Introducing Jaanika Merilo - the Estonian IT innovator leading Ukraine’s e-revolution

Dnipro Deputy Mayor Jaanika Merilo has been at the forefront of the Ukrainian push for digital government for the past few years and remains convinced that fundamental change is possible with the right balance of patience and perseverance, together with a little help from social media. 

Introducing Jaanika Merilo - the Estonian IT innovator leading Ukraine’s e-revolution
Bringing e-government to Ukraine: Estonian e-innovator Jaanika Merilo has held a number of strategic positions throughout Ukraine since joining the post-Maidan reformist drive
Business Ukraine magazine
Monday, 05 December 2016 16:09

It is not easy being a foreign reformer in Ukraine. The allure of transforming Europe’s largest country has attracted people from across the post-Soviet region and beyond, but over the past twelve months most have either resigned in frustration or been forced out. Estonian-born e-revolutionary Jaanika Merilo is one of the relatively few members of this international brigade who are still active in the struggle to build the new Ukraine. Her thousands of Facebook followers will testify to the Estonian’s resilience (and remarkably good humor) as she tries to bring Ukraine into the Digital Age. 

Ms. Merilo has held a range of positions in both Kyiv and Ukraine’s regional capitals since first aligning herself with the country’s reform efforts in early 2015. She currently holds a number of posts across the country. As well as serving as Deputy Mayor of Dnipro (formerly Dnipropetrovsk), she leads Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadoviy’s efforts to introduce e-government, and is also part of Minister of Infrastructure Volodymyr Omelyan’s IT reform efforts. “I have the honor of working with three really great reformers,” she says matter-of-factly.

The Euromaidan Revolution was not the point of departure for Ms. Merilo’s relationship with Ukraine. Born in the Baltics to an Estonian mother and Ukrainian father, she spent many of her childhood summers in Ukraine. After an international education, she began her professional career as a programmer and internet bank specialist before moving into investment banking – a sector that brought her back into contact with Ukraine almost ten years ago. Ms. Merilo spoke to Business Ukraine magazine about the role of digital technologies in combatting Ukrainian corruption and the potential benefits of learning from her native Estonia’s own e-revolution.


In 2014 many foreigners entered Ukrainian government service and joined the post-Maidan reform crusade. Most have now either resigned or been removed from office, but you remain as active as ever. What is the secret of your longevity?

I would like to think the main secret is that I do not view my work in Ukraine as a short-term managerial assignment. I regard Ukraine as my second homeland and see it as a duty to contribute to the positive development of the country. I try to support the changes taking place in Ukraine by implementing practical technological solutions that can help fight corruption and improve people’s everyday lives. I also focus on doing my job and try to avoid any political power struggles and intrigues. It is all too easy to become distracted from the task in hand. I try to remain results-oriented and ignore all the political scheming. 


Prominent Ukrainian journalist and blogger Yuriy Butusov memorably said of you: “They do not know that behind the smile of an angel lies a terrible vixen who drinks the blood of bureaucrats and corrupt officials.” Is this a fair reflection of your interaction with Ukrainian state officials?

It was a very funny and, in many ways, spot-on description. I am very intolerant of people who oppose reforms and are involved in corruption. I might smile but I am truly very demanding of myself and of others. I tend to protest immediately if a politician or bureaucrat tries to oppose reforms that I know will improve standards of living. In such circumstances, I use all the available tools to protest – from my limited official authority to social media posts raising the alarm over efforts to block reforms. This is probably why Mr. Butusov said that even when I smile, I do not compromise on my demands for transparency or reform, and will go all-out to make things happen. He was warning people not to underestimate me! Having said that, I try to work with the people who share my goals and prefer to concentrate on achieving results rather than engaging in confrontations.


Many commentators call anti-corruption efforts a second war Ukraine must wage alongside the struggle against the Russian hybrid war. However, those with practical experience of attempting to implement major reforms also often complain of excessive bureaucracy. Which is the greater obstacle to Ukrainian reforms - corruption or bureaucracy?

I would say both are equally major problems but in many ways, bureaucracy is more dangerous. It is possible to fight corruption by changing the system, but the passive opposition of bureaucrats who do not want the system to change is more damaging in the long-term as it prolongs the fight against corruption. I regard e-government as a key way to change the system as it minimizes interaction between civil servants and the public. For example, if you can order the necessary documentation online via your electronic bank ID and receive it through the post, then you will no longer need to pay any unofficial “fees” to bureaucrats in order to speed the process up. I believe in changing the system rather than just switching officials.


You are very active on social media and regularly post news of e-government reform efforts. How effective a medium is social media in the Ukrainian reform process?

Actually, social media is surprisingly effective if you need to gather support among the progressive community or engage a specific politician for some particular issue. It will take a very long time before I am able to explain what I am trying to do to everyone, but social media is a quite efficient channel to consolidate support among people who already understand my cause. It is also a good way to provide quick status updates on activities and explain my views. I just discovered a new button on Facebook – videocast. This is an extremely convenient function, allowing me to broadcast video blogs rather than writing long posts.


You are at the forefront of Ukraine’s e-government revolution - what do you regard as the biggest breakthroughs so far, and what should be the priorities for the coming few years?

It is probably accurate to say that in many areas, the impact of key reforms is not yet tangible. Nevertheless, progress is being made. In terms of e-government, over the past two years Ukraine has climbed from eighty-seventh to sixty-second place in the UN’s e-government development index, and jumped from seventy-seventh to thirty-second in the e-participation index.

I regard the biggest single breakthrough as the launch of ID cards with digital signatures. Other successes include creating open data portals and e-petitions, together with launching the country’s first real e-services. I am particularly proud that during elections in Lviv and Dnipro, we have been able to publish 100% of election protocols online in real time. I hope the next great breakthroughs will be e-elections, e-tickets for public transport, and legislation covering MobileID and BankID – this would pave the way for genuinely broad access to a whole range of e-services.


You are currently Deputy Mayor of Dnipro. What are the key focuses of your work in this role?

I am very fond of the job description given by Mayor Filatov in one of his Facebook posts: “Jaanika is my Deputy Mayor responsible for fighting human laziness and stupidity.” Joking aside, I am responsible for a range of issues including e-government initiatives, upgrading Administrative Service Centers, supporting the adoption of the ProZorro e-procurement system, launching e-tickets, reforming firefighting services, and a number other areas. Broadly speaking, I would like to think of my post as Deputy Mayor for Reforms.


Many foreigners find themselves enchanted by Ukraine and seek to contribute to the country’s development, only to become disillusioned by the many obstacles and cultural barriers they encounter. Have you experienced similar frustrations? What would be your advice to anyone who thinks they can make a contribution to building the new Ukraine?  

I have never had any illusions about the realities of today’s Ukraine as I spent part of my childhood here as well as much of the past ten years. I think I have a good understanding of the mentality and appreciate that implementing change was never going to be fast or easy. As I said in a previous interview regarding the departure of one so-called reformer during the early days of the post-Maidan period: “What did he expect? Did he think it was going to be a walk in the park?”

While I never thought it would be simple, I have been surprised and disappointed by some of the trends I have noticed. The self-styled progressive forces and young reformers in the country often let themselves become carried away by their egos rather than consolidating their forces. They sometimes undermine each other’s initiatives instead of focusing on the overriding goals we all share. They act like small children throwing tantrums. It is not very helpful behavior. My advice to anyone seeking to support Ukraine would be to avoid intrigues, remain grounded, do your job, and concentrate on results. If you are sufficiently stubborn, change will come.


You are from a mixed Estonian-Ukrainian family. What was your childhood image of Ukraine while growing up in Estonia?

I have spoken Ukrainian with my father all my life. He was very keen to teach me the history and culture of Ukraine. I used to spend three months every year in Ukraine when I was growing up, so I have always felt as much at home in Ukraine as in Estonia. Even though I lived most of the year in Estonia, I was very much in tune with the Ukrainian mentality, habits and traditions.


How does the current IT innovation culture in Ukraine compare to Estonia?

The Estonian IT ecosystem is probably 10-15 years ahead of Ukraine. When Skype emerged, Estonians were already asking themselves: “What should we do to make this success part of a long-term trend and not just a one-off?” Estonia has launched over 40 different IT ecosystem support programs. Even more importantly, there is widespread recognition that value-added and export-oriented innovation is the national priority. There are now all sorts of associations, incubators and accelerators in Ukraine, but the government has not yet defined this as a national priority or contributed in any meaningful way.


What can Ukraine learn from the success of the digital revolution in Estonia?

Estonia has already clearly defined the building blocks for e-government and it is theoretically possible to copy the entire structure. The fundamental foundation stones for the entire system are e-identification and authorization programs, together with interconnected e-registers. We have already copied much of the Estonian experience in our existing initiatives. When we were developing the ID card system and Ukraine’s first e-services, the Estonian government helped to engage experts and organize a fact-finding trip to Estonia for Ukrainian decision-makers. The BankID initiative drew directly on Estonian experience. The MobileID concept has been piloted using Estonian technology. These are just a few examples. I am convinced that by copying Estonia, which is the most advanced country in Europe in terms of e-services, we can actually move faster than many leading IT nations because we do not have to reinvent the wheel. Everything is already there - we just have to make good use of it.


What do you miss most about Estonia?

I have no time to dwell on this as I work a minimum of around 80 hours per week. I also spend my weekends in Estonia. In terms of mentality, I do miss Estonian attitudes towards getting results and not focusing on intrigues and plotting. I would very happy if the Ukrainian business and political cultures became more result-oriented.


If you could recruit anyone from the spheres of international business and politics to serve on your Ukrainian reform ‘dream team’, who would you choose?

That is a very good question. If we look at famous people, I would mix my team with visionaries and pragmatists. The visionaries would include Elon Musk and Richard Branson together with someone like Michael Bloomberg. However, I would not overestimate the need for foreign expertize – there is so much at this stage that we can just copy-paste-adapt-execute without trying to create new models. I believe I already have many of the necessary components of a reform dream team in place here in Ukraine. We just need to continue our work, keep the faith, and never lose our sense of inspiration.


Many observers have pointed to the prominent role played by women in Ukraine’s reform efforts. Nevertheless, Ukraine is still far behind the rest of Europe in terms of the number of women in politics and private sector management positions. What is your assessment of gender politics in Ukraine based on your personal experience in both business and politics?

I have a zero tolerance approach towards discrimination of any kind – especially gender-based discrimination. Maybe it is strange to say, but I have never really experienced much gender discrimination in Ukraine. Perhaps I have just learned to deal with it at the very early stages. My background has also helped me to feel comfortable in male-dominated environments. I started out as a computer programmer at the age of 16 when almost all my colleagues were boys. Then I moved into investment banking in Finland, which was truly a very masculine environment and traditional man’s world. In Ukrainian politics, I do not encounter direct discrimination, except perhaps in terms of overreactions to things that would not attract attention if done by a man. Some of the comments and news stories I see about discrimination are very ugly, but Ukrainian politics in general is not a particularly pleasant environment. There are still signs of chauvinism in Ukrainian society, but when you take into account how many more women there are in Ukrainian politics today compared to a decade or so ago, there is clear progress. I think it will become more and more common to see women in leading positions throughout Ukrainian society. Ultimately, gender does not matter – skills, experience, motivation and drive are what count. 

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