Embrace borderless e-government, urges Kroes
by Daniel Mason
Virtual barriers were being thrown up where physical borders have long since been removed because national governments have developed online services in isolation instead of collaborating across networks, the European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda said today. Neelie Kroes warned that e-government had become a problem that added to people's frustrations rather than solving them, and said urgent reforms were needed to fulfil the potential of web-based government services – that could help Europe out of its current crisis.
Speaking at an e-government conference in Poland, Kroes said that the economic crisis was an opportunity to be "all the more ambitious" and make "long overdue" reforms to make services available across the European Union. She emphasised that going online should save money for governments, businesses and the public – but at the moment e-government was often too "trying or time consuming". Users should be put in control of services they "really want to use" and that work "smoothly and seamlessly".
The commission vice-president said e-government was "fragmenting the EU rather than unifying it", adding: "To give an example, students have the legal right to enrol at any university across the EU. But often they cannot do so online, because national electronic ID systems are not recognised abroad even though paper ID would be. Isn't that crazy?" Businesses working across borders faced similar problems, such as the difficulties of reclaiming VAT from foreign administrations or responding to tenders in another language. "None of this makes sense in a digital age," said Kroes, who launched an e-government action plan last year.
"We have given people powerful legal freedoms, she said. "The freedom to travel wherever they want; to study, work or retire wherever they want; to invest or trade wherever they want. That isn't easy. They are unable to present themselves or their documents in person without considerable hassle. Genuine cross-border e-government could help here." These were opportunities that "we should not shy away from" but actively seek out.
She denied that developing pan-European e-government would involve higher costs. The commission was working towards "not a new, twenty-eighth, EU system; not centralisation or additional bureaucracy. Rather, a way of linking up the systems that already exist – and getting the most value from the investments already made." She said pilot schemes had shown that e-government projects developed by individual countries could be connected together to bring the benefits to the whole of Europe, and called on member states to commit, politically and financially, to ensuring that "such opportunities to save government money" were not missed.
Online services which "should be part of the solution, have been part of the problem" – but instead of creating extra barriers, e-government should strengthen the single market, Kroes added. She said the commission was working on the legal issues around interoperable electronic ID and had earmarked €9bn for a Connecting Europe Facility, which included funds for running pan-European digital services. "After a lot of hard work, we have developed the building blocks for some of those services: e-procurement, e-ID, business mobility, and even electronic patient records." Challenging governments to push ahead with e-government projects, she said: "We should not be scared of but embrace the possibilities of open data and joined-up services delivery."
Kroes asked: "Can you imagine what this means? The market potential it opens? The freedom it gives people to exploit their talents, expand their businesses, explore new horizons? It could bring down costly administrative barriers so that entrepreneurs can look far beyond borders, into new markets. It could create new areas of demand and new opportunities for innovation – benefiting IT suppliers. And it offers efficiencies for governments, who can absorb non-nationals into their systems with less cost and less complexity."