Quantity over quality for EU public service digital delivery as pre-Brexit Britain falters

SUMMARY:

The European Union is moving in the right direction on digital public service delivery in the main, but there are still issues that need to be addressed, not least around user centricity and transparency.

The release of the UK government’s Industrial Strategy, the backbone of Prime Minister Theresa May’s blueprint for a post-Brexit economy, has already been overshadowed by the engagement of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

But there’s a second announcement today that might serve to take the shine off the various government ministers sent out to the TV studios to pimp a vision of a tech-enabled future.

The 14th Benchmark Measurement of European eGovernment Services, published by the European Commission and carried out by a consortium led by Capgemini, has some good news and some bad news for a post-Brexit worldview.

The good news is that digital delivery of services is moving in the right direction across the European Union; the bad news for the UK is that, as Brexit looms, its performance is middling at best, coming in 20th place in terms of percentage of services delivered online.

On a wider scale, there’s some concern that quantity is winning out over quality in terms of the number of services moving online:

While countries quantitatively increased the online availability of public services, qualitative measures (e.g. more transparent delivery procedures and prepopulating online forms with personal data) are necessary to improve the overall digital service experience.

The UK gets an overall score of 59%, compared to Germany and Spain on 76%, Italy on 64% and France on 63%. Niels Van Der Linden, principal consultant at Capgemini Consulting and lead for the benchmark study, says:

The UK is undoubtedly a leader in terms of digital innovation and the design of user-centric services, so it might seem surprising that this year’s eGov Benchmark shows it slightly falling behind the group of the biggest European economies (France, Germany, Italy and Spain) in terms of digitising its services.

On a more upbeat note, the UK has made some decent progress in improving transparency of personal data, scoring 70% against an EU average of 53%, but this is countered by lack of transparency of service delivery, where the UK stands at 41%, compared to a 50% EU average. Van Der Linden adds:

The UK has developed a number of very smart digital initiatives, and is now working hard to implement these solutions across its entire public sector. The challenge for the UK in climbing up the ranks is to increase the availability of key enablers such as electronic identification and authentication sources, where other countries have already made steps forward.

Quantity or quality or both?

The benchmark is based on a survey of over 10,000 websites across the EU28+ countries and evaluates the digital service quantity and quality in relation to four life events: starting a business, losing and finding a job, studying, and family life.

The study focuses on four top-level benchmarks, covering important EU policy priorities:

  • User Centricity – the extent to which a service or information concerning the service is provided online.
  • Transparency – the extent to which governments are transparent with regard to the process of service delivery; their own responsibilities and performance; and the personal data involved.
  • Cross Border Mobility – the extent to which customers of public services users can use online services in another European country.
  • Key enablers – the extent to which technical pre-conditions for e-government service provision are used.

Malta and Portugal are the leading exemplars, with nearly all of their e-government services being either automated or fully online. Latvia, Sweden, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Cyprus, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary and the Republic of Serbia are all cited for praise for having no public services that are purely offline.

The rankings change when considering local public service delivery. Serbia , for example, has only 20% of national services online, but 45% of local. Norway and Lithuania have all such services online, while Ireland and Denmark are said to “lead by example with all of their regional e-government services available online”

There some wins exposed by the survey:

  • European governments reach the average of 80% for User Centricity in 2016, with more interaction and feedback possibilities between citizens and public administrations now available.
  • Some 82% of European public administrations provided more services online in 2016.
  • On average, one in two public websites is mobile-friendly (54%). (The UK does rather well here, with a 91% ranking.)

But there are stings in the tales, such as:

Yet, the indicator ‘mobile friendliness’ is still considerably lagging behind, compared to the other two indicators that measure User Centricity of Government.

Less impressively, tranparency has singularly failed to become a ‘by-default principle’ in Europe’s public sector. The report says that:

Transparency of Government crystallised as the missed opportunity of the 2016 measurement, with overall modest progress on the dimensions of service delivery and personal data and a more optimistic – albeit still modest – progress on the public administration indicator.

Cross-border Mobility, critical for the EU Digital Single Market plan and a sticking point in the onoging Brexit negotiations, only increased modestly. The report notes:

The usability of business cross- border service provision has taken a fall of 2 points, to 79% in 2016….the availability of eGovernment services provided to country nationals appears to be higher in comparison to the online availability of services provided to foreign users. Hence, last year’s observations continue to hold true: countries appear to be further pursuing the development of eGovernment services for nationals to the detriment of non-country nationals.

As a mile-high assessment, the report finds:

Overall in Europe, bringing services online continues to be pushed forward while actions to enhance the user experience along the service interactions are still a lower priority. However the divide between the quantity and quality aspects seems to be shrinking.

My take

It’s a revolution, albeit one that’s moving too slowly at times. Across the whole of the EU, with the Digital Single Market deadline of 2020 getting closer, there’s a lot of encouragement to be had from this year’s benchmark. There’s clearly a lot of work still to do on the user centric and transparency aspects, but there are signs of life here as well. And overall, access to online services looks healthier than, for example, in the US.

As with all things European, the shadow of Brexit hangs over this year’s report. While there are points of credit, the UK’s overall ranking is behind major current trading partners/potential future competitors. Today’s Industrial Strategy White Paper announcement has seen a lot of cheerleading about a bright, post-Brexit, tech-enabled economy. I’ll leave it to Derek du Preez to drill down on that. Personally I’m off to watch aerial shots of Buckingham Palace as rolling news waits for the photocall of the happy couple as a distraction…

Image credit - Capgemini

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