On December 15, in conjunction with the conference on Lift Off Open Government (see previous post), the European Commission issued its communication to to other European institutions (such as the Parliament and the Council) about the European eGovernment Action Plan 2011-2015.
The subtitle of the communication is quite intriguing: Harnessing ICT to promote smart, sustainable and innovative government.
In all fairness the Commission has done a decent job at striking the balance between its lack of power on this matter (it cannot mandate, but advise, somewhat diverging interests from different constituencies (various Commission programs and Member States) and the need to turn the e-Government ship around after almost a decade of projects and initiatives that have achieved relatively little from a European perspective, while leveraging existing investments and lines of activities.
It is quite clear that this sounds like an almost impossible task. I have rarely seen the Commission admitting that a line of research, a pilot project or an initiative has failed or is no longer relevant. Although officials in Brussels would concede that and I am sure that some of them clearly get that a more dramatic change of course would be required, the action plan is probably the less worst outcome of the art of compromise.
The document starts very well, by recognizing the issues at stake and need for delivering greater value to citizens with fewer resources. But then, pretty much like Commissioner Kroes’ opening pitch at the above mentioned conference, it gets into how to further activities that the Commission and Member States have started well before the financial crisi and economic downturn. The fundamental problem is not with the action plan itself, but with the ministerial declaration from last year, which – as I said at the time – failed to capture the heat of the moment.
This being said, there are some good things that is worth highlighting.
The whole area of transparency culminates by 2014 into enabling citizens to have electronic access to those personal data that are held on them when available electronically and informing citizens electronically whenever such data are being processed by automatic means, in a simple and unambiguous manner. This would be an important achievement, walking the talk about the importance of privacy.
In the area of EU-wide implementation of cross-border services, it is very sensible to conduct a study in 2011 about the actual demand for these services and assess barriers to their implementation and deployment. There is a fair amount of abstraction about how important these services are. It remains to be seen, of course, how neutral the study will be and whether a possible conclusion showing that there is far less urgency than assumed so far would be politically acceptable.
I particularly like the willingness of the European Commission to take its own medicine, by implementing a new eCommission plan (2011-2015) that will address full electronic procurement, a public sector information strategy and a transparency policy. Leading by example rather than just funding best practice exchanges and various projects is definitely the way to go.
The attention devoted to organizational issues, including staff exchanges, is laudable. In spite of potential language barriers, this is the only part of the plan where government employees are given the focus they deserve.
Finally, the focus IPv6, through pilot projects to create awareness and momentum in Member States between 2011 and 2012 is useful and quite timely.
At the same time, there are initiatives that seem to have a dubious impact on the overall objective stated in the subtitle
On the surface, supporting member states in developing eGovernment services designed around user needs and in ensuring inclusiveness and accessibility sounds great. But then,reading through the plan, it appears that Member States will agree targets and evaluation criteria, launch demonstrators, develop unspecified “personalized” services. The whole section could have been written in 2000 or 2005, under the eEurope schemes, and one would hardly tell the difference.
The area of collaborative service production, which would be very promising from a government 2.0 perspective, boils down to a study about how to involve users and the facilitation of best practice experiences. The lack of reference to the role of civil servants in this collaboration is remarkable.
As far as the open government part, which is dubbed “reuse of public sector information”, Member States are invited to agreed on a common set of indicators. I imagine that the pointless competition about who had more online services (which actually hurt some of the member states by making them spend money on the wrong things) will just move to who has more open data sets available. Any reference to measuring value or outcome of these efforts is conspicuous in its absence.
Under the “key enablers” section of the plan (which – I have to say – sounded a bit off already in the ministerial declaration), there is a disproportionate focus on national eID schemes, with reference to the big pilot STORK (see previous post). i wonder how bright the future of national eID schemes is going to be, with multiple alternatives competing (credit and debit cards, SIM cards, social platform identities, but also local governments). I hope that, besides the indestructible faith of the action plan into furthering the approach used so far, reality will set in and there will be greater emphasis on OpenID and the likes. A bit of hope comes from the intention to propose a decision for mutual recognition of eID schemes, which may use documents issued by the public and private sectors)
Finally, there are areas that kind-of make sense, but the Action Plan does not seem to look at them critically enough, as if the priority were just to get them done or completed from previous plans.
Let’s start with the large scale pilots. Besides STORK on eID, PEPPOL on e-procurement and SPOCS on service directive (see previous post) have received substantial funding so far. It appears that outcomes will be assesses to ensure sustainable follow up. i wonder, have they been successful? Don’t they know it already? The plan does not say that, but assumes that they have to survive in one way or another. Also, it anticipates that there will be a roll-out of cross-border services based on those projects’ results. The text is a bit ambiguous for my own tastes, but again, this is a political document, so what should I expect?
It is quite clear that a big winner in the plan are the Commission services themselves, as they will have money for more pilots, including large scale ones, as well as for internal developments. This is not a bad thing in itself, but what is missing is a better mechanism to make sure that all these initiatives do not become self-fulfilling. In most of the areas where it disburses funding for applied research and implementation, the Commission suffers from the inability of broadening its target audience (grants recipients) and on this particular topic area it is in great need of new voices and viewpoints (see previous post).
The European Interoperability Framework 2.0, once finally adopted, will be put into action. This is long overdue, but it also depends on the outcome of the above-mentioned initiative about assessing the real need for cross-border services. Also, like any enterprise architecture initiative, this needs to be very well focused and applied to specific and narrowly focused transformation goals: the plan does not suggest whether such an approach will be taken.
Finally, the whole section about innovative eGovernment is rather vague and, by mentioning SOA and clouds, does cast doubts about this being anything more than a pot of money for the Commission services to launch more pilots, both small and large.
My own conclusion
The Action Plan will keep the lights on in an area (e-Government) that have suffered from lack of concrete attention and support by some Member States in the last few years. It is a testament to the willingness of Commissioner Kroes and her services to affirm the importance of a balanced e-government progress across Europe, in spite of the limited power that the Commission has on these topics.
If the Commission will intensify and accelerate the assessment of current initiatives, and have the guts to change course as required, including broadening the governance mechanism to incorporate stakeholders beyond IT (such as consumer groups, staff unions, and so forth), then there is still hope it can get something useful out of all this.
However it seems to me that they have lost a great opportunity for some radical change in recognition of the “new normal” for Europe: slow growth, continued financial instability, immigration and aging. There is very little real government 2.0 in the plan. What about engaging the collective and government employees to solve urgent problems? What about replacing enterprise technology with consumer technology to reduce costs and increase agility? What about blurring boundaries between government and society rather than reinforcing those between Member States?.
Maybe these are issues that individual Member States have to deal with, but it would be great to the see the Commission put a stick in the ground. Although this would probably tilt the delicate balance it needs to keep to make all stakeholders (its own services, Member States and vendors) happy.