While there’s general political agreement of the need to digitally transform government services across Europe, the reality on the ground is that progress has been slow and the European Union (EU) remains deeply divided in terms of digital adoption.
According to the European Commission’s 12th Benchmark Measurement of European eGovernment Services, which surveyed over 10,000 websites across the EU member states, lack of transparency on processes, personal data, and the agencies involved in government services causes people to go offline and does not help to build trust.
Public authorities in Europe still have some way to go to reach acceptable transparency standards. The report notes:
It is also positive that users have gained better access to personal data that is handled on the governments’ websites, but they still face considerable barriers when it comes to the clarity of the service delivery process.
On the subject of the ambitious Digital Single Market plans, one of the ten main priorities for the Commission under current President Jean-Claude Juncker, this is still a long way off:
There are still many barriers to maximising its potential and which confine digital services within national borders, leaving users unable to use cross-border online services efficiently and smoothly. The cross-border mobility indicator is not yet even half way to being fully achieved. The low rate of 48% indicates that online cross-border transactions are rare.
The study also flags up a major concern for the EU authorities:
Not embracing the power of modern ICT to transform public services will only put Europe behind other regions globally. However, Europe is in a position with clear potential. The key question is whether it can use that potential to truly deliver an advantage. Preparing digital strategies for realising a Digital Single Market is now more relevant than ever – whether these are digital by default or not.
Digitisation is inevitable, including for governments, and there are not so many efficient options for achieving it. Still, as we have experienced over the past years of collaboration with many government representatives, ‘Digital by default’ remains a disputed concept in public sector discussions. Some clarity as to what it really means and what precedes the stage of digital by default may be valuable.
At a more granular level, this year’s study draws attention to slow progress on exploiting the potential of mobile devices as delivery mechanisms for the personalization of services:
At the moment, only one in four public websites is mobile friendly. Examples of best practice show that as soon as websites are designed for mobile, the number of users increases exponentially. There is a clear need for mobile friendliness that is not being addressed at the moment. A positive exception is the UK, where mobile responsive public websites have witnessed more than double the mobile traffic of their European counterparts.
But the study makes the point that technology is not the real issue:
The key challenge for governments is to deliver the potential of the Digital Single Market by successfully collaborating and joining-up across domains and tiers, and borders. Some countries are smaller in size and therefore can use a relatively direct governance model (e.g. Malta), or have adopted a centralised model, whereby one organisation owns a clear mandate to lead the implementation of its eGovernment strategy (e.g. Denmark, Estonia). This is not generally the case in Europe, nor easy to realise. Countries vary in size and in democratic traditions, are organised differently and are hence more dependent on cross-agency collaboration to get things done.
The other point that’s relevant is that for all the pan-European co-operation talk, most nations are inward-looking and country-first:
The past years of benchmarking eGovernment show that cross-border services lag significantly behind national services. The gap currently is 24 percentage points, implying that the availability and quality of services on offer to non-residents is inadequate. Studying in another country in many cases still includes paper application processes and face- to-face encounters before being able to commence. The same is true for business services in terms of the Points of Single Contact in the context of the Services Directive that should support the release of the untapped growth potential of the European Single Market.
There needs to be a shift in emphasis, urges the study report:
If it works across borders, it will automatically work within a country. Interoperability is crucial here: if online services are put in place with other countries (electronic IDs, sharing and re-using data in back offices etc.), it automatically means they are in place for national service providers. This would require countries to agree on and use the same interoperability standards for sharing and re-using data (perhaps through a central component for data exchange). It would be the source of different dynamics within national eGov- ernment operations but could provide the lever to really move forward, instead of progressing incrementally as we have seen over the past years.
The report was compiled for the EC by Capgemini. Dinand Tinholt, Vice President and Global EU Account Director at Capgemini, says:
Europe must embrace the power of modern technology to transform public services to keep up with other regions globally. Europe is currently in a position of potential. The key question is whether it can use that potential to truly deliver an advantage. Preparing digital strategies for realising a Digital Single Market is now more relevant than ever.
The noble Digital Single Market in Europe ambition remains a pipe dream for now. There are pockets of success - the UK's doing well, particularly in the mobile delivery sphere, and Malta's doing some very good work, for example. Other parts of the Europe, not so much. As ever, like the Eurovision Song Contest, public demonstrations of how united Europe is simply flag up the propensity of 28 nations bundled into one direction to fight like a bag of cats.