A few days ago I had a conversation with people from a southern European country about the state of government IT in Europe, with particular reference to what the European Commission is doing on large-scale projects and their benchmarking activities to compare progress across EU Member States.
We agreed that, bas on our collective experience (in my case dating back to my days as a project partner in EU-funded projects and then a European Commission officer) the seems to be a sense of inferiority that certain countries, such as Italy, Spain and Portugal, feel toward the UK, which has always played a leading role on IT matters. One great example was the “millennium bug”, followed by the first e-government strategy, the first interoperability framework, the concept of “joined-up government” and now more recently the open data initiative. Being more advanced, the UK has either directly or indirectly set the pace for many EU-wide activities. Not surprisingly though, no all of them have been successful, and certainly not so for all those involved.
From the dubious value (but the certain cost) of relentlessly putting all services on line to the establishment of a government-wide CIO role, from their shared service initiatives to the linked open data mantra by charismatic Whitehall consultant Tim Berners-Lee, I keep hearing people in southern European countries in awe with what the Brits are doing. This often extends to other small countries or more recent EU joiners, and even transpires beyond the strong sense of identity of countries like Germany and France.
While it is a fact that the British government has been progressive in many areas, it is also true that their cultural proximity to other Anglo-Saxon governments like the US, Canadian and Australian ones, as well as the use of English, which is the international lingua franca of IT, has given them a head start. If one looks at their struggle with large projects and outsourcing deals, their endless pursuit of shared services, the seemingly impossible battle with layers and layers of legacy technology, the British government looks much closer to the rest of the pack, with the additional downside that everybody else is watching them.
Over the years I have come to hating the term “best practice” because it has turned into a copycat rather than a source of inspiration. The British government, and any other government for that matter, does not offer best practices, but just practices that should be evaluated in the context of any recipient government that is considering their adoption. Were those practices successful, and are they sustainable? Do we have the right preconditions – regulatory framework, strategic priorities, skills, budget, and so forth – to apply them in our context? And, equally importantly, are there any of our practices that would be worth sharing with other governments, hence taking the time and effort to communicate them to a wider audience (including packaging, translating and marketing them)?
I wonder whether this sense of inferiority is caused by an even combination of how progressive the British government has been on many IT matters, and how shy other countries have been in socializing their own experiences and accomplishments.
Which leads me to my last point. The EU can do a lot to help member states exchange their practices, bridging the language and cultural gaps, supporting cross-fertilization by staff exchanges and common projects. They should just get rid of the “best” close to the term “practice”.
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