New EU e-government strategy: back-end wizardry, but where’s the citizen?

Posted by John Jolliffe, Head of EMEA Government Relations

In this blog we’ve frequently commented on the efforts governments are making across the world to transform their digital services. So naturally we were very interested to read the new EU e-government strategy, the latest policy document to see the light of day under the EU’s wider Digital Single Market strategy.

In many ways, it’s a good document. The overarching ambition – that “public administrations and public institutions in the European Union should be open, efficient and inclusive, providing borderless, personalised, user-friendly, end-to-end digital public services to all citizens and businesses in the EU” – is the correct one. And many of the underlying principles that flow from that objective – digital by default, inclusiveness and accessibility, trustworthiness and security – are absolutely the right ones.

Many of the 20 actions that the European Commission outlines in the rest of the strategy are also important ones: the promotion of full e-procurement (Action 1) the interconnection of national business registers (Action 9) and the cross-border exchange of Social Security information (Action 15) to name just a few, are worth achieving. This is the hard, unglamorous and often highly political work of interconnecting national legal and technical systems, which only the European Commission can undertake.

Many of these actions require extensive and indispensable CIO- or CTO-led back-end wizardry. What we would have liked to see more, of, however, is greater focus on the citizen as the end user of these services. For sure they are there as the implied beneficiary of all this good work. But more explicit recognition of the need to invest in the capability to properly understand citizen’s needs, and even give them a stake in defining those services, would be been a welcome addition.

Citizens increasingly expect governments to offer levels of digital engagement that are as compelling as the best commercial websites they see every day. Delivering that level of engagement, however, will require governments to think seriously about how they can apply best practices in user engagement from the private sector in a public sector context.

One example of where government can take a leaf out of the private sector book is by creating a government equivalent of the Chief Marketing Officer, a Chief Service Officer for government. The CSO’s role would be to act as a customer advocate within government and help shape government digital services to those needs as a counterweight to the top-down, IT-led vision of government digital services. The CSO would partner with the CIO to define technology needs and develop the systems for engaging with, and retaining, their customers using sophisticated tools to present and target digital content to different demographic needs in ways that consumers respond to, across all devices. Such a customer focus is, ultimately, key to making principles such as “digital by default” work and driving greater digital inclusion.

Adobe is keen to keep working with the EU, and other European governments, to inject this citizen-led approach into e-government practices. We think it’s the missing ingredient that makes the overall objective achievable. It’s a subject we’ll return to again as the EU programme unfolds.