Every other year the ministers responsible for e-government in the EU member states, candidate accession countries and those in European free trade area meet to discuss respective progress on e-government as well as common future objectives. This year they are meeting at a conference in Malmo (Sweden) on November 19-20.
Why a declaration?
The most important political outcome of this event is a joint declaration by all ministers. The ultimate purpose is to task the European Commission with a set of initiatives (and related budget) to launch projects of common interest and facilitate best practice exchanges. Notably e-government is not one area in which the EU has any regulatory authority, hence the importance of the declaration to empower it to take initiative.
In its initial part the declaration sets four main themes for 2015:
- Citizens and businesses are empowered by eGovernment services designed around users’ needs and developed in collaboration with third parties, as well as by increased access to public information, strengthened transparency and effective means for involvement of stakeholders in the policy process,
- Mobility in the Single Market is reinforced by seamless eGovernment services for the setting up and running of a business and for studying, working, residing and retiring anywhere in the European Union,
- Efficiency and effectiveness is enabled by a constant effort to use eGovernment to reduce the administrative burden, improve organisational processes and promote a sustainable low-carbon economy,
- The implementation of the policy priorities is made possible by appropriate key enablers and legal and technical preconditions.
The first theme is about government 2.0 and is the most innovative part of the declaration, while the other three objectives relate to initiatives that the European Commission and Member States have already in place (such as large pilot projects for identity management, e-procurement and implementation of the service directive, as well as a large program for the reduction of administrative burden).
Is This the Dawn of Government 2.0?
The first theme is articulated in the five objectives:
Improve eGovernment services to cater for the different needs of users and deliver them in the most effective way. We will develop user-centric services that provide flexible and personalised ways of interacting with public administrations. We will develop multi-channel strategies in order to deliver eGovernment services in the most effective way. We will develop inclusive services that will help to bring down barriers experienced by digitally or socially excluded groups. Efficient eGovernment services built around the needs of users will increase trust in government and contribute to higher user satisfaction whilst achieving efficiency gains.
This first paragraph has little to do with Gov 2.0. It is more about the continuation of traditional user-centric e-government initiatives, as they are measured and celebrated by a series of benchmarking report, the last of which has been issued in conjunction with the declaration
Invite third parties to collaborate on the development of eGovernment services. We will actively seek collaboration with third parties, for example businesses, civil society or individual citizens, in order to develop user-driven eGovernment services. Collaboration with third parties will stimulate the creation of innovative, flexible and personalized services, increase the overall effectiveness of services and maximize public value.
This second paragraph is way more interesting. Although it does not mention communities or social network, it suggests to reach out to third parties and introduces the concept of user-driven services. I hope that this has been somewhat influenced by Gartner positions on citizen-driven vs citizen-centric
Increase availability of public sector information for reuse. We will increase availability of public sector information for reuse, in accordance with the spirit of and the conditions established by Public Sector Information Directive 2003/98/EC. We will encourage the reuse of public data by third parties to develop enriched services that maximize the value for the public. New demand-led information products and services enabled by the reuse of public sector information will support the transition of Europe to a knowledge-based economy.
This paragraph clearly may prelude to the development of something like www.data.eu and the endorsement of similar public data access channels in member states, to facilitate mashups.
Strengthen transparency of administrative processes. We will explore how we can make our administrative processes more transparent. Transparency promotes accountability and trust in government.
This is a rather generic call for greater transparency, which is somewhat subsumed by the previous objectives. And finally:
Involve stakeholders in public policy processes. We will actively develop and promote effective, useful and better ways for businesses and citizens to participate in the policy processes. Increased public engagement through more effective methods at all levels enhances government’s efficiency and effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions and services.
This last paragraph is consistent with previous calls for increased citizen engagement. It does not say anything about how different the “more effective methods” will be and to what extent they will leverage existing avenues, such as social media or service delivery itself (as citizens are more likely to be engaged while they are already interacting with government in service delivery mode).
An Asymmetric View of Government 2.0
Not surprisingly the declaration confirms the asymmetric view that many have about government 2.0: information flows from government to citizens (through reuse of public information) while engagement flows from citizens to government. However, as indicated in a previous post, the reverse flows are equally if not more important. Information must flows from existing communities and social media to government, and government employees need to engage with citizens on the citizens’ turf (e.g. consumer social networks)
Government 2.0 Gets Lost in Declaration
Later in the declaration there are statements such as
We will ensure that open specifications are promoted in our national interoperability frameworks in order to lower barriers to the market. We will work to align our national interoperability frameworks with applicable European frameworks.
which apply to both traditional e-government initiatives and to government 2.0. Unfortunately there is no element to judge whether a new architectural approach will be pursued and whether the use of open specifications is promoted only to achieve interoperability among government organizations, or is meant to address also more innovative scenarios, where government services interoperate with non government ones.
From this point onward the declaration mostly restates concepts and mechanisms that are very similar to those of previous years. For instance:
The Open Source model could be promoted for use in eGovernment projects. It is important to create a level playing field where open competition can take place in order to ensure best value for money.
Without prejudice to the relevance of open source (especially as a mechanism to socialize and co-develop specific vertical solutions), the genericity of the reference above seems to recall behaviors from several years ago.
Also the reference to innovation, although mentioning service architectures and new computing paradigms (cloud?), carries the legacy of previous declarations and reveals one of the fundamental purposes of the declaration, which is to secure resources to continue supporting existing programs and initiatives.
Regard innovation as an integral part of our way of working. We will promote innovation in eGovernment services through research and development, pilot projects and other implementation schemes. We will explore and develop the possibilities offered by new open and flexible service architectures and new computing paradigms. Innovation is a central part of eGovernment and will contribute to the goal of making Europe a leading knowledge-based economy.
In fact the last section mentions studies, programs and initiatives that clearly map on on-going initiatives and interest groups and there is no reference to truly innovative schemes.
There is still hope, or not really?
One should consider that the declaration is a very high-level document and there is still plenty of room for changing the type of initiatives and mechanisms. Unfortunately the publication of the most recent e-government benchmark, which is the first outcome of the renewed contract between EU and Capgemini, shows a disappointing continuity with the old e-government approach.
If government 2.0 is about discontinuity, enabling bi-directional flows and engaging new stakeholders, the EU declaration has failed on every account.