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EXCLUSIVE – EU’s journey of modernising public administration and tackling the challenges of interoperability across different member states

Photo: Ms. Gertrud Ingestad, Director-General of DIGIT

The Directorate-General for Informatics (DIGIT) is the European Commission (EU or the Commission) department or Directorate-General (DG), which is responsible for providing digital services that support other Commission departments and EU institutions in their daily work.  It provides IT and telecommunication equipment and solutions, information systems and infrastructure services for over 33,000 staff in the Commission. Furthermore, DIGIT runs a major IT procurement operation and all the EU Institutions and Agencies have increasingly come to rely on the Commission for their procurement needs in the area of IT. Based in Luxembourg and Brussels, DIGIT employs around 480 full time staff and about 1100 external contractors and it managed a budget of 129M€ in 2016.

Modernisation and digitalisation are key elements of DIGIT's 2016-2020 strategy, which consists of eleven specific objectives grouped around five priorities (seen in the below image). These go towards the achievement of two general objectives defined at Commission level. The first is to help achieve the overall political objectives, through effective and efficient management, safeguarding assets and resources, and attracting and developing the best talents.

The second broad objective is the development of the "Connected Digital Single Market" by promoting the modernisation of the European public sector through offering interoperability solutions for European public administrations, businesses and citizens. DIGIT's actions in this area are primarily implemented through the ISA2 programme.

Source: Strategic Plan DIGIT 2016-2020 (page 7)

OpenGov interviewed the Director-General of DIGIT, Ms. Gertrud Ingestad to learn more about certain aspects of the strategy, such as automation, interoperability and the challenge of balancing central leadership and flexibility for meeting localised needs. Below are the replies from Ms. Ingestad.

Under DIGIT priority 1, modernisation of public administration, DIGIT is working on a few main deliverables in 3 areas for 2017: 

Could you give us an update on the progress of the 3 main areas of deliverables?

i) Automation of core corporate processes

We take our first success story, grants management, as a basis for further process automation. Grants management was consolidated and streamlined from local semi-automatic systems in all DGs to a joint online system, accessible and monitorable by both Commission staff and grants beneficiaries. Once-only, monitoring, push notification, reporting, eSignature are the most appreciated features.

The next phase now includes eProcurement and contract management. We have rolled out partly but have a massive industrialisation plan for the next two years. Resources are the main challenge as there is no central budget for this. This means that we are asking all DGs to share the cost.

The architecture has been a stumbling block as we come from different directions for the different strands, but we now have an agreed corporate level consolidated architecture. Identification of further processes is ongoing, together with the secretariat General. All processes involving documents requiring signature will be identified in the next phase for a transition to eSignature. Digital enablers are being developed as building blocks along a separate track to facilitate the exercise.

ii) Big data and data analytics solutions

Cooperation of the willing DGs was established a couple of years ago to catch this emerging domain and create collaboration before we had time to move in different directions.

         We now work along two main different tracks: a) processing of massive data for more or less administrative purposes (treating huge numbers of replies to citizen consultations on legislation etc) and b) evidence-based policymaking to really steer towards addressing known painpoints.                              

On a) we aim for a federated catalogue of tools accessible for all Commission DGs, where the first tools are already available. Here we collect tools from all DGs to put them in a single catalogue.

On b) we have three pilot projects addressing migration, regional policy and skills. We will present all these pilots and the embryo catalogue in a meeting for all Directors- General before summer break to show what results can be had and what the needs are for the next legislative period in terms of data collection.

iii) Architecture components

See also i) above. We did a rationalisation exercise between mainly 2011 and 2013, to address the fragmented architecture across the EC. Some of the domains addressed advanced greatly in that exercise, others only marginally. Since then, IT governance has matured and DGs have become increasingly open to collaborate and to share resources. To address the global environment, we are now concentrating on a blueprint and a number of building blocks, as well as on the business processes we still need to address.

The ecosystem is now such that DGs are mostly prepared to collaborate on architecture and indeed have high expectations on a reference architecture. We also have a growing number of building blocks in our catalogue, such as eSignature and eWorkflow. Where relevant, these are also available to Member States. We have an “equal playing field” strategy concerning open source. Anything we develop in-house for public administrations in Member States is freely available open source. An architecture strategy paper for the Commission is being finalised for delivery in summer.

Interoperability across public administrations in the EU is a big goal of DIGIT (ISA2). What do think are the opportunities and challenges to achieving this goal?

One of the main flagships of the Juncker Commission is a digital single market, as a driver of growth and competitiveness. This also concerns public administrations, which need to be modernised to play their part in achieving the goals. This includes once-only for citizens and no electronic borders between Member States. Interoperability is a basic requirement for this. Member States are at very different levels in terms of digitisation and interoperability of public administrations. With an agreement on the main requirements and recommendations to achieve interoperability, and a fruitful exchange between Member States on success and the opposite, all Member States can advance towards the same goal faster. The advantages are clear.

The challenges are also clear: governance, high-level drive and support, organisational aspects. Member States subscribe to the European Interoperability Framework, just revised, but the practical implementation of the predecessor was only at roughly 50%. We have made the new EIF 1 (European Interoperability Framework) more pragmatic and more concrete and it was worked out with all Member States (MS) as well as academia and standardisation organisations, and of course sent out for public consultation. Most Member States are not ready for legislation in this area, so we still work with recommendations around key principles.

The management plan 2017 document mentions consolidation of data centres and modernised data centre operations towards a hybrid cloud. What has been the progress on this front? 

We have a decision by our central top governance, the Corporate Management Board, on consolidation of data centres. We are onboarding the first DG since last year and are negotiating with the next 5 DGs for a start this year still. DGs are mostly positive and queuing up. In parallel we are experimenting with Cloud after our first Call for Tender 1,5 years ago. We have the first results and are gearing towards industrialisation of the best use cases before end year. We discuss heavily the use of cloud for mail in our migration to a new platform and a reconstructed backend. We foresee a careful move towards hybrid over the next couple of years. We are working closely with other EU institutions for this.

How do you balance the need for central leadership and preserving flexibility and innovation for meeting localised needs? 

         By being very flexible and building up trust.                              

We now have a strong and very competent IT governance. We have a majority of DGs that are now willing to trust DIGIT as long as we deliver, are transparent and do not centralise what should not be centralised. Our business model is therefore to drive a centralisation where this makes sense, in areas such as data centres, device procurement and distribution, oversight of architecture.

But for the rest we work together with DGs in partnership to see to the software needs for business purposes. There we provide the drive to work together by domain, a view of how we think this should be done from the IT side and the competence to shape the collaboration. We have such big-scale projects around grants management, eProcurement and contract management, architecture building blocks and data management. We have a strong and well-established community of IT responsibles from all DGs meeting every month for a sounding of the atmosphere and a discussion of ongoing projects. I also involve Directors-General directly where relevant. My experience is that they appreciate this.

Can you tell us about outreach initiatives for sharing lessons from digitisation of the European Commission and digitisation of the public sector in the EU? How much of e-governance experiences are translatable outside of the EU across regions and countries? 

The ISA2 and the CEF (Connecting Europe Facility)2 programmes do a lot of outreach. We meet the expert communities from the Member States regularly and also offer to go out with teams to organise advisory sessions of workshops. We also organise conferences (semantic interoperability every year and share and reuse awards conference for the first time this year, as well as participate in digital assemblies and similar with stands and information, and sometimes presentations). We also try to invite speakers from outside of the EU to these conferences. Guest keynote speakers in the most recent conferences have come from the USA and Japan.

         The more we speak with people across the world, the more we see that we are all facing the same challenges. Our work on interoperability is very similar to that in Japan, the US and Latin America, as evidenced by a colleague from Uruguay who is joining our discussion forums. We also see increasingly that cities and regions often advance faster than the national level by piloting interesting collaboration projects. I think this is universal across the world, and we need to use them as catalysts.                              

In the next programming period, we plan to propose a dedicated programme for public administrations, to make sure the EU has a focused approach which is easy to relate to for MS. We are now discussing this with the other concerned DGs and Member States. 

1 Adopted on 23 March 2017, the framework offers public administrations 47 concrete recommendations on how to improve governance of their interoperability activities, establish cross-organisational relationships, streamline processes supporting end-to-end digital services, and ensure that both existing and new legislation do not compromise interoperability efforts.

2The Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) supports trans-European networks and infrastructures in the sectors of transport, telecommunications and energy.

Ms. Gertrud Ingestad is a speaker at the upcoming OpenGov Leadership Forums in Canberra and New South Wales.

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