Last month, on April 19, the European Commission published, as part of a package of initiatives related to the realisation of the Digital Single Market (DSM)1, a new eGoverment Action Plan2, covering the period 2016 to 2020. Overall, I believe the document contains a realistic but ambitious vision and sets the right priorities but nevertheless, a few remarks are to be made.
The Action Plan has the format of a communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council and does not in itself impose anything on either the Member States or on European businesses and citizens. Instead, the document gives an overview of ongoing and new Commission initiatives in the area of eGovernment and put these initiatives in an overall policy context (the Digital Single Market). There is no budget associated with the Action Plan, all actions listed in the document rely on already existing resources like research funds, structural funds, the ISA² program or the CEF.
With the communication came a stuff working paper3 together with a summary4, that contains an evaluation of the previous eGovernment Action Plan (covering the period 2011-2016) and argues the need for a new Action Plan. y. There is is no evaluation based on hard data (i.e. more jobs, less public money spent, more eGovernment services etc.), but it is argued that the previous Action Plan was a driver for actions at the level of the Member States, that is was efficient and pertinent. As most actions in the plan contained an important element of coordination and collaboration between Member States, action at the level of the European Union was helpful. And for all these reasons, a new eGovernment Action Plan is needed – although in the communication itself the rational is shortened to “We need a new Action Plan because it was announced in the DSM strategy documents”. Reading the evaluation report, I have a slight suspicion that we will see new eGovernment Action Plans at infinitum.
The Action Plan starts with a vision: “By 2020, public administrations and public institutions in the European Union should be open, efficient and inclusive, providing borderless, personalised, user-friendly, end-to-end digital public services to all citizens and businesses in the EU. Innovative approaches are used to design and deliver better services in line with the needs and demands of citizens and businesses. Public administrations use the opportunities offered by the new digital environment to facilitate their interactions with stakeholders and with each other.” One can only agree with that. Then, the document states a number of Principles such as “Digital by default”, the “Only-once principle”, “Inclusiveness and accessibility”, “Openness and transparency”, “Cross-border by default”, “Interoperability by default” and “Trustworthiness & Security”.
Most of these principles are pretty obvious, but I am worried about the description of the “Openness and transparency”. The description of this principle is along the lines of the description as present in the proposed update to the European Interoperability Framework”5 (EIF). Openness and transparency have become synonyms. The “Openness principles” that were present in earlier versions of the EIF and that we in OpenForum Europe6 take as guidance for about everything we do have completely disappeared. Luckily in the Action Plan the Commission added: “(public administrations should) engage with and open up to stakeholders in the design and delivery of services” and further in the document there is a request to administrations to “open up their data and their services to other administrations and where possible to businesses and civil society” (emphasis by me). There is even a reference to Government as a Service (GAAS) as described by Tim O’Reilly some years ago7. That is an interesting concept, but the concept is not elaborated upon in the document. While the concept of opening up government data is well known today, the concept of opening up government services is not. Having participated in some workshops that the Commission organized last year on open eGovernment, I am not sure if the Commission has a clear view on this.
Looking into the policy priorities, the first one is about “key digital enablers”. Some of them have already figured prominently in earlier eGovernment plans: e-procurement and eID. The introduction of these enablers seems to be a never ending task although identifying persons and acquiring goods over the Internet is something that happens every day in the real world. Also the “sustainability of the cross-border infrastructure” is something that already has been promised a number of times in the past.
Another action item under the heading “key enablers” is the development of a “prototype for a European Catalogue of ICT standards for public procurement”. I would advise those responsible for this action to visit their retired colleagues who worked in the 90’s on the “European Procurement Handbook for Open Systems”8, an earlier attempt to prescribe how public administrations should procure systems based on a well-defined set of standards – an attempt that failed grandiosely when the Internet arrived, an Internet that was based on standards that were made bottom-up by open communities instead of top-down by committees (as the standards prescribed in the handbook.
Another priority action that we know from the past is the creation of a single portal to all government services – now called the “Single Digital Gateway”. There are already so many single gateways – who needs another one? Interesting to see that the next action in the list is “Make the European e-Justice Portal a one-stop shop for information on European justice issues.” So will we get a European e-Justice Portal as the “Single digital gateway”?
In conclusion: the eGovernment plan gives a good overview of what is happening around eGovernment and trans-border services within the Commission. There are a few interesting ideas on increasing engagement and participation, but there is also a long list of actions that are taken over from eGovernment plan to eGovernment plan without much critical thinking on why progress is so slow.
4 http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/en/TXT/?uri=CELEX:52016SC0109 (at the moment of writing, an English version is not available, but French and German versions do exist)
Picture under CC BY SA opensource.com