Tallinn e-Government Declaration: A new vision of public administration?

Almost 99% of public services are available online in Estonia, which makes this Nordic country not only a European but also a global phenomenon.  Thus, it comes as no surprise that the current Estonian Presidency has brought e-Government to the forefront of policy debates, pushing for progress in the digital transformation of European governments.

This Presidency’s attitude has resulted in the conclusion on the 6th of October 2017 of the Tallinn e-Government Declaration. The act, signed by the all EU Member States and the European Free Trade Association countries, could be described as joint agreement on the future development of e-Government services. 

The declaration recognises e-Government as the future of public administration and points out the steps that should be pursued in the next five years. Following on from the first e-Government Malmö Declaration and in support of the EU e-Government Action Plan 2016-2020, the Tallinn Declaration aims to seize the full potential of digitalising public administrations, both at the national and EU levels, and boost actions putting users at the centre of public services’ attention.

This briefing aims to analyse how the scheme laid down in the Tallinn Declaration could potentially impact citizens and businesses. The Declaration’s vision aims to provide a framework of “efficient, inclusive, borderless, interoperable, personalised, user-friendly, end-to-end digital public services” at all levels. Such an enumeration, however, sounds rather more confusing than reassuring. That is why in this post we will seek to decipher how the e-Government principles, envisaged in the Declaration, could improve EU citizens and businesses’ position in the real, non-e world.

Why e-Government?

Indicators such as the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) report the important discrepancies among European countries in e-Government performance and delays in digital implementation at the EU level. The Tallinn Declaration seeks therefore to harmonise efforts so that all European countries can make significant improvements in the field.

The development of the e-Government is perceived as a push for European innovation and growth, and an option for a market for services reducing needless bureaucracy. It has a potential to develop the data economy and the Digital Single Market by requiring the free and secure movement of data.

In addition, considering the social, environmental, political and economic challenges the EU is currently facing, there is an increasing need to consider how democracy could work better. Public administrations play a key role in the smooth functioning of the EU, and Member States wishing to restore citizens’ trust have correctly noticed that e-Government could constitute a new platform of state-citizen communication.

A common European framework of e-administration could ensure that citizens and businesses would be able to benefit more fully from their fundamental EU-mobility rights. The administrative systems, however, need to be interoperable at all levels of public administration, from country to country, region to region and city to city, to implement this possibility. The free movement of data would break down barriers, enabling cross-border access to information, already held by different public authorities, and would naturally force an effective reuse of data. Consequently, well-organised e-Government systems could make public services faster, cheaper, easier and more secure.

Digital but accessible: The “Digital-by-default” principle

The signatories of the Declaration acknowledge their willingness to support and develop a “digital-by-default” principle in their countries. This principle envisages that interested parties would have an option to interact digitally with public administration and that such communication would respect standards of user-centricity.

To ensure a good quality user experience, the Declaration sets out a number of standards for both citizens and businesses when interacting with public administrations. Listed in the Declaration’s Annex, they point out for instance that public administrations should reduce the administrative burden on citizens and businesses, and that public services should be fully handled online, including the provision of any evidence required to obtain a right or fulfil obligations.

These expectations would also need to be accompanied by an online redress and complaint mechanism. Public authorities should be also able to correct wrongdoings and easily cope with complaints.

Decreasing administrative burden: The “Once Only” Principle

The EU e-Government Action Plan 2016-2020 defines the “once-only” as a guarantee that citizens and businesses would not need to supply the same information over and over again. In response, public administration offices should be required to take appropriate and permitted actions to internally reuse data, with due respect to data protection rules.

However, to fully implement the once-only standard some preconditions, such as organisational commitment or a legal framework, should be fulfilled. The Tallinn Declaration constitutes a strong recognition of “once only”, since political leaders declared that they would: (i) increase collaboration and data exchange across our administrations at national, regional and local level, (ii) work on increasing the findability, quality and technical accessibility of data in the key base register and, (iii) digitise all necessary existing key data.

It is also worth underlining that the once-only principle remains the centre of attention when it comes to the ongoing legislative discussion concerning the proposal establishing the Single Digital Gateway. Through this proposal the Commission would like to make key public services available online “end-to-end” within the framework of the Gateway. Therefore, the functioning of the new Gateway would rely heavily on the once-only principle, since data submitted once to any EU Member State would need to be efficiently reused by other public administrations within the EU.

An adoption of the Single Digital Gateway proposal is planned for 2018, while its launch is foreseen for 2020. All developments concerning this file are closely followed and monitored by the EU Issue Tracker.

The need to protect privacy and security: The Security Principle

Digitalisation of public administration services must be accompanied by an adequate framework of e-privacy and security standards. The Declaration recognises as a means to achieve this goal the proper implementation of the Regulation on electronic identification (e-ID) and trust services for electronic transactions in the internal market (e-IDAS). The signatories also declare their willingness to undertake the voluntary notification of electronic identity schemes, used for access to public services, at the earliest possibility.

In addition, the Declaration stresses the need for collaboration and coordination between the Member States to increase authorities’ capacities in cybersecurity. The timely implementation of the Network and Information Security Directive is therefore recognised as a relevant step to achieve this aim. The Declaration also calls the Commission to take actions to increase the recognition of e-IDAS-compliant solutions by global market players, in particular when it comes to notified electronic identification means and qualified website authentication certificates.

Open-by-default: The Accessibility and Transparency Principle

The Declaration underlines that citizens and businesses should be able to manage digitally their data held by the public administration, since such a database should be “open by default” for its users. It means that interested subjects could potentially be able to: inquire about the usage of their data, submit relevant corrections and have a power of authorisation when it comes to the reuse of their private information. The signatories also agree that such accessibility should be applicable to at least base public registers.

This openness by default could be achieved by increasing the interconnections and linkages between databases through application programming interfaces. Clearly, such interoperability would make it unnecessary to introduce the same data several times since various software programs used by the public bodies would be able to communicate with each other. The long-term preservation of public information resources should therefore be ensured.

Recognising the necessity for the openness by default principle, the Declaration suggests better implementation of the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) programme, a funding instrument which could provide a potential financial support for the deployment of digital service infrastructures (DSIs) and multi-data transmission networks. The interoperability should also encompass procedures such as e-ID, eSignature, e-Delivery, eProcurement and e-Invoicing.

Such interconnection would also require an appropriate information and communication technology with open standards. In addition, terms and conditions should be developed to allow private sectors and civil society to reuse the data easily. To ensure the development of the CEF Telecom, the European Commission has allocated a budget of €1.04 billion for trans-European digital services for 2014-2020.

The Declaration also proves the intention to emphasise the work on the national interoperability frameworks based on the European Interoperability Framework (EIF), which provides concrete recommendations to public administrations on how to improve governance of their interoperability activities on national and cross-national levels.

Looking forward: Horizontal steps

Finally, the Declaration emphasises a horizontal approach which should enable further development of the digital transformation. It highlights the need for providing training for civil and public servants at all levels, developing their digital skills. This would enable a move to data-driven public services and would push for more use of data and analytics.

In addition, an exchange of good e-Government practices between public administrations or modernisation of the design of public services, procurement and contracting arrangements could make the public services more compatible with modern technology. The Declaration also calls on the Commission to provide additional legislative support through launching initiatives to improve digital skills more widely within its services or deliver a roadmap on how to fully embrace digital transformation for all Commission-managed funding distribution processes.

Relevant acts:

  • Tallinn Declaration on e-Government at the ministerial meeting during Estonian Presidency of the Council of the EU on 6 October 2017
  • Directive (EU) 2016/1148 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 6 July 2016 concerning measures for a high common level of security of network and information systems across the Union
  • Regulation (EU) No 910/2014 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 July 2014 on electronic identification and trust services for electronic transactions in the internal market and repealing Directive 1999/93/EC
  • Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on establishing a single digital gateway to provide information, procedures, assistance and problem solving services and amending Regulation (EU) No 1024/2012
  • Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions: EU eGovernment Action Plan 2016-2020 Accelerating the digital transformation of government (COM(2016) 179 final)