On December 15 and 16 the Belgian EU presidency and the European Commission are holding in Brussels a conference with an inspiring title: Lift-Off Toward Open Government.
From what I can tell, this is as far as inspiration goes, because what I have seen so far through its program, opening speech and several tweets, does not live up to expectations.
For those who are not intimately familiar with the role of the European institutions on E-Government and Open Government, it is worth highlighting that neither goes under the remit of the European Commission or Parliament. The EU issues an Action Plan which is more a call for action than anything else: the EU cannot legislate on issues that are under the member states’ responsibility.
This being said, I do not want to underplay the political significance of an Action Plan and the budget that is usually made available to support initiatives and projects involving several member states.
And, at first sight, the program and the conference opening speech are exactly what one would expect, i.e. in line with the European Ministerial eGovernment Declaration issued one year ago and launched in the context of this conference.
There is room for the large scale pilots on service directive, e-identity and e-procurement – whose role is confirmed by the action plan – as well as for participation, cloud, measurement, green IT, and other topics that have consistently featured the EU action and projects on this topic for several years now.
So what am I missing? Well, if we look at the problems that Europe is facing, they can be summarized in one word: sustainability. And I am not talking about environmental sustainability, although this is an important component. I am talking about the ability of the EU to sustain its own existence and of several Member States to remain financially viable and generate growth rather than debt.
Of course these are systemic issues, and go well beyond e-government: they ask for policy changes and stimuli in multiple areas. However what I find conspicuous in its absence, starting with the European Commissioner’s opening speech, is the recognition that the context has dramatically changed. True, already last year in Malmo the EU and the then Swedish Presidency should have put sustainability at the center of the conference, but they did not. Now, one year later, we are discussing scenarios that would be unthinkable just a couple of years ago: an uncertain fate for the single currency, an increasing number of Member States risking financial default, civil unrest in countries as different as Greece and the UK as a reaction to debt-reducing measures.
In spite of the reasonable program and the great line-up of delegates, the big absent at this conference is reality. E-government or government 2.0 discussions seem to happen in a bubble, as if life today was the same as ten or more years ago. I am sure that reality will creep into some of the sessions, but what Europe needs right now is for its many e-government experts and enthusiasts to roll up their sleeves and collectively contribute to solving much bigger and urgent problems than having a single identity scheme or nicer points of single contact or a crowdsourced and politically correct open government declaration
It is time to Lift-Off toward tackling serious issues. Open government is a means to do so, but the end must be clear to every body: Europe’s own survival.