How Ukrainian e-gov service Diia was created. Interview with Mstyslav Banik

Over the past few months, the Ukrainian service Diia has been much discussed regarding exports: several countries are considering implementing the service.

Diia app was launched in Ukraine in 2022. It provides Ukrainians with ID documents, allows them to register businesses, and obtain various government services online. The participants of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting also became interested in the use cases of Diia app during the full-scale war. In particular, eVorog, a chatbot that helps to inform about the locations of occupation troops.

The AIN.Capital editor met with Mstyslav Banik, Head of e-Services Development at the Ministry of Digital Transformation, and asked him about all areas of development of Ukraine’s main digital product and how the Ukrainian team works on Diia.

Mstyslav Banik, photo: Ministry of Digital Transformation

Let’s start with the numbers: How many users got the Diia app?

It’s over 19,425,000.

What’s that? MAU, total downloads?

No, it’s the quantity of unique identification tax numbers of users logged into the system. At least once. The number of downloads is much more — over 44 mln. But this is not a valid figure, because people change or lose their smartphones, uninstall and reinstall applications. I should also note that this figure is only for the Diia app, without the website, which has more than 4 million accounts.

But let me tell you about another important metric that I constantly monitor: the audience over 55 years old is 23%. These people also use the available functions: They applied for light bulb exchange, received ePidtrymka, and downloaded COVID vaccination certificates. It is important for us to see this, as we are focused on a mobile-first story and want to make an application that is convenient for everyone. I should add that 55+ people also actively use the website when they find the functions they need, such as subsidies, work experience, pension services, etc.

You’ve paid so much attention to this, so what’s with the idea of smartphones for older people? I remember that, apart from the Ministry of Digital Transformation and the president, only vendors who could make much money from tenders liked this story.

Let me remind you that the idea was presented shortly before the full-scale invasion. We considered giving smartphones to pensioners who cannot afford them but still need to access Diia services.

We then started analyzing this issue, studying the audience, volumes, and, of course, thinking about security: We didn’t want a conditional grandson to sell a phone on OLX on the very first day. Manufacturers have features that make this impossible, so that we would solve this issue. Of course, this story is irrelevant now, and we will return to it after the victory.

So you didn’t reject the idea?

No, and I can tell you why. The digitalization of services is happening despite everything, and we are moving many things online. Suppose we can give a person a smartphone. In that case, they won’t have to go to an ASC or other government agency, won’t have to produce bureaucracy, unnecessary paperwork, and workload, and can do everything at home. In addition, let’s stop underestimating the older generation, who will learn to use online services in the same way if necessary and often already knows how but not always can afford the required device. This is a story about accessibility.

OK, let’s return to this topic after the victory. Let’s continue with Diia. The app has ~20 million users. How many people are working on it?

We have two teams working in tandem. This is the team of the Ministry of Digital Transformation and the team of the Diia State Enterprise. On the surface, everything seems simple, but it is not.

Diia is not just about a function in an app. First, it is the work that the user does not see and should not see — laws and regulations. This is a team of about ten people who have to ensure that everything works properly in the app, per the current legislation.

The team I lead is responsible for the development of digital services. It is about 30 people.

Speaking of the Diia State Enterprise is a product history, and they do everything you see when you tap on the Diia icon on your smartphone. About 30 people are responsible for the development. So, in total, there are less than a hundred specialists.

Tell us how the work is organized. Let’s say you want to add a new feature, for example, military bonds. Describe the process of doing so.

An idea comes first. And they can come from everywhere: the president, the minister, authorities, or our team. For example, I was one of the initiators of the polls.

We discuss ideas almost every Monday on the board where the core team meets. There, we first discuss the feasibility of the service because the idea may be great, but it’s for peacetime, not when the country is at war. We evaluate the feasibility.

Since there can be a lot of good ideas, we start counting the potential audience for the service. We also look at whether systems already allow us to launch the service quickly or whether we need to develop it from scratch.

For example, military bonds. The idea was to use the entire resource of the Diia audience and motivate people to buy military bonds, a vital resource for the state. It is essential that we do not have to sell these bonds ourselves. But we have experience in quickly connecting banks, vendors, and partners, and we can mention ePidtrymka and other services.

It was clear how to launch the service, the feasibility, and the size of the audience.

But military bonds were not a new service, and our goal was to attract as large an audience as possible. We had to reach out to those who had previously ignored military bonds for whatever reason. The idea came from Mykhailo Fedorov: “People don’t just buy war bonds; they invest in the liberation of Ukrainian cities.”

We had an important function, a broad audience, everything we needed on the technical side, and an excellent, clear idea of how this service could become popular among the audience. The puzzle was put together. The service was launched in a few weeks.

Just in case, I’ll also add that this is an open story, and if your company also wants to sell military bonds through Diia, you are welcome to do so, to avoid speculations about the choice of companies.

How do you choose what goes into the app and what to the website?

The website does not offer super-mass services. Everything with the broadest possible audience goes into the app. That’s why light bulbs and military bonds are there. But on the portal, you can get business grants or construction services.

The second point is the complexity of services. The construction industry is accompanied by a large number of documents and its own bureaucracy, and it takes time to fill them out. It’s inconvenient to fill out all this on a small screen on a smartphone, so obviously, a computer is a more convenient option.

The last point, but we rarely address it, is speed. If we need to add a new service very quickly and realize that we have almost no time, we go to the website, which is easier, and then to the app.

Not long ago, I had a conversation with Fedorov, and he said he wants to turn Diia into a kind of Super App and add a whole range of services. You mentioned that you discussed different ideas at your Monday meetings. How do you prioritize them? What should be done first?

There are two general criteria: relevance and technical feasibility. It happens that we do not undertake a task but plan it for “six months from now” because a particular ministry will implement changes or certain functionality in only six months. Not everything depends on the Ministry of Digital Transformation or our desire — we launch functions in tandem with other ministries and must also consider their capabilities. At the same time, we clearly understand the situation on the outside, as we have CDTOs who monitor this in other departments, and we communicate with them and, accordingly, make plans.

For example, we cannot quickly issue a permit for a child to travel abroad because only some things depend on us. We are just a platform in the form of an application. But military bonds are an internal project, so we did everything quickly.

And let’s not forget about sudden unexpected projects, such as the light bulb exchange. But the path is the same: We reach a broad audience, and the problem is clear — the load on the power system from old light bulbs can reach 10%. The Ministry of Economy, Ukrposhta, and European partners have joined in. Therefore, we shifted our other tasks, and the team promptly launched this function, and all other participants also agreed on the necessary changes.

I guess you have a big vision of how you would like to see Diia in the next five years and what tasks it could accomplish. Could you maybe describe it in a very brief way?

The citizen is at the center of our ecosystem. And this is the key concept. What do I mean by that? Yes, you can have a business but are still a citizen. You can be a civil servant. You are still a citizen. You can be a parent of a schoolchild, but you are still a citizen. And so on.

And this is a big field for providing people with services from different categories. Since we have everything for business on the portal now, we need to integrate it into the mobile application gradually. We are working to ensure that a person can use different services as a citizen in the future but in various manifestations.

Therefore, we cannot divide this into several applications, such as PrivatBank, where there are separate apps for businesses and individuals. And it’s not about profiles. We have a citizen in the middle, a different entity. A person who should have access to different services. And our challenge is to combine everything in one application.

Basically, we already have a super app because we have access to various functions and services; it’s not a mono-product with just your ID. But there is much more to come. It takes time, unfortunately, not all at once.

When building the Super App, aren’t you afraid that there will be too much information about every Ukrainian in one place and the next minister or president will use it unfairly?

It’s about the control risk. We design the architecture so that we have no influence or access so that it is transparent, secure, and largely anonymized. You can go to the App Store or Play Market and see what accesses Diia requests. We even ask for geolocation only once — from those who apply for IDP certificates and assistance or change the address of their actual residence.

Of course, there are various risks. However, we live in a democratic country, and I am sure that a society that monitors everything will not allow this to happen.

You gave an excellent example of the light bulbs. It was a super-urgent task, and you jumped in and launched it quickly. How do you feel when you realize that all very complex tasks like this are thrown at the Ministry of Digital Transformation, and Ukrkosmos’ budget for this year is more significant than yours? And you have only 30 developers.

I won’t say that we look back at who gets how much, to be honest. We have a lot of support from donors. Up to a certain point, Diia was developed only with the help of international technical assistance. There is a vast amount of this support; it comes for different areas and from different countries. The primary donor, in terms of the amount of funding, is the United States through USAID.  Our partners include Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, and Estonia. Japan is also joining in.

By working with these international donors, we produce results. They see that they can continue to invest and invest in projects.

How do I feel about this? My dad served in the special forces when I was little. And there, they have a “no one but us” attitude, like a specific mission. I used to think that this is our task.

Let’s go over another point. At some moment, Diia became very popular outside of Ukraine: everyone was talking and writing about the international expansion of the service. Tell me more about what’s going on.

To begin with, Ukraine has never been super-powerful in digital, so we communicated a lot with international partners and studied their experiences when we started. We kept in contact, and over time, we began to tell them what we were doing and, how we were doing it, what we had achieved.

After the start of the full-scale invasion, millions of Ukrainians left Ukraine, and they began to show and tell the world what Diia is and why they love it — they became ambassadors of state development. This drew even more attention to us from the international community.

At this point, everything changed: we were no longer being consulted on how and what to do; they started coming to us.

A new area of work is the export of Diia.

You could say that. We don’t have a separate team for this; we use our existing resources, which we direct to consultations.

But, right away, we are talking about something other than selling our developments for money.

If we are talking about exports, the number one idea is the following. Ukraine has received a lot of international aid during the war, and we want to give something back. The second point is that international donors also support this story of exporting our developments to the world. USAID has allocated $650,000 for a project to study the possibilities of implementing our products in other countries. Because it’s not about a “passport in a smartphone,” it’s like an iceberg: It’s about fighting corruption, transparency, and reducing bureaucracy. That is why our international donors are also interested in sharing our experience.

How does it work? Say, Nigeria calls and says, “We want Diia,” and you tell them to hire 30 developers and go ahead?

To put it simply, yes. The uncomplicated version is as follows.

An interested party asks us to tell them more about what our platform can do and how it works. Let’s pretend they are interested.

The next stage is technical consultations. We tell them how everything works from the inside, how security works, how to work with registries, integrations with services and products, and what is needed to make everything work.

Usually, after that, the stakeholder takes time to think or do some homework: Theyselves need to understand whether they can take our approach and implement everything. One country, for example, does not have TINs in its registers, and it will be challenging to work in the Diia format without them. Either the architecture is such that implementing our developments will not be possible, or it will be difficult. Let’s imagine everything went well here, too, and the country is ready to work further.

Diia is a fairly large project, and we have many functions and services: We talk about the possibilities, and the stakeholder indicates where it is interesting to start. Plus, you must understand that we work very fast in Ukraine, and only some are ready to keep up with this pace. Therefore, an imaginary MVP is being assembled with what the country is prepared to come out with. This is where additional technical consultations for this MVP begin. Then there are the point-by-point clarifications about which design they will use — their own or ours — which part of the code to transfer to them, and so on. They also choose the name of their service themselves, and there is no “call it Diia” clause anywhere.

The other country should have an implementing company responsible for this MVP’s content and its further development. We only advise and help.

Again, this is an essential point: The Ministry of Digital Transformation or the Diia State Enterprise do not have access to their systems, registers, or anything else, and we do not work with their information.

There is a certain irony that Estonia is now learning from you. What are your feelings?

At first glance, maybe. Let’s take a broader look at the situation. We studied the experience of Estonia. They were the first to go digital, while others were not even thinking about it. And we all learned from them. But at one point, the Estonians put everything on the web, and we put it on a mobile app. And what did Estonia do? They did not reinvent anything and borrowed our existing product and experience. Just as we once borrowed their expertise.

So, yes, it’s great when Estonia borrows your product, but let’s be honest — without all the achievements in Estonia that we used, it’s not a fact that we would have been so successful.

You said that you wouldn’t sell it — you just share your achievements with other countries. So don’t you think about earning money, having so many opportunities?

We are a government agency, and we must create an affordable and user-friendly service for our citizens. Therefore, I have no comment on this question right now.

Last question. Are you going to change the operator that processes payments? According to my information, it is a matter of time.

I will give a brief comment: we are working on this matter. When we started the current cooperation, this company had the lowest fees, and no one else, no matter what they wrote on Facebook, had such rates. And in some projects, funds are transferred with no fees at all. For example, all donations through Diia are commission-free. If you donate to the Army of Drones on Diia, the funds go directly to the National Bank’s account. Now we will have to reconsider our cooperation.