COVID-19 accelerates digital investment in some - but not all - EU government services
The latest EU eGovernment benchmark report shows that only parts of government fast-tracked their shift from offline to online - with businesses services benefiting the most.
This year's annual eGovernment Benchmark report, which assesses digital government across 27 EU member states, plus nine other countries (including the UK), has shown that the COVID-19 health crisis has had a direct impact on services moving from offline to online.
However, this shift isn't happening at the same pace across the board, with digital businesses services seeing more investment.
The 18th annual report, which is produced by Capgemini, its subsidiary Soget and consortium partners IDC and Pelitecnico di. Milano, also ranks the 36 countries in question for their digital maturity - with average being 68% and Malta coming out on top (96%).
The report notes that new EU regulation - the Recovery and Resilience Facility - made available a budget of EUR 672.5 billion for large scale public investments to help recover from the COVID-19 crisis and to promote the Union's economic, social and territorial cohesion. Overall, member states exceeded the target of investing 20% in digital, setting aside close to 40% of their digital investments to further transform public services.
With this context in mind, the benchmarking study assesses four dimensions when looking at digital government services: user centricity, transparency, key enablers, cross-border mobility.
On the maturity scale across all of these, the leading countries are: Malta (96%), Estonia (92%), Denmark (85%), Austria (84%), Iceland (84%), Luxembourg (84%) and Portugal (82%).
Montenegro came in last place with 36%, closely followed by North Macedonia (38%) and Romania (40%). The UK placed mid-table with a maturity score of 69% - which is quite the feat considering it was ranked number 1 just a short few years ago.
A full map of the maturity rankings can be seen from this map below:
Aside from the maturity index, the report also takes a look at some of the key trends driving digital government across the EU27+, as well as advises on some policy suggestions.
In short, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated digital change across the EU, but the report notes that it has "not been a panacea to digital transform governments". This is largely due to it only fast tracking some services from offline to online.
For instance, COVID-19 seems to have forced business services online, such as for entrepreneurs wanting to start a new company, as well as services for unemployed citizens. Given the disruption to the economy during the pandemic, this is perhaps unsurprising.
The report notes:
In Europe, four out of five debt counselling services now provide online information and guidance (81% compared to 47% two years ago). Notably, in almost eight out of ten cases, citizens can now register online as unemployed, speeding up the route to receive benefits and potentially find a new job (77%, increased from 65% two years ago.
Some business start-up related services improved too. Almost all entrepreneurs can currently find online information and guidance on how to arrange compulsory health insurance (95% now, was 80% two years ago). Tax identification cards and numbers can be obtained digitally in 94% of cases (rose from 84% two years ago) and those starting a new company can register digitally with their Social Security OFfice more often than two years ago (91% compared to 81% two years ago).
However, this was not the trend elsewhere. Family services levelled off, even though the sector was already less digital than others before the pandemic. For example, less than half of parents could register their now-born child online (49%, a minimal increase from 42$ two years ago). Equally, online services to register marriage and civil partnerships also remained consistent (34% versus 28% two years ago).
Studying services also stayed relatively stagnant. Students applying for additional social benefits online was at 66%, up from 59% two years ago.
More broadly speaking, 91% of services for entrepreneurs can be completed online, compared to 77% for citizens.
Other trends show that the maturity of digitalisation also differs across different levels of government (local, regional or national). In most aspects, central government services outperform local and regional ones.
In Europe, 85% of all services provided by central government organizations are available online, while 74% of regional services and only 59% of local services can be completed digitally. Key enablers show an even larger gap. For instance, users can login with their eID for 71% of central government services, which far exceeds the 22% for regional services and 29% for local services.
Data reuse by regional and local services also lags behind data being reused by central government. For example, 71% of central government online forms are pre-filled with information already known via other services, more than double than those at a regional and local level (31%).
Assessing the trends taking place during the pandemic, the report's authors also drew a number of policy conclusions that governments in the region should be focusing on. These include:
The COVID-19 pandemic has proven that civil servants are able to rapidly digitize services when they have the right resources, incentives and political backing. The question is: can those areas that haven't shifted services to online during the pandemic adjust their strategies and catch up with their business and career counterparts?
More seamless journeys between different levels of government would ensure a coherent online experience for citizens and businesses. Focus should be given to integrating journeys across multiple government entities.
With business services more digital than citizen services, governments should pay more attention to digitalise citizen services that would ease the daily lives of Europeans.
National users currently have an edge over cross-border users, with 81% of online government services being for national access. However, only 43% of these can be completed online by cross-border users. Governments should identify the most relevant international users and border workers to enable cross-border services.