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Israeli-UK digital government pact sets global standard to follow

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan March 16, 2014
A pact between the governments of Israel and the UK to work on the development of digital services as part of the so called D8 initiative reminds us of how we can learn from one another, even if the European Commission isn't keen on national efforts.

Cameron and Netanyahu

The potential for international co-operation on digital government was emphasised again last week with the signing of a pact between the governments of Israel and the UK to work together on the development of digital services as part of the so-called D8 initiative.

The D8 is a group of digitally advanced nations who exchange knowledge and experience of digital programs, with members already including South Korea, New Zealand, Estonia and Singapore as well as the UK, which has been the driving force behind the scheme.

A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed at the Israeli Prime Minister’s office by Liam Maxwell, Government Chief Technology Officer, on behalf of the UK Government Digital Service (GDS), and by Harel Locker, Director-General of the Israeli Prime Minister’s office.

The MoU states that the 2 countries will

  •  exchange information and experiences around open markets, open standards and open source
  •  work together to make sure that each country has the capability and ability to develop digital public services
  •  develop other ways of working together internationally

Maxwell’s boss, Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude said:

“When I visited last year, I saw how Israel has a forward-thinking approach to digital innovation, just like the UK.

“This government’s long-term plan is all about creating modern, digital public services that are so good people prefer to use them.

“So, we will look to find new ways of working with Israel’s impressive array of digital businesses and draw on its culture of entrepreneurship.

“There’s a great deal we can learn from one another. Sharing knowledge and experience will maximise growth, efficiency and creativity in technology. When we open up government business to the best digital and technology companies, we open the door to innovation and growth.”

Cameron and the Knesset

The commercial underpinnings of an enhanced relationship had been flagged up earlier when UK Prime Minister David Cameron addressed the Knesset when he said:

"I am proud to be pursuing the strongest and deepest possible relationship between our 2 countries.‬

‪"From our trade – which has doubled in a decade and is now worth £5 billion a year to the world leading partnerships between our scientists, academics and hi-tech specialists.‬

‪"Britain and Israel share a commitment to driving the growth of high-tech start-ups. In Britain we’ve introduced huge tax breaks on early stage investment and special visas for entrepreneurs and in just 3 and a half years we have grown our Tech City in East London from 200 digital companies more than 1,300 today.‬

‪"Israel is the start-up nation – with the second highest density of start-ups outside of Silicon Valley anywhere in the world. As the inspirational President Peres has put it: Israel has gone from oranges to Apple. ‬

‪"Israel’s technology is protecting British and NATO troops in Afghanistan. It is providing Britain’s National Health Service with one in 6 of its prescription medicines through Teva. Together British and Israeli technical expertise can achieve so much more.‬

‪"And to those who do not share my ambition, who want to boycott Israel, I have a clear message. ‪Britain opposes boycotts. Whether it’s trade unions campaigning for the exclusion of Israelis or universities trying to stifle academic exchange Israel’s place as a homeland for the Jewish people will never rest on hollow resolutions passed by amateur politicians.‬‬"

At a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later, Cameron reiterated the point:

"We have the first ever tech hub between our 2 countries. There are a lot of British companies doing brilliantly in Israel and Israeli companies doing brilliantly in Britain."

GDS goes global

Away from the politics though, the UK’s GDS has gained a reputation on the international stage as a pathfinder in digital government.

Harel Locker, Director-General of the Israeli Prime Minister’s office, said:

“The British experience in the field of digital services is important and extensive, and this agreement will allow Israel to benefit from that experience. On our part, we offer the British and the D8 countries Israeli innovation and creativity, including in cyber security.

“The Digital Israel Project serves as Israel's digital highway. In this way, the periphery can be eliminated by connecting all of Israel to the internet for better education, medical services, welfare and business practices, without being dependent on geographic location.”

This is the most digital government in the world

The partnership with Israel will likely follow the pattern of a similar pact signed with Korea last November and Estonia in March last year to develop 'digital by default' public services.

In the case of Estonia, regarded as one of the most advanced digital governments in the world, co-operation and exchange initially operates bi-laterally between that country and the UK but with a view to passing on learnings and guidance to other D8 nations.

In a blog posting last year, Peter Herlihy of the GDS team commented of Estonia:

I knew they were digitally sophisticated. But even so, I wasn’t remotely prepared for what I learned.

Estonia has probably the most joined up digital government in the world. Its citizens can complete just about every municipal or state service online and in minutes. You can formally register a company and start trading within 18 minutes, all of it from a coffee shop in the town square.

You can view your educational record, medical record, address, employment history and traffic offences online – and even change things that are wrong (or at least directly request changes). The citizen is in control of their data.

Sounds great.

International verdict

That said, Estonia’s history in the old Eastern Bloc perhaps gives it an ironic advantage here in that citizens are used to both the idea of a national register, the Population Database, to hold a single unique identifier for all citizens and residents and carrying identity cards that provide legally binding identity assurance and electronic signing.

As the UK government has discovered, the very idea of making citizens carry ID cards results in a collective national fit of the vapors. It doesn’t matter how many times the rational argument is pitched that a supermarket loyalty card holds more information about you than a state ID card would, identity cards are political poison.

But such international digital learning agreements are fantastic and greatly to be applauded. We’ve already seen a number of Commonwealth countries eyeing up the UK G-Cloud initiative as a template for their own programs, including India, Australia and New Zealand.

Indeed from a UK national perspective, there’s a certain irony that countries such as South Korea and Canada seem more ready to embrace best practice bi-lateral digital initiatives than our leading European Union partners.

The economic powerhouse of the Indian government thinks the G-Cloud is a great model to adopt and follow; the commissars of the European Commission dismiss it as not fit for purpose across Europe.

There’s probably a message in there somewhere. Something about prophets in their own lands?


International adoption of cloud computing and related digital technologies will be on the agenda at the Think Cloud for Government conference in London next week.

You can check out the agenda here and if you’re a buy side public sector professional, entry is free of charge. As the main media partner, diginomica will be out en masse. Do join us at the most important public sector cloud computing event of the year.


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