Early this month the European Union’s Tallinn Declaration set a clear direction for its governments when it comes to digital service delivery: business is just as important as citizens.

When it comes to positioning businesses equally with citizens the EU have been trail-blazers for a while now. Back in 2009 the Malmö Declaration on eGovernment firmly set the scene. For every use of the word “citizens” it was closely followed by “and businesses.”

Why does a Government to Business focus in digital strategy matter?

All too often the eGovernment policy levers of jurisdictions around the world are held by those with backgrounds in citizen service delivery.

This is not surprising when you consider the majority of services delivered by government are citizen services.

But businesses are not far behind. With business development and regulatory services, many governments find around a third of all government services are primarily for business and industry.

However, in most jurisdictions often digital leaders are drawn from a background of serving citizens. This tends to see government digital strategy and policy documents constantly talking about citizen-centric services; with the occasional nod given to businesses.

There’s nothing wrong with great citizen-centric service delivery. But the issue is when that citizen focus drowns out improvements to business services. When this is reflected in government strategy and policy, this then naturally flows through to budget and resources.

Government departments and agencies maintaining citizen portals and services get funded.  Business portals and services do less well. In some cases like the United Kingdom the business portal gets subsumed into an amorphous portal that loses any pretext of customer-centricity, significantly deteriorating the user experience and reducing outcomes and benefits

This isn’t about Government to Business organizations grabbing a larger slice of the pie. It’s about positioning them to get a fair slice of the pie.

When government departments and agencies focusing on businesses are suitably resourced, significant economic benefits flow:

  • When it’s easier to do business, businesses grow
  • When businesses grow they invest and they employ
  • And when they invest and employ the broader economic and social profile improves 

Ultimately, this is what good government is all about.

That is why it is essential that governments when developing their digital or eGovernment strategies focus in tandem on both citizen and business. Just like the European Union.

What direction has the EU set for digital service delivery?

At the highest level the 32 ministers for eGovernment policy and coordination met and agreed to  a suite of policy actions.

Government budgets aren’t growing. The EU instead stresses the importance of its member states reprioritizing existing expenditure towards the policy objectives set in Tallinn.

The declaration reaffirms the key principles behind last year’s EU eGovernment Action Plan with its vision to:

“Strive to be open, efficient and inclusive, providing borderless, interoperable, personalized, user-friendly, end-to-end digital business services to all citizens and businesses at all levels of public administration.”

These are all great fundamentals but what will the make the greatest difference is the EU’s six high level principles and detailed actions that flow from each.

Digital-by-default

The focus around offering digital services still provides customers with the clear option to choose other service delivery channels. However the focus is around developing digital services as the means to support other channels.

These services are to be made available using a set of user-centric principles for design and delivery. Buried in the back of the documentation, this annex is a little gem. In a single page it clearly outlines what businesses (and citizens) should expect from government when accessing digital services:

  • Efforts should be made by government to reduce administrative burden on business, with relevant, pro-active services delivered in a more personalized manner. This includes not having to ask businesses for the same information more than once
  • They should be able to fully transact and complete the service online including providing the evidence online to do so
  • The core principles of universal design should apply - services and websites should be simple to read and easy to understand
  • Businesses should expect to be digitally engaged by government when voicing their views and in guiding new ideas to inform policy makers
  • Services are made more accessible and delivered in a non-discriminatory manner
  • The authenticity of digital services is secure and clearly recognized in a consistent manner. When actioned this will help provide universal confidence in businesses’ transactions and dealings with government

The target of these digital-by-default principles is set for EU organizations to meet and deliver by 2019. A challenging target, particularly the interoperability of data exchange between governments. But it is achievable.

Once only

Another key policy action is challenging government to reduce unnecessary interactions with business. The EU puts a significant emphasis on access and re-use of data it already has.  Owners are already incredibly busy people. They don’t need to supply the same information to government over and over again.

As a result governments are urged to take steps to increase the quality and technical accessibility of businesses’ data in databases and registers.

One action item which looks so simple on paper, but will be a real challenge is creating a culture of data re-use between government administrations. It is critical to move away from a mentality of needing to own and control data.

Having the technical means to match data sets and data structures seems surprisingly easy in comparison. Many governments unfortunately pay lip service to the idea of sharing data, with silos often within agencies themselves. But if the spirit of cooperation that exists in the European Union permeates through to digital service delivery, then this should become reality across an interplay of regional, national, provincial and local governments and institutions.

The way the EU intend to address this is through something government naturally gravitates to and is intrinsically comfortable with: organisational means.

From a technical business perspective it’s really encouraging to see the Commission look towards Standard Business Reporting as a possible means of delivery.   Originally developed in the Netherlands it has since been extensively implemented for the Australian Government and businesses to electronically submit reports, and for that data to then be exchanged between trusted government entities.  

The example Australia sets would suit the European Union model well, as in Australia SBR is used by the national tax office, statistics office, companies registrar and all the states’ revenue offices.  Data is entered just once, into the businesses’ accounting software where they already manage their day-to-day finances. From there a business can then share responsibilities with their accountant and submit reports to government.

The timeframe of the EU achieving this by 2022 is also a realistically achievable stretch target.

Trustworthiness and security

This policy section relates mostly to citizen aspects. However, the means of delivering secure digital services that maintain privacy are just as fundamental to businesses as citizens.

Openness and transparency

One thing I was surprised to read in the Tallinn Declaration was the concept of businesses managing their own personal data with government.

The idea of businesses managing their own data held by government is not radically new. But saying businesses have personal data is an intriguing concept.

The legal nature of businesses, unless a sole trader, are as corporate entities. Not as an individual. This makes me dwell on how this concept transfers to related legal rights and responsibilities of businesses and governments when it comes to personal data of businesses.  

Regardless of the lens you look through on this, the policy action of making it easier for businesses to manage the data about them held by government is an excellent one.

The timeframes of achieving this by 2020 may be challenging though. For all government organizations in the EU to have the technical and interoperable environment to achieve this is going to be very tight.

At a high level I would generally expect a number of dependencies from the “Once Only” principle will need to be operational to allow data exchange across organizations. But as the timetable for Once Only is two years after the openness and transparency principle, other means of achieving this will need to be developed or staged sequencing.  

Interoperability by default

The policy actions in this principle is good contemporary practice already exercised by many governments worldwide.  However, having them clearly articulated for EU member states is necessary to ensure consistency and coordination of approach:

  • Re-using existing solutions to meet the organization’s business requirements is an important step. All too often government builds or buys their own ICT solutions when fully functional options are available in their jurisdiction. Due to the size and nature of the EU, a good number of solutions are just waiting to be re-used.
  • Avoiding vendor lock-in is a big push. Government organizations are encouraged to instead embrace open source solutions and open standards when reinvesting in their systems.
  • An interesting inclusion which aims to leverage the investment made by organizations, is making government owned ICT solutions available to businesses and society to re-use. This obviously needs to be done in a way that maintains trust, security and the privacy of businesses and individuals. But it is an intriguing concept that could provide broader economic benefits.

Horizontal enablement

The foundational elements under this principle support the overall framework of the declaration. Think of them as global enablers. Without them being addressed the preceding principles won’t be as achievable, or as efficient or effective.

  • Digital leadership skills are a must among government executives if the innovations needed are to be understood and championed. Having the most senior civil and public servants with deeper knowledge and digital skills will better empower government organizations to push for transformational change.
  • But improved digital skills alone for senior executives is not enough. A policy action also leads the way in improving digital skills as a whole in EU governments and institutions.
  • Another incredibly important step is better data analysis to inform decision making, with the widening and deepening of data and analytics recognised as a priority.
  • Greater sharing of experiences and lessons between government organizations is also an essential step. By learning from peers on what works and what doesn’t, better digital services and strategy are likely to roll out successfully in a faster timeframe.
  • As mentioned at the beginning of this article, funding and resources will need to be reprioritized in governments at all levels to achieve the digital plans of the European Union.
  • Finally the direction for digital procurement and contracting delivers compound benefits. For starters it speeds up and improves transparency and opportunities for businesses wanting to sell to government. This helps foster a more digitally capable and competitive business environment. Which in itself should result in the quality of services procured by government to be more attuned to emerging digital needs.      

Does your government need a blueprint for digital transformation?

The Tallinn Declaration and its supporting elements provide a great template for any government wanting to achieving transformational digital change.

While clearly written in the context of European governments, the vast majority of the principles and policy actions should work equally well for governments with trusted institutions pretty much anywhere.

So grab a copy and see how it could apply to your government.

Looking for independent expert advice?

Gavin can also help with your government’s digital strategy needs for business. So get in touch: