand and respect their needs and goals; and the key to driving reform is to offer a better, digital way of meeting those objectives, while cutting out superfluous requirements. Take Israel’s ICT procurement process, he says. Previously, companies needed a substantial bank guarantee to bid for government contracts – “so only very big enterprise companies could compete in those tenders. There’s a thriving IT start-up community in Israel that couldn’t compete, because they can’t keep two million Shekels [US$600,000] in their bank account as a guarantee.”

The rule was intended to ensure that suppliers didn’t go bust mid-project. But as Bracha pointed out, it rarely yielded benefits in the real world: “I showed them that they never went to court, they never used the guarantees.” And in time, the Ministry of Finance’s Government Procurement Administration “rolled out a new tenders platform for small and medium businesses: even single-person companies are now starting to work with the government,” he says, with evident pride. “For me, this is the change, and this is how we’re making the change.”

Shahar Bracha: five thoughts for better government

To help our readers get the best out of Global Government Forum, we ask interviewees five standard questions on camera – four seeking practical advice and opinions and one to reveal something a little more personal. Here is the video, and underneath it, an edited version of Shahar Bracha’s answers.

Can you name one lesson or idea from abroad that’s helped you or your colleagues?

“From the UK, we took the GOV.UK website and modified it to our needs. We took the Estonian x-road approach about data transfer within the government, and created our own information backbone. And I think pretty much everything Denmark is doing in terms of digital-only services and online messaging, communicating with its citizens. The benefits of using those systems are something that you always look upon and benchmark and try to adapt to our needs.”

Are there any products or innovations from this country that might be valuable to your peers overseas?

“One of the key advantages of Israel is our way of looking at a project. We are called the ‘start-up nation’ for a reason. We seek simple solutions to complicated problems. We start small, we sometimes fail, and we fail very fast. And the ability to fail many times provides the ability to provide a good solution. For Israel, being a good entrepreneur is succeeding; being a very good entrepreneur is failing a couple of times and then succeeding. Our willingness to fail, our willingness to try and try again, is something that should be more commonly used abroad.”

How can we improve the ways in which senior public officials work with and learn from their colleagues overseas?

“All governments are facing the same problems, the same difficulties – there need to be more discussions, meeting different governments. There are a couple of international groups like the ICA [International Council for Information Technology in Government Administration, of which Bracha is vice chairman], the Digital Nations, [an OECD initiative] E-Leaders and others. If something good came out of [the pandemic, it] is the ability to meet in these online discussions… not just seeing one another once or twice a year.

“The second part, I think it’s to publish more case studies. If we have challenges and if we have successes, there is a lot to learn… from the trials and errors of others. Our method of working is really the same, the challenges are the same, and the opportunity to learn is really there.”

What are the biggest global challenges in your field?

“The first point is really moving forward – keeping the pace that the pandemic created. We are moving much more rapidly, much faster since then, and we need to maintain it, not to fall back into the same places that we were.

“Second, I think it’s the transition to the Cloud. The Cloud is changing the paradigms and the way we work. Government is not very fast at adopting new technologies, and the Cloud changes this paradigm: we can use new, cutting-edge technologies very fast. And I think once we get over the regulation issues about providing government information into the Cloud, we will be able to move very fast.

“Third for me, is not to leave anyone behind. The fast pace moving into the digital area has the risk of leaving people who are not able or willing to use digital services behind. We need to make sure that we leave no one behind: [that] we have alternative ways of providing government services and benefits, and make sure that we deliver a training, orientation, or even just simple technical support to everyone that requires that.”

What’s your favourite book?

“That’s an easy one for me. The book that I’ve re-read every couple of years is a Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. It’s an influential book about the power of positive thinking.

“I first read it in high school, and then re-read it every couple of years. The power about imagining the positive outcome in what you’re willing and able to achieve is something that gives you the strength to oversee the everyday struggles or even crises that you may have. And working within the government, it’s a struggle sometimes to change the way of doing things; to change our way of working. And positive thinking and seeing the bright future is something that really helps a lot.”

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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