The European Commission announced last week a plan worth €50bn aimed at smart, sustainable and inter-connected transport, energy and digital networks across Europe.
The plan echoes a similarly ambitious project launched by the then Commission President Jacques Delors that I remember discussing in detail at the time and that led in 1994 to the first commitments to develop a “Trans European Network”(TEN), announced at the Essen European Council summit of December that year.
Although the lion’s share of proposed investment this time around – with the proposed “Connecting Europe Facility” – is also on high-speed rail networks, there are also considerable chunks of money for the development of a European “Smart Grid” (playing catch-up with the USA) and support for “high speed digital networks”.
On this last point, much media emphasis has been on the support proposed for high-speed broadband Internet access but it is another aspect that I want to highlight: the development of infrastructure for the roll-out of many cross-border digital services, including digital identification, electronic public procurement, health care, justice and customs services.
This is significant because EU Member States have been very wary of sharing any responsibility for services that are considered the bedrock of national and local public administrations and into which ïnterference”by Brussels has been strongly resisted – and this despite the obvious needs for a high degree of interoperability across national borders between disparate eGovernment services.
A number of pilot projects have been under way for a few years, originating in EU eGovernment strategy work in which I participated when working for the eGovernment Unit of the Austrian Federal Government in the mid 2000’s.
The problem with the pilot projects has been precisely that – they are projects, with a start and an end, rather than sustained or sustainable infrastructure. They aimed to identify the major barriers to interoperability and propose open standards-based solutions but they stop short of being operational solutions.
The real leap forward therefore for the Commission is the proposal to create a coordinated EU-level infrastructure that would manage the current and possible future cross-border eServices. Talk in the Commission services last week was about the likely shape and governance model for this future infrastructure, likely to be in the form of a new “Executive Agency” under the operational supervision of the Commission – rather than beinga coordinated governance by the EU Member States.
Two issues in particular concern me: the choice of technologies needed to build and sustain the proposed services; and the governance model.
The increased roll-out of and reliance upon cloud-based eGovernment services should push to the back burner the often fraught hand-wringing over technology choice: the choice of open source solutions has often been promoted as some “neutral” way forward that avoids the Commission being accused of favouring particular technology platforms. The emphasis on the other hand of cloud-based solutions is rather on core service requirements and clear, agreed (hopefully standards-based) interfaces rather than on the technologies that actually deliver the solution and capability. Hopefully, the Commission will keep these considerations uppermost when it comes to filling out the details.
The governance model will be interesting too: many of the pilot projects over the years have been heavily influenced and domintaed by representatives of the EU Member States’ administrations. This was understandable in the circumstances in which national administrations were reluctant to cede any responsibility for cross-boder services to the European level and resisted any perceived attempt by the European Commission to arrogate such rights to itself. Increased tensions have emerged however as the 27 member states have been faced with a choice of trying to stitch together a large number of bilateral agreements between themselves in order to address EU legislative requirements; or recognise, however reluctantly, that a “hub and spoke” approach – with the Commission at the hub – would be a more efficient model to pursue. The choice of an Executive Agency to drive this forward will put the Commission in the driving seat – but will require intelligence and diplomacy in establishing a governance model that strikes the right balance between the interests of the member states and the need for an efficient hub.