Digitalisation of public services in Europe [in regard to the report by the Unifiedpost Group]
For years, e-government, i.e. the possibility of handling public matters via the Internet, has been developing ever more dynamically in Europe. Online identification tools are also being implemented on a large scale. The COVID-19 pandemic has further intensified these activities. The Scandinavian and Baltic countries are European and world leaders in this regard. The Unifiedpost Group report shows that not all societies are willing to use these solutions yet.
Image author: Sincerely Media, source: Unsplash
When drafting the report titled “The digital invoicing wave in Europe” on digital invoicing in Europe, our Belgian experts have also analysed the availability of public services via the Internet and the possibility of verifying identity online offered by the governments of individual countries. The report covers 13 countries - Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Latvia, Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Italy. We supplemented this review with Poland.
The first steps in the digitalisation of public services in Europe had already been taken in the mid nineteen- nineties. Estonia, Finland and Sweden are pioneers of this process. In particular, the authorities of the first of these countries strove progressively for the fullest possible implementation of the objectives, achieving leadership and benchmark status for others. Currently, Estonia is at the forefront not only in Europe, but also on a global scale in terms of the development of e-government.
Level of digitalisation
Strategies for achieving full digitalisation differ in individual countries. Each country sets its own priorities and the sequence of their implementation. The situation is frequently different for central agencies and for local government. This makes it difficult to compare levels of digitalisation between individual countries.
The United Nations managed, however, to develop a methodology and created the E-Government Development Index (EGDI) and the e-participation index (E-Participation Index, EPI). On this basis, a report together with the rankings, which currently cover 193 countries, are published regularly.
Despite quite significant differences in the degree of digitalisation of public services in the countries analysed by our experts, they all are in the forefront globally in this respect. The UN includes all of the 14 countries analysed in the group of countries with a very high level of e-government development (Very High E-Government Development Index, VHEGDI).
Online voting only in Estonia
The range of public services available online varies from country to country. All of them publish information online, thus ensuring access to public information. They also facilitate handling matters online to smaller or higher degree at the central and local level.
However, so far only one country has decided to allow all its citizens to vote online: Estonia. Thanks to the solutions implemented in that country, Estonians can vote online both in local government and parliamentary elections as well as in elections to the European Parliament. In the latter, in 2019 nearly 47% of valid votes were cast via Internet.
The Unifiedpost Group report indicates that creation of appropriate online platforms by the authorities is not the only factor affecting the degree of digitalisation of public services. Public access to broadband Internet is also important. Countries such as France and Italy are just beginning the process of implementing programmes intended to ensure universal access to high-speed Internet connections. According to data from 2020, nearly 90% of households in Poland have access to broadband Internet.
The e-participation index is an additional ranking created by the UN. It determines the degree of public participation in e-administration in individual countries. In this respect, not all the countries covered in the report are among the global leaders. Estonia is a leader of this ranking. It is closely followed by the United Kingdom, with Denmark, the Netherlands and Poland ex aequo in ninth place.
There are various reasons for low levels of participation in e-government. In some countries it may result from the aforementioned inadequate access to high-speed Internet. There is also the issue of the lack of adequate skills, especially among the elderly. The French authorities, for example, are trying to solve this problem by organizing free or very affordable courses to enable the acquisition of the relevant skills. Another drawback is the lack of trust of potential users in such solutions. In the light of our report, this can be seen, for example, in the United Kingdom.
Digital identity for everyone
Currently, all of the countries discussed already have in place a tool for confirming a user’s identity on the Internet. This is, inter alia, the effect of the regulation of the European Parliament on electronic identification of 23 July 2014 (eIDAS). It created a framework for implementation of such solutions and their mutual acceptance by the Member States. It also specifies the minimum requirements for institutions that provide authentication tools: these are the so-called "Trust Service Providers".
E-ID cards, applications, portals
The implementation of the e-identification regulations in the 14 countries analysed follows various paths, but none of them is limited to one single solution. ID cards with an electronic layer or separate cards have been implemented in the majority of these countries. The microprocessor in these cards enables identification and the electronic signing of documents.
A suitable reader connected to a computer or an application on a smartphone equipped with NFC technology is required to use these functions. In most cases, a user is responsible for procuring this reader. In Poland, it costs several hundred zlotys, but in Belgium, for example, these readers can be bought at public institutions for EUR 7. As our report shows, only in Germany have the authorities decided to provide readers free of charge during the initial implementation phase of the system
Many countries have decided to implement mobile solutions. In these cases, e-identification is carried out with the support of a smartphone app. However, in some countries it is not enough just to install the application. A special SIM card is required as, for example, in Estonia and Finland. This can be requested from mobile network operators.
A smartphone app has been recently rolled out in Denmark. However, this is just an extension of an identity verification system using the password and unique codes which are in place in that country. These codes can be obtained in form an appropriate set of cards, an electronic token or via the application itself.
In Poland, identity on the Internet can be verified free of charge with the support of the Trusted Profile. This enables contact with the authorities at all levels and gives users access to their data held in various state registers. For example, a user can check the number of penalty points, view his/her data in the PESEL registry, or review medical information. In addition, this tool allows, among other things, a company to be set up online and ZUS (Social Insurance Institution) matters to be dealt with. The Trusted Profile can also be used to sign electronic documents.
There are also private entities providing online identification, authentication and signing services in each country. In the United Kingdom, practically the entire e-identification system is centred on the activities of certified companies.
As our report shows, the countries reviewed are at the forefront when it comes to the degree of digitalisation of public services. Nevertheless, the differences between them are still significant. Most of them still must put a lot of work into making administration fully digital. Encouraging the citizens themselves to use public services via the Internet seems to be a considerable challenge as well.
More information can be found in the full version of the report [EN]:
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